President Richard Nixon's decision to end the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971 was a milestone in the erosion of the Western social contract. This decision ushered in a new international monetary system--one in which international payments in dollars would be made by private banks rather than exchanges of gold between the Federal Reserve and other central banks, and the value of the dollar would be determined by supply and demand.
This new dollar-centric international monetary system has been a powerful force in shaping the global economy and is, to a great extent, responsible for the current pattern of globalization. For the United States, it has meant that US policy-makers have had to hold real US interest rates higher than those of other strong currencies and have had to accept a higher value of the dollar relative to other major currencies. This has not only led to slower US economic growth but has made US goods less competitive vis-a-vis those of other economies. Thus the cost of American dollar hegemony has been the loss of export markets and, along with it, the loss of relatively good jobs in the tradable-goods sector of the economy.
For developing countries, the consequences have been no less serious. The post-Bretton Woods system has pushed more and more economies toward export-led growth, which tends to suppress domestic wages and regulatory standards. Countries that cannot pay for imports and attract foreign investment in their own currencies must "earn" these external currencies, mainly dollars, by exporting more than they import to one or a few countries that issue the global means of payment. To remain competitive with other nations and insure continued access to these markets, they have adopted policies that maintain downward pressure on wages and exchange rates and have shunned those that stimulate the demand necessary for sustained development.
This export-led growth paradigm created by the current international monetary system appears to have benefited the United States, the key currency country, especially in recent years, enabling us to consume more than we produce. A large share of the dollars that flow out of the United States to pay for imports flows back as investments in US financial assets. This foreign investment expands credit and allows Americans to spend more and save less. It also makes many Americans feel wealthier than they actually are by fueling inflated real estate and equity prices. But the cost of this pattern of growth has been the rapid buildup of both domestic and external debt.
This extraordinary growth in both US domestic and external debt now raises questions about the sustainability of this paradigm. Will highly indebted US households be forced to reduce their spending? If so, will a fall in imports reduce foreign financial investment, raise interest rates and induce or exacerbate a recession? And if the United States does, in fact, falter in its role as buyer of last resort in the global economy, what policies in which countries will insure continued growth?
To build a new global social contract, the underlying logic of the international financial system must be radically altered. What is needed is a new international monetary regime that can open access to international trade and investment for all nations on equal terms by allowing all currencies to be used in cross-border as well as domestic transactions. Keynes's international clearing agency could serve as a basic structure for such a system, reclaiming the public sector's role in global payments through a process of debiting and crediting cross-border payments against reserve accounts held with the clearing agency by member countries, with changes in reserves used to determine periodic adjustments in exchange rates.
An international monetary system based on the idea of an international clearing agency could also be designed to create a true lender of last resort, replacing the current ad hoc facilities, which depend on taxpayer donations. This would provide an effective channel for containing damaging financial crises and maintaining the financial stability needed for balanced growth in the global economy. It would also permit a resumption of the demand-led growth policies that are a necessary support for a new, global social contract.
Jane D'Arista is an author, lecturer and former Congressional staff economist who writes for the Financial Markets Center.