If Strauss-Kahn Resigns, How about an Asian to run the IMF this Time?


I have no particular intelligence on the details of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) case. I would only say what everyone would agree to: He should be investigated properly with due process and the assumption of innocence. (That we even need to say this in the US is now, unfortunately, necessary given the US flirtation with extra-judicial methods because of the war on terror.) That he was fleeing the US for his home country when he was arrested does not bode well; this is why he was denied bail. If he is found innocent, then he perhaps can stay on the job, unless this incident comes to be seen in a pattern of irresponsibility, even if formal guilt is not found. DSK was rebuked for an affair with an IMF staffer a few years ago, so perhaps this will tip him out, even if he is found innocent.

But any decision to retain him as IMF managing director (MD) should be based on the evidence, not because he has helped revive the IMF’s fortunes after a tough decade (because of heavy criticism of the IMF’s handling of the Asian Financial Crisis and globalization generally), nor because he has helped so much in the recent debt crisis, especially in Europe. I agree with both of those assessments, but they don’t really change the issue of whether or not he is personally responsible enough to complete his duties. It is also worth noting that infidelity is not a crime (DSK is married). The real issue is whether he tried to rape his alleged victim or not. If he did, he should obviously go. But the important distinction here is with the Clinton impeachment. If DSK’s wife can live with his libertinism, as Hillary Clinton was able to, then that is ultimately a personal issue. There is no need to import the ‘politics of personal destruction’ into the IMF. It is also worth noting that French politicians get far more leeway on personal indiscretions that US politicians. France’s longest serving modern president, Francois Mitterrand, had a love-child out of wedlock who was revealed after his death. Perhaps DSK never quite escaped that more tolerant expectation set.

My own sense is that, even if found innocent because it turns into ‘he-said-she-said,’ it will be hard for him to stay on. The images of him in handcuffs, being pulled off a plane, standing sullenly in a court will make it hard to keep him. Paul Wolfowitz too was forced out of the World Bank presidency several years back for a similar, less egregious, personal affair. My guess is that DSK will have to go too.

For my own previous writing on the Fund, broadly sympathetic to its role, try here or here.

The issue of his replacement brings up a long-standing dispute over the leadership of the Bank and Fund. Precedent says the Europeans pick the IMF MD, and the US picks the World Bank president. This logic was based on the, previously reasonably accurate, claim that the North Atlantic represented the core of the world economy. Of course, it was more than this; prestige has always played a huge role, particularly for the Europeans. Having the IMF sinecure helped buttress Europe’s self-image as important central to global governance.

But you hardly need to be an economist to know that Europe’s role, relative to that of the US and Asia, has been in decline for awhile. Decolonization generally reduced Europe’s global footprint. Decades of slow growth and declining military spending has vaulted the US past the EU in the transatlantic partnership. The seemingly endless inability of the Europeans to put the EU into good working order – the euro mess, the constitutional-institutional rube goldberg structure of the EU itself, the continuing inability of outsiders to know who ‘speaks’ for Europe – cripples an EU global role. Just about everyone outside Europe thinks that the EU should have one EU seat on the UN Security Council, not two for Britain and France. Henry Kissinger famously quipped that he did not know whom to call if he wanted to talk to Europe, and that question is still unresolved. And of course, the rise of Asia has relatively squeezed the EU more than the US. I was at a conference last year where I made this point, and the EU speaker could at best only respond that the EU was a ‘foreign aid superpower.’ If that is all you got, it is time to step aside and allow the ‘New Core,’ Asia, to have a crack at the top-table of world politics. And last year, when I was at an IMF conference in Korea, Asian questioners did in fact ask DSK this, and he was response was, yes, the MD after him should be an Asian.

Everyone knows that Asia’s weight in the global economy has grown dramatically in the last several decades. The IMF’s own voting quotas have been re-ordered to reflect this. Chinese, Japanese, and Indians have already been pretty high up in the managerial order in both the Bank and the Fund.

