December 4, 2021

Off the Shelf: Bretton Woods Monetary Agreement, Examined in a New Book

Representatives of some 44 nations gathered in July 1944 at Bretton Woods, a resort spot in New Hampshire, to hammer out a world monetary system, replacing the gold standard that had failed so woefully. But only two nations mattered: Britain and the United States.

In “The Battle of Bretton Woods” (Princeton University Press, $29.95), Benn Steil, a senior fellow and director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes that effort from its roots and projects its effect on today’s conflicts among the dollar, the euro and the Chinese renminbi. Although America’s global dominance has long since melted away, no substitute is yet strong enough to shove the dollar aside, in part because of Bretton Woods.

Britain entered the conference exhausted and broke, crippled by the war. It desperately needed flexible exchange rates to rekindle its vital exports to pay for the imports it required to live. It clung to a privileged access to trading with its empire, one-fourth of the Earth’s land and people.

America was unscathed at home and far stronger in 1945 than in 1941. Owner of the bulk of the world’s gold bullion, a stunning 20,000 metric tons, the United States wanted to emerge from World War II with fixed conversion rates assured by a dollar tied to gold. And it went without saying that it was bent on becoming the globe’s financial capital.

Representing America at Bretton Woods was Harry Dexter White, an economics professor who had joined the Treasury as an adviser in 1934. By dint of intellect and hard work, he became grudgingly accepted as its ranking expert on international finance. He labored as the brains buttressing the Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, who described himself as “just a farmer,” albeit a close gentleman-farmer friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Morgenthau presided at Bretton Woods but White ran the show.

Dr. Steil presents evidence that White was also an informant for the Soviet Union, a starry-eyed admirer of what he saw as its remarkable economic success. For years, Dr. Steil says, White provided documents to the Soviets and favored their side in policy debates. In 1948, White fended off the House Un-American Activities Committee, denying that he was a Communist. A more adverse light was shed on his activities when wartime codes were broken years after his death. Dr. Steil is more convinced of the espionage claims surrounding White than some historians who see his actions as more innocent. There is no sign that his interest in the Soviets affected his work at Bretton Woods.

Taking Britain’s part at the 1944 conference was the celebrated John Maynard Keynes, who knew full well that war had reduced Britain to a hapless debtor, obliged to accept whatever the United States offered. The book confirms that Keynes was an intellectual giant with flawless intuition for finance, but it also exposes his caustic criticisms of lesser men and his tin ear for workaday diplomacy. The Americans considered him too bright for his britches and bottled him up at every opportunity.

White had prepared so well that the actual conference was well-orchestrated, everything the Americans wanted. “Now the advantage is ours here, and I personally think we should take it,” Morgenthau said to White, who fully agreed. As White said, “If the advantage was theirs, they would take it.”

The Americans wanted free trade and open markets; they feared postwar inflation. Bretton Woods helped by providing for stable but convertible currencies, tied within limits to the dollar and ultimately to gold. It also created the International Monetary Fund, a money pool from which nations with trade deficits could borrow to satisfy international accounts. And it set up what became the World Bank, initially focused on rebuilding Europe, and later on the developing world. Britain lost out on looser exchange rates, and its imperial trade preferences were doomed.

On item after item, Keynes found a stone wall. What Dr. Steil calls his “most tangible legacy” from Bretton Woods was pathetic. Norway moved to abolish the Bank for International Settlements for cooperating with the Nazis, a motion that Keynes vehemently opposed. The delegates eventually agreed that the bank would be “liquidated at the earliest possible moment.” The bank is still in business today.

Keynes ended up having to play an impossible hand. In 1945, he was left to sell Parliament on accepting arrangements that he had exhausted himself resisting. Four months later, he was dead. History later vindicated his advocacy of flexible exchange rates. The Bretton Woods system, not fully in effect till 1961, died only a decade later when President Richard M. Nixon ended the gold standard. The United States was running such large international deficits, paying out so many dollars, that not even Fort Knox had enough gold.

“The Battle of Bretton Woods” should become the gold standard on its topic. The details are addictive. But be warned: the book is dense. Every skirmish, every exchange — and the book gets into hundreds of thems — was presumably meaningful to the participants. But while some episodes mattered much, many did not. The author is no Robert Caro, who in his multivolume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson delves into minute details but also explains their larger significance.

