Stiglitz on Klein

From Joseph Stiglitz’s NYT review of The Shock Doctrine:

Klein is not an academic and cannot be judged as one. There are many places in her book where she oversimplifies. But Friedman and the other shock therapists were also guilty of oversimplification, basing their belief in the perfection of market economies on models that assumed perfect information, perfect competition, perfect risk markets. Indeed, the case against these policies is even stronger than the one Klein makes. They were never based on solid empirical and theoretical foundations, and even as many of these policies were being pushed, academic economists were explaining the limitations of markets — for instance, whenever information is imperfect, which is to say always.

Klein isn’t an economist but a journalist, and she travels the world to find out firsthand what really happened on the ground during the privatization of Iraq, the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, the continuing Polish transition to capitalism and the years after the African National Congress took power in South Africa, when it failed to pursue the redistributionist policies enshrined in the Freedom Charter, its statement of core principles. These chapters are the least exciting parts of the book, but they are also the most convincing. In the case of South Africa, she interviews activists and others, only to find there is no one answer. Busy trying to stave off civil war in the early years after the end of apartheid, the A.N.C. didn’t fully understand how important economic policy was. Afraid of scaring off foreign investors, it took the advice of the I.M.F. and the World Bank and instituted a policy of privatization, spending cutbacks, labor flexibility and so on. This didn’t stop two of South Africa’s own major companies, South African Breweries and Anglo-American, from relocating their global headquarters to London. The average growth rate has been a disappointing 5 percent (much lower than in countries in East Asia, which followed a different route); unemployment for the black majority is 48 percent; and the number of people living on less than $1 a day has doubled to four million from two million since 1994, the year the A.N.C. took over.

Some readers may see Klein’s findings as evidence of a giant conspiracy, a conclusion she explicitly disavows. It’s not the conspiracies that wreck the world but the series of wrong turns, failed policies, and little and big unfairnesses that add up. Still, those decisions are guided by larger mind-sets. Market fundamentalists never really appreciated the institutions required to make an economy function well, let alone the broader social fabric that civilizations require to prosper and flourish. Klein ends on a hopeful note, describing nongovernmental organizations and activists around the world who are trying to make a difference. After 500 pages of “The Shock Doctrine,” it’s clear they have their work cut out for them.

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