My own sense is that a Japanese banker would be an excellent choice. Japan is the most open and mature of the Asian economies. The Bank of Japan has been downright heroic in its battle against deflation for years now; it is vastly more serious about Japan’s economic problems that Japan’s politicians. The BoJ has tremendous skills on issues that dog IMF debtors, like government debt, the money supply, or slow growth. A Chinese might be a more controversial choice, one the US and EU might veto, because China is highly interventionist and still a formally communist country. If China would object to a Japanese, likely out of sheerly nationalist resentment, then what about a Korean, Indian or Singaporean?

In short, Asia’s time to run one of the two Bretton Woods Institutions has arrived. Europe’s economic claim to that leadership role is now much-reduced. The euro is a mess; EU economies are carrying huge debt burdens; the EU remains unable to find a common voice despite decades of waiting and endless speculation; and the last few Europeans to run the IMF have been been pretty meager – Rodrigo De Rato lasted just three years (2004-07) and used the position to jockey for political position at home in Spain; before him, Horst Koehler (2000-04) did the same.

In fact, the only argument to keep a European one more time, is based on Europe’s weakness, not its strength; that is, because the IMF’s most important work in the next few years will be in Europe, it should have a European. But this strikes me as too clever by half and yet another gimmick to keep Asia from its clearly-earned place to run these institutions occasionally. By any reasonable criteria, Asia is qualified – probably more qualified actually given Europe’s economic state today – to take the MD-ship. The inevitable arguments to be heard in the next few weeks about Europe’s ‘weight’ in the global economy will just be mask the real,  tribal and prestige-driven desire to hang onto the last shreds of influence in an increasingly ‘post-atlantic’ world.

Is Ban Ki-Moon the Antichrist? Teaching End-Times UN Hatred in Asia


In teaching the UN this week, we discussed the issue of purposeful American defunding of the UN since the 1980s and the rocky US-UN relationship since the 1970s. For a good review of the ‘this-wordly’ issues go here. But then, inevitably, one must discuss the ‘theological’ complaints of US Christians. Something like 30-40% of Americans have had a born-again experience, in which Jesus purportedly intervenes personally in their life, former President Bush being the most prominent example. Koreans already find this to be pretty bizarre.  But then when you have to explain that lots of these people also believe the book of Revelation is a real prediction of future history (ie, Armageddon), then they just find it ridiculous. I tried as best I could to present it objectively, but I was genuinely embarrassed for the US to look so foolish. Most of my students were laughing out loud by the time I got to the end of the presentation. The same thing happened when I tried explain the Tea Party and those protestors with signs of Obama as Hitler. I don’t think American conservatives, who love the discourse of American exceptionalism, realize how much damage this kind of stuff does to foreigners’ impression of our ability and legitimacy to lead.

I struggled a bit on the details. In my Catholic grade school, we never read Revelations. The Church seemed to find it an embarrassment, and we spent most of our time on the Evangelists’ books. Most of my experience has come from watching the three Left Behind films (which I watched explicitly to get a handle on this material, although their unintentionally campiness is pretty hysterical). In that trilogy the UN Secretary-General (S-G) is the Antichrist. Speaking with a goofy pseudo-Transylvanian accent, he provokes a global war that inevitably includes an invasion of Israel. He assassinates people with impunity on the floor of the UN Security Council, and a shady Arab henchman organizes a global currency. The Rapture is there too of course (although not the fact that God would be thereby responsible for all the deaths from plane crashes due to raptured pilots). The demonic S-G, a slick Euro-bad guy, seduces the hot blonde  and builds a global tyranny from the UN, complete with a new unitarian-style religion. The American heroes have macho names like Buck and Steele. (Grrr!)

But all this strikes me as more American than Christian. First, it is Americans who have come up with this stuff, and I never met a European or Asian Christian who even knew about the Rapture and end-times wars, much less believed it. Second, it seems conveniently American that the US plays such a central role in these future histories, and that the UN, already disliked in the US, is the enemy yet again. Third, the movie bad guy looks and talks like the stock, ‘slick Euro’ character, whom Americans love to hate (like Alan Rickman in Die Hard). To be fair, I haven’t read the Left Behind novels though.

