Instalment 9: The Paradoxes of Economic Recovery

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman

Conversation – Instalment 9: The Paradoxes of Economic Recovery

Chapter 8. The Anthill: Repressed versus Joyful Capital                        

Part I




Howard Adelman


Back to economics, seeking a job and onto Washington. AH had just served in the OSS, even if not given any significant assignments. His book, National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade, had just been published. There was a dire need for economists with experience in international trade. Why would he not be snapped up? The World Bank, the IMF, the work on the Marshall Plan for the Department of Trade, the OSS and the State Department all needed his intelligence and experience. Further, Albert still had the rest of his leave from his Rockefeller grant to tide him over.


As Jeremy records the tale, as he relocated from California with hep from Sarah’s parents, Albert’s skills as a superb networker were of no avail. Promises and warm receptions were followed by terse rejections, long silences or lame excuses at the same time as he was trying to help the rest of his family in Europe with “care packages”. George Jaszi, his close friend from LSE days who was then working for Averell Harriman at the Commerce Department, emerged as his saviour. But the Clearing Office for Foreign Transactions was dull routine work with little in the way of intellectual rewards. He was saved a second time by his colleague from California, Alexander (Shura) Gerschenkron, who offered Albert a research job in the Federal Reserve Board.


It did not take long for Albert to make his mark. He covered Western Europe and showed how the French economy was in a bind. Robert Schuman, the French Minister of Finance, could not devalue to improve France’s gaping trade deficit for that would make imports more expensive and heighten the pressures on inflation. This paradox stood in stark contrast to the economic religious belief that markets were self-correcting. Then the Republicans took office just when the European economic crisis took a further nose dive compounded by the coldest and snowiest winter since 1813-14 that began its unremitting grip in the second week of January 1947. At the time, I was nine years old. I recall being in grade five. Miss Chapman was my teacher in KingEdwardPublic School. My memory is that we spent a good deal of our class time collecting items and knitting woollen gloves and socks (yes, I learned to knit) to ship to the people in Britain.


Hirschman was asked to write a report on the crisis for the Federal Reserve Bulletin. After collecting data on rationing, price controls, the banking collapse (familiar?), mounting inflation, falling production and deteriorating trade balances, he showed how the policies that France, Britain and Italy were adopting – quotas, tariffs, foreign exchange controls and protection measures – were only making the crisis worse. They could not import what they needed and could not export to earn the monies to pay for imports. Interventions by Paris and Rome only accelerated inflation and compounded the problem. The left led strikes that further paralyzed the economy.


Thus the title of the chapter and the reference to AH’s metaphor of the disrupted anthill where the ameliorative effects of rebuilding infrastructure had been exhausted without any further elasticity to give the economy lift off so that the ants were left idle. The crisis was one of trade needed to stimulate production but autarky and bilateral deals had replaced the efforts to move trade towards a more open system. Perhaps the creativity had to be exerted on the system itself.


AH provided a landmark report. Ease the bottlenecks to trade and the path to recovery was open. AH had provided the hidden hand behind the Marshall Plan.  But the Washington bureaucracy was itself an anthill with underemployed and misemployed and misdirected workers. Meanwhile, the communists were threatening takeovers in Czechoslovakia, Italy and Paris through the ballot box. Hirschman hoped that the crisis was deep enough to provoke change without being so deep that the system collapsed.


The new initiative came from the top with the European Recovery Program better known as the Marshall Plan which Secretary of State George Marshall put in place in April 1948 with bipartisan support and the leadership of George Kennan and William Clayton from the State Department. When the austerists prevailed – as in Italy – matters only became worse.  The American plan launched Europe away from the brink of disaster towards recovery. In preparing the draft for Congressional approval, AH was drafted to join the MIT economist, Richard Bissell, who at been at LSE just before AH and who was born, incidentally, in Mark Twain’s old home in Hartford, Connecticut, giving him by osmosis a spirit of adventure rather than a propensity to tie down the hatches and take cover. Inject working capital and watch the paralyzed financial sector throw off its lethargy and tackle the chronic balance of payments problem. A more open trade system would accompany and follow the change. The domestic plan of 2008 in the USA was not fundamentally different.


However, to work it required European initiatives to lift exchange controls and bilateral barter deals and accords in favour of regional cooperation. The Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) became the institutional tool. Though Hirschman’s plan for a central bank and a unified currency was prophetic, it was also politically well ahead of its time as a measure to tackle the immediate convertibility crisis. The foremost initiative was to make the European currencies transferable and convertible thereby establishing the foundations of regionalism and multilateralism that would form the foundation for the European Economic Community and eventually the Euro. This was accomplished through the 1950 European Payments Union (EPU), effectively, a federally controlled common clearing system. (See James Ransom “‘A Little Marshall Plan’: Britain and the Formation of the European Payments Union,” The International History Review 32:3, Sept. 2010, 437-454. I will later return to why I believe this monetary reform was the crucial key and not the trade regime established, however important that was as well.) Europe, however, was ready for a trading federation based on a monetary proto quasi-union. The revolution was as significant as the overthrow of mercantilism in Europe.


The political window was, however, closing with the rise of the Republicans to power, the rise of the Communists in China, the consolidation of communist controls in Eastern Europe and a plethora of Soviet spies flushed out into the daylight. Paranoia would once again rule the roost fostering defensive rather than creative responses. The North Koreans were on the march. The brains trust that had been assembled began to desert the ship of state now caught in an ice jam with respect to development policy.   


The result sparked an even greater depression than the one that AH had suffered in Algeria and in Italy. He could not stand being an under-utilized ant and crept back to his classic books and self-isolation. One catalyst was the death by heart attack of Harry Dexter White, one of the standard bearers of Bretton Woods (see Benn Steil, The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order), who had been the founding director of the IMF. He died three days after being summoned before HUAC to face charges of passing secrets to the Soviet Union. (See R. Bruce Craig’s book, Treasonable Doubts.) The political and economic repressives had retaken the citadels of power and influence. Arthur Marger, with his orthodox economic doctrines, became the new head of The Fed. AH’s ideas could not even get a hearing.  When he sought to go elsewhere in Washington, it was now apparent that some item in his file blocked all movement there. When he sought to go to Paris, a review of his security clearance was initiated. He learned that the Loyalty Review Board of the Civil Service Commission would not approve his transfer on security grounds and he was advised to leave the civil service voluntarily. He was now without a paycheque.


In the next blog I will deal with the haunting security file and AH’s opting to go to Colombia. In part 2 of this blog, I want to discuss a theory of money and why the EPU was so important.


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