Calling Larry Summers

Devesh Kapur, Pratap Mehta and Arvind Subramanian are unhappy:

Is a liberal international economic order losing intellectual support? Should developing economies be worried? If Larry Summers is the canary in the intellectual mine, his two columns in the Financial Times (April 28 and May 5) suggest that the answers to both questions are yes.

The liberal economic order of the last several decades was premised on two assumptions. First, that the proliferation of prosperity across countries was a good thing. Second, there would be winners and losers but, on balance, a majority of people in both developing and developed countries would benefit. Mr Summers now appears to be questioning both assumptions. He has not stated outright that the proliferation of prosperity is undesirable but his ­columns do suggest that globalisation creates competition for America…

In doing so he, perhaps unwittingly, presents the rise of the poorer parts of the world (whose standards of living are still a fraction of US levels) more as a threat than an opportunity to the US. In effect, globalisation is justified only when it serves American interests.

This apparently nationalist argument is couched in appealing distributional terms…

The problem Mr Summers identifies, the hyper-mobility of capital, was an outcome that he and the US actively promoted… At the US Treasury, Mr Summers was a leading proponent of capital account liberalisation by developing countries. Having swallowed those bitter pills of intellectual property protection and capital mobility as a necessary price for a better future, developing countries are now told that those medicines cause problems that need more – in this case protectionist – medication…

One reading is that Mr Summers’ angst about globalisation is motivated by desire to maintain the environment for the continuing spread of prosperity: a need to tweak the rules – through regulatory harmonisation – to bolster the fraying consensus among the US middle class in favour of globalisation.

But the manner in which his position is framed, the inconsistencies of the arguments across time, the inappropriate transferring of the burden of any response from domestic actions to international ones, and the susceptibility of the proposed remedies to protectionist misuse point to a more alarming prospect for developing countries. The ground is shifting under their feet. They would do well to take notice.