Teaching can be a great profession, and moments like this are real classics you will always remember in your career  (like the time I had a student ask me what OBL’s economic plan was for the caliphate after he re-united it). ‘Intercultural confusion’ would be the political correct expression, but honestly, the students just found it idiotic. Most East Asians come from a Buddhist-Confucian background (even the Christians, because Christianity is still pretty recent here). So most of my students had no context at all; indeed, for Americans who find this End-Times stuff ‘normal,’ nothing shows you just how absolutely absurd it is like trying to explain it to uninitiated foreigners. You want to convince Asians we aren’t fit to lead? Just let them watch Sarah Palin for awhile and then give a screening of Left Behind. Try explaining that it isn’t all anti-science, superstitious conspiracy theories. It’s just laughably implausible when taught as a straight ‘theory.’

First I had to lay the groundwork about the splintering of American Protestantism, because this eschatology is not mainline. Most Koreans are Catholics or Methodists. Korean Protestantism looks more like Europe than the US. Mega-churches built around one preacher don’t really exist. But they are coming. Indeed, one downside of the major US influence in Korea, because of the long alliance and commercial ties, is that US variants of charismatic-evangelical Protestant are coming, with an even greater stress on proselytization than in the US. Here, fundamentalists will stand at train stations and walk through subway cars holding big red crosses yelling (yes, yelling, not really preaching). Most Koreans resent them, so once I started discussing the details of evangelical end-times theology, my students were rolling their eyes immediately. That a Korean is the current UN S-G only raises their level of amazement and incredulity even faster. By the time I wrapped up, I was practically laughing myself – something I could never do in a US classroom, because there were always students who believed this stuff.

For all its absurdity, I do think teachers of IR should at least know the outlines of fundamentalist Protestant eschatology. It motivates UN hatred in the US far more than is acknowledged, and American ‘Christian Zionists’ – for whom Israel plays a role in the end-times wars – are far more important supporters of Israel than American Jews. This is a good IR article waiting to be written. I know of no serious investigation of the end-times version of world politics, despite its wide influence in the US electorate.

NB: I am just about positive that I will be ‘left behind,’ but thankfully the Tea Party is telling me how to  stock up for it

Asia’s Improved IMF Quotas — Wake Up! It’s not that Boring…


Here is a subject that could put anyone to sleep but is probably the best thing to come from the otherwise poor G-20 summit last week. The voting shares of the IMF were reweighted to reflect Asia’s expanding size in the global economy. Here is good write-up; for Asian self-congratulation, try this. This puts it in context for Korea.

The quota represents the percentage of control that a state has over IMF decisions. Big decisions are made by the IMF’s Board of Governors, the national representatives who collectively control the institution. On the Board, each country receives a weighted vote whose size (quota) is roughly in line with its national percentage of global GDP, crossed against the importance of exports to national GDP (its ‘openness,’ in IMF-speak). (The voting formula is ridiculously arcane for non-experts. There are endless proposals to reform it. Here it is in the words of the IMF itself.) In short, the bigger your quota, the more sway you have in IMF decisions (about loans, the creation of Special Drawing Rights, IMF responsibilities for the global economy, etc.). The biggest quotas, inevitably, belong to the US, Japan, and the Europeans. However, given Asia’s expansion of the last few decades, pressure is rising to re-weight the votes to Asia’s favor. In practice, that means giving China a bigger voice at the expense of the Europeans, who are resisting quite selfishly it must be said, for all their talk about cooperative global governance and multilateralism. US and Japanese shares will be scarcely affected. Korea’s share will reweighted a little bit as well (1.4% to 1.8%).

For Korea and other emergent economies’ share to get even bigger, they would need explosive growth like China’s, as well as a major demographic expansion. Neither will happen realistically. Globally speaking, Korea is just too small to have a much bigger quota, although a 0.4% jump is 30% quota expansion, which is actually pretty good. The really big quota fight is between China and the EU, with India coming down the pike as well. In short, global economic institutions are adjusting, albeit painfully, to the rise of Asia. The increasing equality of wealth between Asia, Europe, and North America means that the voting weights of each of those regions are slowly equilibrating.

