Independent Media Centre Ireland

Joe Stiglitz: Economics Rock Star hits the Burlo

category dublin | summit mobilisations | news report author Thursday August 31, 2006 00:32author by seedot

Attempting to make globalisation work.

A report on the Geary Lecture 2006, organised by the ESRI, presented by Professor Joseph Stiglitz in the Burlington hotel on the afternoon of 30th August

The Geary lecture is one of the heavywight gigs on the Irish economics circuit and this year they scored a bit of a coup by getting Joe Stiglitz to stop off on his tour to promote his new book - Making Globalisation Work. Entering the room early the sound system had good warm up music and the 750 seats filled fairly quickly with the economics groupies. At this point let me say I had considered myself a real fan - I even caught Professor Stiglitz when he was still doing lecture theatres and selling a paper instead of a book - back before he was v. famous. He told jokes that I laughed at then and probably wouldn't remember or understand why exactly they were funny now. This time around the jokes were more accessible, he was just as willing to tilt at some windmills and attack some icons but overall this wasn't a great show.

As he spoke, Professor Stiglitz told anecdotes from his illustrious career as adviser to presidents and participant in the economic and trade policy setting that passes for world governance these days. He was introduced by the chair who made mention of his nobel prize and work on assymetric information in markets and his bestselling books that have challenged the ideology of globalisation as implemented by the IMF and the World Bank where he was once famously chief economist. He seemed a nice enough guy and held back from too much name dropping of the other economics and political celebrities that he hangs out with - Professor Stiglitz is a fairly engaging speaker although his pauses at times could be a bit ponderous.

He started by telling us that he was going to give a synopsis of his new book (on sale in the lobby in both hardback and paperback at a special price - I looked for a T-Shirt but couldn't find any) and a quick story about why he wrote it. He identifies three problems with globalisation as it is currently implemented:
1. economic globalisation is greater than political globalisation
2. the lack of ideological competition for the US which previously tempered its relations with other countries
3. the blind belief in the benefits of globalisation and the Washington consensus about economic policies within any country

While the book supposedly presents solutions for the problems that Stiglitz famously articulated in his previous hits, the lecture was a bit of a rehash of the criticisms of the institutions of globalisation, in particular the IMF, that created a true crossover star. He talked about the G1 and the veto that the US treasury imposes on the IMF. He proposed trade sanctions against the US for its refusal to ratify the Kyoto treaty on global warming and talked about real wage decline and growing inequality as systemic problems with globalisation. Of the three specific topics from his book that he dealt with, it was Intellectual Property that he was most radical on. Constantly referring to the Microsoft monopoly, he claimed to have been willing to write a foreword to a pirate edition of one of his text books in China. He gave a good version of the arguments against TRIPS, with a lot of focus on the issue of AIDS treatments and identified the necessity to seperate the entertainment companies from the drug companies in an overhaul of patent and copyright law. But it was here that it became hard to ignore the real flaw in Professor Stiglitz plans.

He proposed that patents should be replaced with prizes - that reseach which resulted in a cure for malaria or an AIDS vaccine should be awarded a prize based on their social worth and then licensed openly so that the drug could be produced at the sacredly optimal (for all his attacks on the axioms Professor Stiglitz is at his heart a neoclassist) marginal cost without any patent payments. Its not suprising that someone who has spent so much of his professional career studying the impact of information on markets should have a truly radical view of the ownership and control of information. What is surprising is that somebody who has spent so much time in the corridors of power should refuse to acknowledge the core problem with so many of his solutions - in the example above, who gets to pick the prize and decide whats socially good?

This was articulated most clearly by a question from the floor when Peadar Kirby from DCU pointed out that Professor Stiglitz had not dealt anywhere with the issue of power. He had accepted the gains by an elite but had not discussed that this elite would in any way resist change, that they may have the power to do this and that this will need to be challenged. His agenda, apart from on IP, was purely reformist despite his proclamations that the problems were systemic and critical. He proposed voting changes and alterations in the way the Bretton Woods institutions (world bank, IMF) would function, prehaps with a role for the UN. Dr. Kirby (prof, doc - it was that type of crowd) got a round of applause for his question and the rest of the contributions from the floor were suprisingly hostile.

Two things struck me duing the speech. Firstly, while Professor Stiglitz didn't drop peoples names, he would constantly refer to locations - meaning specific conferences or negotiations. Seattle, Cancun, Davros, Doha, Gleneagles. The thing that struck me was how his experience of these names was the experience that so many people have started to challenge as they turned conferences into convergences and negotiations into mobilisations. The other was his use of the plural pronoun was often confusing. When he talked about the ozone layer he spoke of how 'THEY' made a convention, 'THEY' imposed sanctions, all in a very positive light. He spoke of how 'We' don't have perfect transparency within the WTO mechanism yet and left me confused who 'WE' or 'THEY' were.

I thought of something I had read once, that it's not the maths that a horse does thats impressive but the fact that it does maths at all. With Professor Stiglitz his proposals are not that convincing and his criticisms are neither novel nor especially well presented. Given his background and identification, its just impressive that one of THEM does it at all. I would suggest that anybody interested in his work would be better starting with his Nobel speech and read his economics, or even his insider accounts of te World Bank but leave alter globalisation to others. Sometimes things just won't work, and you have to start again: the IMF / World Bank / WTO seem well beyond reform to me.

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