From Bretton Woods To Financial Crisis: The Rise and Fall of Global Economic Governance

29 May 2019

From Bretton Woods To Financial Crisis:
The Rise and Fall of Global Economic Governance

Professor Trevor Burnard (University of Melbourne) is interested in histories of early British America and the Atlantic world, focussing on slavery, social history and demography, imperialism, economic and business history, and gender. Professor Burnard reflects here on a recent event he organised as part of the University of Melbourne’s revival of economic history teaching and research.

Writing this at a time when what would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago – a trade war between China and the United States and the imposition of a new tariff regime reminiscent of the bad old days of the interwar period in western Europe and the United States – the theme of a conference held at the University of Melbourne on 2-3 May 2019 could not have been more prescient. The conference examined the Bretton Woods System and other forms of global economic governance and asked what went wrong in the last decade, that a system that worked relatively well for nearly seventy years was weakened, if not abandoned. One aim, aside from assessing the Bretton Woods system, was to look at financialization and hyper globalisation in an age of increased populism and discontent with some aspects of globalisation. A further aim was to advance the subject of economic history at the University of Melbourne and show its utility as a means of understanding both the past and the present.

The two keynote talks were by Martin Daunton of Cambridge (who foreshadowed his forthcoming book from Penguin on The Economic Governance of the World), and Jim Tomlinson of Glasgow (who gave a wide-ranging and provocative lecture on `National Economic Management in a world of globalisation’). Several speakers focused on the Asia-Pacific region, with Aditya Balasubraminian of ANU presenting a paper on India’s 1981 IMF Loan and David Merrett, Simon Ville and Claire Wright delivering a joint paper on foreign investment and Australia’s gradual engagement with the global economy in the second half of the twentieth century. Frank Bongiorno of ANU focused in on one of the major events that led to increased Australian involvement of the global economy – the floating of the dollar in 1981. David Vines of Oxford and Sean Turnell of Macquarie each gave papers on aspects of Australia’s involvement in the Bretton Woods system and the role of economists from Australia in shaping the Keynesian policy in government financial policy during the 1950s.

Being economic historians rather than astrologers, participants resisted calls to try and predict what is going to happen in what seems to be an uncertain picture. But they did provide a compelling picture of a vital time in the economic history of the world, of Australia, and of the Asia-Pacific region. It is hoped that these discussions will lead to further elaborations on a theme as the discipline of economic history becomes further entrenched in Melbourne, especially in the department of Economics where John Tang, a participant at the workshop, will join Jeff Borland and Laura Panza in July to create an impressive team in economic history at the University of Melbourne.

Trevor Burnard


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