States are sensitive about quota size, because it is a zero-sum game. If Korea gains .04%, that means some other state loses 0.4%. Hence the Fund can never be made large enough to make all feel confortable. Instead, control of the Fund will always be relative – if I have 0.0001 percent, then you do not have it. While global GDP expansion is positive sum, Board control of the IMF (and World Bank) Board is not. And inevitably, the size of a national quota is interpreted as a general sign of global clout and importance. One can see that in the Europeans’ strenuous efforts to delay and obfuscate the re-weighting, for they will lose in that process. It is like the veto rights of the permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council. That is widely considered as a signal of their great prestige, and even though the French and British empires are long gone, it is unrealistic to think that they will give up their P-5 status.

So Korea’s quota increase is good for Korea, in a small way, and it is just, insofar as Korea has grown more rapidly than the EU in the last few decades. But it is not really that important, because 1. Korea’s relations with the IMF are quite chilly anyway, and 2. Korea is simply too small economically and demographically at the global level. More interesting would be Korea’s ‘quota’ in the emerging Chiang Mai Initiative, which is like a local Asian version of the IMF.

Generally, we should be pleased that the IMF was able to evolve like this. The more it looks like the actual world economy, the more it can meaningfully intervene. Contrast that with the UN Security Council, frozen in time (1945), with three veto-wielding ‘great powers’ (Russia, France, and Britain) that are no ‘greater’ than a lot of other countries now. Unable to adapt – again, primarily because of European selfishness (France and Britain will not a agree to consolidate their veto into one for the EU) – the Security Council is sliding into irrelevance. If the IMF – the supposed global tyrant – can adapt, how about the UN?

Korea and the G-20: An Exercise in Koreaphoria


A street near my house got festooned with G-20 flags for a week.

There has been lots about the G-20 in the major financial press, but little on the way in which Korea has rewritten the meeting, at least to itself, as a global homage to Korea’s arrival. Most Koreans haven’t the slightest clue what the G-20 is. Nor do they really care much for OECD trading norms – which, of course, is the whole point of the G-20. In fact, they flagrantly violate those norms (as just about every western businessman I have met in Korea reminds me at every conference I go to). The ROK is irritatingly mercantilist, and Americans are right to think Korea cheats on trade. So if Koreans actually wanted the G-2o to be a success, how about dialing down the protectionism and currency ‘fine-tuning’ (i.e., sterilization of inflows to favor big exporters like the ship builders)? I am hardly one to defend the US auto industry for making cars that no wants to drive and that wreck the environment, but Ford nails it with this write-up. So the Chosun Ilbo says Korea should be a good global citizen, but that’s not what Korea really cares about in the G-20.  In Korea-land, the G-20 is an opportunity to preen, not what it actually is suppsed to be – a global economic coordinating body. In the words of no less than the SK president, the G-20 in Seoul means, “Koreans are great and that the world is now recognizing that fact.” Somehow I doubt that is what Medvedev, Singh, Kirchener, and all the rest had in mind. *Sigh*

The Korean press is nothing if not unprofessional and arriviste, aggressively desperate for recognition that Korea is a ‘player’ or, in the locution most preferred by the jingoistic media here, an ‘advanced country‘ (with the obvious implication that other countries are therefore ‘below’ Korea – ask Koreans what they know about Africa, e.g.) Start here and here, in order to learn that the G-20 in Seoul means that the whole world is watching Korea, that Koreans should be proud, that Korea is a global player, a powerhouse, a model, blah, blah, blah. Among other narcisisstic disinformation was the media line that Korea was the ‘first’ non-G-7 state ‘ever’ to host the G-20 leaders. Technically this is so, but the G-20 leaders have only met 4 times before, so it’s hardly as unique as it sounds. (This is preceisely the kind of faux statistic the ROKG and media love to create in lieu of something meaningful; try here for a simliarly desperate non-category – that Korean is a ‘top five food.’) But nothing could stem the self-congratulation. For the three weeks previous, there was a media countdown to ‘D-Day’ – yes, that’s what they called it. Literally, in the top left corner of the major TV networks’ broadcasts, there was a permanent ‘D-15’ (day minus 15) or ‘D-3’ graphic counting down to the big day the whole world would swoon over Korea. Perhaps my favorite moment in this bathos of self-absorption was the televised message on ‘D-1,’ by no less than the mayor of Seoul, that Koreans should be nice to visiting foreigners if they meet them on the street. Hah! How about the rest of the time for those of us who live here, huh? The last thing already hyper-nationalistic Koreans need is to be told that they should be even more proud.

