Eric Helleiner's back-to-back books examine milestone economic events

Friday, June 27, 2014

Political Science professor Eric Helleiner has accomplished an unusual publishing feat: two books in one summer.

Brettonwoods book coverActing chair of the Department of Political Science, Helleiner spent 11 years poring over archived transcripts and memos to write Forgotten Foundations of Bretton Woods which is released now at the 70th anniversary of the Bretton Woods agreement.

Financial leaders from 44 allied nations built the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1944 as a framework for fairer economic development after the Second World War.

He researched The Status Quo Crisis, an analysis of the financial collapse of 2008, while on sabbatical two years ago. The back-to-back release of the books — Bretton Woods is already on shelves, Status Quo Crisis follows shortly (although now available on Kindle) — is pure coincidence.

Both, however, discuss missed opportunities coming out of major economic events.
“When the 2008 financial crisis happened, the worse since the Great Depression, there were a lot of people talking about how it was a Bretton Woods moment,” he says. "It seemed like this was a moment when you could restructure the system (had there been) the political will to say, 'This is really messed up. We’ve got to reform.’”

status quo crisis book coverInstead, remarkably little changed. Governments imposed a handful of new rules on financial markets. Few of the decision-makers who caused the crisis landed in court.

And emerging powers that could have demanded a different economic order — namely China and India  — opted not to do so.

The Bretton Woods Agreement never reached its full potential. Meeting in New Hampshire July 1-22, 1944, Bretton Woods delegates agreed to set the American dollar as the world’s benchmark currency. They regarded international development as essential to peace and mutual prosperity. 

Conventional history tends to regard Bretton Woods as a top-down, British-American plan that swept up weaker, emerging nations as tag-alongs. U.S. economist Harry Dexter White and a British colleague, John Maynard Keynes, were the lead architects of the conference.

Helleiner argues that developing regions had great sway and influence — not just at Bretton Woods, but in talks going back to the 1930s.

A shift in priorities soon overtook the ideals of Bretton Woods. The West built post-war economic strategies around fighting communism. China became a communist power and left the agreement; Soviet communism blanketed eastern Europe. 

But key institutions created by Bretton Woods — the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank — remain.

“If you had asked Keynes and White whether those institutions would have been around for 70 years, with almost universal membership, still seen as important, they would have considered that an enormous achievement,” said Professor Helleiner. “It’s pretty remarkable.”

From a University of Waterloo media release.

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