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The Global Economy’s Dialogue of the Deaf

As governments try to coax the world economy out of recession, the danger of protectionism is emerging in ways not foreseen by the founders of our existing global institutions. We need a moderate-sized representative group of leaders of the world’s largest economies to meet regularly to discuss such issues, informed by analyses from an impartial secretariat.

CHICAGO – As governments do more to try to coax the world economy out of recession, the danger of protectionism is becoming more real. It is emerging in ways that were unforeseen by those who founded our existing global institutions. Unfortunately, the discussion between countries on trade nowadays is very much a dialogue of the deaf, with countries spouting platitudes at one another, but no enforceable and verifiable commitments agreed upon. There is an urgent need to reform global institutions – and more dramatically than envisaged by the G-20 thus far.

Protectionism is not just about raising tariffs on imports; it is any government action that distorts the global production and allocation of goods, services, and capital to favor domestic producers, thereby reducing overall efficiency. So, for example, government pressure on multinational banks to lend domestically, or to withdraw liquidity from foreign branches, is protectionism, as are capital injections into multinational companies with the explicit requirement that domestic jobs be preserved.

Such actions are problematic not only because they insulate inefficient forms of production, but also because foreign countries respond by adopting similar measures towards their national champions, so that everyone is worse off. The number of inefficient workers protected by these measures is offset by the number of efficient workers laid off by foreign multinationals responding to political pressures in their home country. Perhaps of greatest concern, moreover, is that the public, especially in poor countries that cannot undertake offsetting measures, will come to distrust global integration, with multinationals viewed as Trojan horses.

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    A Global Economy Without a Cushion

    Stephen S. Roach

    From 1990 to 2008, annual growth in world trade was fully 82% faster than world GDP growth. Now, however, reflecting the unusually sharp post-crisis slowdown in global trade growth, this cushion has shrunk dramatically, to just 13% over the 2010-19 period, leaving the world economy more vulnerable to all-too-frequent shocks.

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