I have said it lots of times before, but Korea is a really nice place to live actually – a lot better than the Central Valley – but then Koreans insist on spoiling that with over-the-top insistence that Korea is unbelievably awesome, and using almost anything to argue that Korea’s ‘brand’ – whatever that means – is on the rise. If all this sounds like the Tea-Party’s hysterical American exceptionalism it should.

For a more serious take on the G-20, one that actually recognizes Korea’s small size and its consequent limits, try this piece by a friend of mine at the Korea Times. Cho admits what Koreans know in their hearts, but adamantly refuse to admit to foreigners: that Korea is a bit-player, that it faces severe constraints in the future, and that Korea’s super-growth days are over. In short, Korea is a middle power, will remain one, and Koreans should accustom themselves to this rather than demanding, Uncle-Tom style, that resident foreigners recite a mawkish Koreaphoria.

Post-Western Global Governance?


These two articles really got me thinking recently about the the complexity of global governance (GG), and whether it can realistically absorb new powers, much less define itself meaningfully to policy-makers. In fact, sometime I wonder, because I teach international organization (IO), if GG even exists at all. Randy Schweller, one of my grad school profs, says basically GG is a mash-up of rules, institutions, norms, and everything else that is so complex that is effectively unanalysable. And Thomas Weiss, quite the opposite paradigmatically of Schweller, basically says the same, and that we should go back to looking at world government (hear, hear!).

I wrote my dissertation on the IMF and World Bank in the (ever-so-quaint 1990s, pre-9/11) belief that global governance was a meaningful idea, that rules could slowly creep up on the world, that most of those rules would come from liberal internationalist thinking primarily rooted in the West, and that all this was a good thing. Even belonged to the UN Association of the USA before 9/11. Yet after years of struggling to make this an analytically coherent idea (and subscribing to the excellent journal), I have given up mostly. My own research has turned back to states instead of the tortured mix of NGOs, IO, MNCS, rules, norms, regimes, etc, etc, that are somehow supposed to interrelate into multilateral, multilayered, multisectoral, networked, transnational, social constructed, complex, I-don’t-know-which-way-is-up-anymore GG. When I teach IOs, after I go through all this with the students, and they ask me for the one-liner on GG (because all good ideas can ultimately be expressed simply), I say GG is (dysfunctional) world government-light. Hence Schweller’s piece caught my attention. GG is so complex and such a confusing notion, that it obscures as much as it clarifies. And Weiss is wonderful in his frustration that no one really knows wth GG is, and that the world government discussions of the past (after the two world wars) were much more understandable and analytically useful.

Beyond the confusion though, is my growing sense that as the non-western world gets its act together slowly in the coming decades, all this GG talk will just look like preening academic liberal internationalism, our hubris in trying to extend a system basically built for the West (plus Japan) to everyone else. But everyone else (Huntington’s famous ‘the rest’) probably don’t really want to live by the rules that we have set up. In the same way that Japan never really liked its semi-membership in the Concert of Europe and never really followed its norms (it stormed around Korea and China regardless of what Bismarck or Earl Grey thought), I think the emerging powers of the world will probably be more inclined to truculence and grievance than assimilation.