Perhaps that is what is missing here — an unmistakable voice, a sense that this rich history is told by one mind. Mr. Caro is known for working on his own, with the assistance of his wife. In his acknowledgments, Dr. Steil thanks 10 research assistants and an advisory panel of 18 luminaries. The book sometimes reads like a succession of brilliant but loosely connected graduate seminar papers — an assemblage, a very fine one, but an assemblage nevertheless.

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Somehow, the Unemployed Became Invisible

Fourteen million, in round numbers — that is how many Americans are now officially out of work.

Word came Friday from the Labor Department that, despite all the optimistic talk of an economic recovery, unemployment is going up, not down. The jobless rate rose to 9.2 percent in June.

What gives? And where, if anywhere, is the outrage?

The United States is in the grips of its gravest jobs crisis since Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House. Lose your job, and it will take roughly nine months to find a new one. That is off the charts. Many Americans have simply given up.

But unless you’re one of those unhappy 14 million, you might not even notice the problem. The budget deficit, not jobs, has been dominating the conversation in Washington. Unlike the hard-pressed in, say, Greece or Spain, the jobless in America seem, well, subdued. The old fire has gone out.

In some ways, this boils down to math, both economic and political. Yes, 9.2 percent of the American work force is unemployed — but 90.8 percent of it is working. To elected officials, the unemployed are a relatively small constituency. And with apologies to Karl Marx, the workers of the world, particularly the unemployed, are also no longer uniting.

Nor are they voting — or at least not as much as people with jobs. In 2010, some 46 percent of working Americans who were eligible to vote did so, compared with 35 percent of the unemployed, according to Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University. There was a similar turnout gap in the 2008 election.

No wonder policy makers don’t fear unemployed Americans. The jobless are, politically speaking, more or less invisible.

It wasn’t always so. During the Great Depression, riots erupted on the bread lines. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, angry workers descended on Washington by the busload.

“There used to be a sense that unemployment was rich soil for radicalization and revolt,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labor history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “That was a motif in American history for a long time, but we don’t seem to have that anymore.”

But why? It’s partly because of the greater dispersion of the unemployed, and partly because of the weakening of the institutions that previously mobilized them.

Unemployment doesn’t necessarily beget apathy, Mr. McDonald says. Rather, demographic groups that are more likely to be unemployed also happen to be the same groups that are less likely to vote to begin with, such as the poor and the low-skilled.

Even so, numerous studies have shown that unemployment leads to feelings of shame and a loss of self-worth. And that is not particularly conducive to political organizing. As Heather Boushey, an economist at the liberal Center for American Progress, puts it, rather bluntly: “Nobody wants to join the Lame Club.”

That’s not to say that disillusionment about the economy will just fade away. But unless something changes, the unemployed seem unlikely to gain real political potency soon.

“There’s an illusion that grass-roots activity just begins spontaneously, that people get mad and suddenly say, ‘I’m not going to take it anymore!’ ” says Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University. “But that’s not how it happens.”

Intellectuals used to play a big role in organizing labor. In the 1930s, Communists and socialists were a major force. Later, labor unions stepped in.

But today’s unions are not set up to serve the unemployed; they generally organize around workplaces, after all.

Just ask Rick McHugh, who worked in Michigan as an employment lawyer for the United Automobile Workers from the 1980s through the 1990s. He represented workers who were appealing denials of unemployment insurance benefits. The union footed the bill for people he represented who were not, and had never been, U.A.W. members.

Today, however, many unions are fighting for their own survival. They no longer provide such support for nonmembers. “They just don’t have the staff and the resources to support these programs and the recipients like they used to,” says Mr. McHugh, now a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.

Workers have also become suburbanized. Back in the 1960s or even the 1980s, the unemployed organized around welfare or unemployment offices. It was a fertile environment: people were anxious and tired and waiting for hours in line.

“We stood outside of these offices, with their huge lines, and passed out leaflets that said things like: ‘If you’re upset about what’s happening to you, come to this meeting at this church basement in two weeks. We’ll get together and do something about this,’ ” recalls Barney Oursler, a longtime community organizer and co-founder of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee in the early 1980s. “The response just made your heart get big. ‘Oh, my God,’ they’d say, ‘I thought I was alone.’ ”

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