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Brexit’s Stealthy Rationality

The motives and thinking behind Brexit were even less worthy than those behind US President Richard Nixon’s move in 1971 to ditch the Bretton Woods system. But, as with the "Nixon shock," there is a singular underlying historical factor that explains Brexit.

ATHENS – At pivotal historical moments, rational political ruptures often are brought about for all the wrong reasons. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit may prove to be a case in point.

When US President Richard Nixon ditched the Bretton Woods system in August 1971, his reasons were shortsighted. Overwhelmed by domestic pressures to impose ineffective price controls and placate his blue-collar supporters, Nixon took his eye off the larger picture. Still, he was following a sound instinct: historical forces had ruled against the sustainability of that remarkable post-war global monetary system. Once America went from being a net global creditor to being a debtor economy in sustained deficit to the rest of the capitalist world, Bretton Woods was condemned to extinction, because the Federal Reserve could no longer guarantee a fixed exchange rate with the Deutsche Mark, yen, franc, and so on.

To be sure, the median American worker’s income and living standards have never recovered from the so-called Nixon shock, and the resulting financialization of capitalism has been detrimental to humanity. But that does not take anything away from the deeper rationality of Nixon’s decision.

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