Walt calls this the end of the Atlantic Era; Mead says it is the death-throes of liberal internationalism. Increasingly, sadly to be sure, I think this is right, and increasingly my own IR thinking has drifted from optimistic liberalism to fearful realism. It makes me miss the 1990s so much. Before 9/11, the US was strong enough that we could indulge in Eurocentric intellectual flights of fancy that everyone wanted to live like us (the Washington Consensus of the indispensible nation), and that if only they followed the rules (GG), they could. But the rest of the world has been ‘rising’ (ie, modernizing, ie, it getting its act together) for several decades now, and there are a lot more of them (the Rest) than of us (the West), so inevitably as the BRICs (above map) and such come on-line, they are going to change the implementation of the rules, if not the rules themselves, if only because of their sheer bulk. China and India each have 1.3+ billion people. How can they not impact just about everything? I once heard the president of the World Bank say there would be 20 billion more people born by 2050, and 90% of them would be born outside the West. There is your one-liner for the future, not some academic tinkering about NGO access to UN specialized agencies.

Compounding these structural de-westernization trends, is the massive sinkhole of western power and strategy that the GWoT has become. The US would be declining relatively to the new risers anyway, but the $3 trillion spent on Iraq vastly accelerated this process. Does anyone remember predictions just a decade ago that China would rise so fast? Of course not, because no expected the US to shoot itself in the foot (if not the head) so badly since 9/11.

So my question then is how do we put together rules for the new post-western era. The UN, built to fail by sovereignty-obsessed nation-states, has therefore failed. It reflects a simpler world, where much of the world’s population was unsocialized, unmobilized peasantry under imperial or semi-feudal rule. So, as Schweller notes, GG was easier. There were fewer players, and they were all pretty culturally close. Today it is running the other way as previous marginalized peoples around the globe get richer, get to TVs and the Internet, complain more (especially about the US), vote their grievances, and otherwise make the liberal rules harder to enforce.

Finally, this doesn’t mean the US will be poorer or weaker, but it does mean the US will have less room to maneuver and that it will be harder to bully others into doing what we think is right for them (even if it is good for them). It’s not the decline of the US or the West, unless you equate unipolarity and Western cultural hegemony with the ‘normal’ status of the world.

Asia 21, or the IMF Comes Crawling Back to Asia…


1. For an organization regularly accused of wrecking the world, the July IMF-Korea get-together was a lark. 13 years ago in the Asian Financial Crisis (AFC), the Fund pummeled emerging Asia with all sorts of tough but necessary reforms. And Korea, for an OECD economy, took a hell of beating at the time and never forgave the Fund. Never ones to admit they were wrong, Korean elites steadfastly refuse to recognize that the Fund’s advice was necessary and was the reason Korea bounced back so fast from what at the time observers thought was going to be a regional meltdown. And now, as the world’s money flows into Asia in the coming decades, the IMF has had to come crawling back. The irony of course is that Fund advice why the AFC lasted so briefly and why Asia returned to growth so quickly.

But no one EVER thanks the Fund, and now, with the Western powers traditionally supporting the Fund all bankrupt, the Fund desperately needs Asia. So after a 13 year mexican stand-off over the Fund’s AFC advice, the Fund has finally blinked. It has come back to ask to be let back in. For Korea this was a moment of triumph. Not one Korean speaker missed the opportunity to dredge up the old grievances, and not one IMF speaker had the professional courage to defend the Fund. Even Managing Director Strauss-Kahn (right above) didn’t have the backbone to defend the rescue package that saved Korea from default and an Argentine-style depression. Instead the MD told sob-stories about how the IMF refused to loan money to countries which included cuts in children’s services in their programs. See how nice the IMF is now! 15 years ago they were killing babies, now they are saving them from faceless bureaucrats. Make sure to blast-fax that to all the NGOs and the New York Times. Bleh. Strauss-Kahn has otherwise been a good MD after the last two forgettables. But he sounded so craven it was embarrassing.

But I suppose he had no choice. Asians so loathe the Fund that they are brink of building their own local version of it – the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI). 13 years ago the IMF was able to sink this idea, because Asia was broke and the US was the ‘indispensible nation.’ Now, the world’s cash is in Asia, and its debtors are in the West. The Fund can’t play so hard, and CMI represents a genuine threat to institutional relevance. Hence the peace offering at Asia 21.

2. The conference didn’t say too much you wouldn’t already know from reading the (required) FT and Economist, but at least Asians seem to be realizing the West won’t import as it did before and that the US stimulus was essentially sterilized by cuts in local, state, and consumer spending. This is progress. Two years ago, when the crisis started, the first instinct was to ignore the depth of the crisis in Asia’s major export markets and just wait for things to return to the 2000s status quo: massive overconsumption (and debt) in the US and much of the EU, coupled with a huge run-up in dollars reserves in Asia. Smart observers like Martin Wolf have been arguing since the start that an Asian buying binge is the fastest, safest way out of the crisis, but Asian elites would have none of that. Now at least, I had the impression that they realizing that the wild imbalances of the post-AFC pseudo-expansion are risky to even to them. But I still didn’t see a commitment to reverse the current account surpluses, only to lessen them somewhat. Not even this Great Recession can dent the Asian reflex for mercantilism.

3. There was a great deal of fear that Greece might spiral into a sovereign debt crisis throughout the OECD, and much hand-wringing about how the West could be moved toward structurally lower fiscal deficits. As a political scientist though, I found the answers to the latter curiously technocratic and formal. None of the speakers note what seems to me the obvious, cultural, answer – generational expectations. In the EU, the biggest problem for balance is not corruption, better tax-collecing, the Common Agricultural Program; it is the mindset that the work is ‘oppressive’ beyond 35 hours a week and 55 years of age. It is cultural or socio-political expectations that are the real limits on fiscal seriousness. A ‘social-democratized’ population taught that generous government is a right has made it all but impossible to get Europeans to live within their means. In the US, the primary problem with balance is analogous: an anti-tax commitment on the right that borders on paranoia. I can’t think of any serious economist who believes the US can balance its budget in the medium-term without tax increases – the deficit is now $1 trillion, so please tell me how to fix that without more tax revenue? – but taxes have achieved a totemic significance on the right that makes them nearly impossible to raise despite the obvious mathematical case for them.

By contrast, it seems that Asian populations are willing to pay their taxes and accept less social welfare redistribution. We say that the West needs to learn to live within its means, Asia has some good examples of that. South Koreans want low taxes and lots of goodies like anyone else, but I have never seen, in the press or my students or colleagues here, the suicidal drive to spend without taxing that has become the curse of the contemporary West.

4. A quick tip to the IMF guys at these big conferences: maybe you shouldn’t clique up so much and be unfriendly to everyone else; that is why people think you are a big conspiracy. I defend the IMF all the time, but really, the IMF does bring some of the conspiracy thinking on itself. A little people skills would go a long way – how about not giving the impression that the rest of us are wasting your time? I have been to many conferences with IMF types (I wrote my dissertation on the Fund), and again and again I have seen them tie-up together in little knots, where they whisper (yes, whisper) among themselves, and generally not talk with the others as much. Not only is it the royal blow-off to the rest of us, it creates among the suspicious the perception of a disinterested priesthood. I guess global domination means they don’t have time to talk with some lowly political scientist. Hah!

The Chiang-Mai Initiative is Freaking Out the IMF


For some basic details on the IMF’s relevance in this post-Great Recession world, try here. Or read the IMF’s own publication, Finance & Development, which obsessively navel-gazes over the IMF’s own role.

So last month, I was a selectee for an internal IMF research project on its continuing relevance in Asia. Yikes! That should set off alarm bells. Neither the cover letter nor the interviewer mentioned the Chiang-Mai Initiative (CMI), but it was clear as day if you know about Asian attitudes toward the IMF. In short they loathe it. In fact, they loathe it so much, they want to build their own local version. After the Asian financial crisis (AFC), Japan proposed an “Asian Monetary Fund” (AMF), which the US shot down. At the time, the US was the indispensible nation at the end of history. What all that ‘America-is-awesome’ rhetoric really meant was that we were the uncontested hegemon with our fiscus in order, so we could push the Washington Consensus pretty hard. Today though, the US is a mess, and Asia is feeling its oats. So here we are again.

It was pretty easy to see from the questions that the IMF is really nervous about this. CMI is basically the AMF warmed over, although no one wants to come out and say so. Asians want it, because when the AFC hit, the IMF conditions on the bail-outs were tough. But unsurprisingly they were necessary – really necessary actually. Asian economies are far too export-dependent, mercantilist, corrupt, and oligarchic, and the Fund helped somewhat loosen the death-grip of politically-connected conglomerates on the economies out here. As usual, the Fund was demonized for providing good advice that was necessary. One reason why the AFC was so short, and the region’s economies bounced back so fast, was the IMF’s necessary pain. But no one ever thanks the Fund. It’s far easier to blame it for domestic political point-scoring.

So this time, the Asians are going to create their own currency pool, with their own Asian rules – whatever that means. In a way, one could see as part of the Great Recession-inspired fantasy of ‘de-coupling.’ (Tell me how you decouple from globalization and not fall behind lightning fast?) But they say, Asia should look inward, with its own rules and such. The irony, of course, is that conflict has already erupted between the likely lenders (China and Japan) and the likely borrowers (ASEAN) over what the rules over the loans should be. It’s the clash over conditionality all over again – except far more demur and behind-closed-doors, because of ‘ASEAN Way’ sensitivities that Asian countries should not publically criticize each other (lest that open the door for Western lecturing and preening). Asian leaders love the CMI for the distance it creates from the West and the Fund, but the fight over rules-set will mirror those of the Fund. The other big benefit for Asia, or rather for its elites, is that an neo-AMF/CMI will be far kinder toward ‘state-capitalism’ – all the rage now, as it is supposedly superior to liberal economics. The CMI will provide bail-outs and conditionality which push Southeast ASEAN borrowers to modernize as Northeast Asian donors have – directed state investment, aggressive mercantilism, (semi-)closed politics.

This is unfortunate to my mind for two reasons:

1. Obviously, propping up authoritarians capitalism has an anti-democratic ring to it. The last thing, politically, that Southeast Asia needs is more cheerleading to concentrate political-economic power in a small, almost-closed elite. Insofar as the Fund promotes economic neoliberalism, there has always been an oblique pressure to openly politically therefore as well. This will now be lost, as the CMI is certain to follow the ‘ASEAN Way’ of no political commentary.

2. If you bracket this political concerns, there are clear economic worries. A CMI fractures the global financial system, just as the proliferation of free trade areas in Asia is fracturing the WTO universal trade system, and Chinese pressure increasingly threatens to regionalize the Internet. This year’s ‘multilateralization’ of the CMI means it is now a genuine systemic-institutional threat to the Fund. This is almost certainly the proximate cause of the worried IMF survey on its relevance.

So I felt bad for the Fund (who EVER says that?) All the questions from the interviewer were about the Fund’s continuing relevance, what its role in Asia should be, and perhaps most telling, should it have a role? That inspired real discomfort.  I can only imagine what interviewer heard from Koreans – who feel they were turned upside down by the IMF even though the bail-out probably prevented street rioting – and Indonesians- where the AFC did end in street rioting and government collapse. The prime minister of Malaysia at the time even said the AFC was caused by ‘Jewish speculators.’

I should only add in the Fund’s defense that when I talk with Koreans and other Asians, most have no good sense of what the IMF should do differently, because most have no grasp of what it actually does. All will tell you that it should reform, but like most of the anti-globalization protestors, their ideas are vague or indicate that they don’t understand the, albeit highly technical, IMF. (I even wrote my dissertation on this topic.) Most seem to think that the bailouts should come cost- and change-free, but all that does it move the costs somewhere else – to the OECD taxpayers providing the Fund’s bailout resources – nor does it help clear up the problems that created the crisis in the first place. The great irony is that although Asians loathe the Fund, they actually learned the appropriate lessons from it in 1997 and were much better able to withstand the next crisis in 2008, the Great Recession. Pity the Fund. It does its job pretty well, but everyone hates it anyway