History in the making: 'Policy relevance' and long perspective, with the Spring Meetings starting a series of summits

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History “is a critical science for questioning short-term views, complicating simple stories about causes and consequences, and discovering roads not taken. Historical thinking – and not just by those who call themselves historians – can and should inform practice and policy today. . . . History can upset the established consensus, expand narrow horizons, and ‘keep the powerful awake at night.’ In that mission lies the public future of the past.” -- "The History Manifesto"
 
Lace up your running shoes and summon your stamina: At the starting line of the Spring Meetings sprint, policymakers and economy-watchers are now poised for an adrenaline-fueled week of debates on diplomacy and development at the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund.
 
History hangs heavily over the Bank and Fund this week, amid an animating awareness that “2015 is the most important year for global development in recent memory,” as World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim declared in a speech last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In an environment that has provoked dire warnings by the IMF’s Christine Lagarde about the danger of prolonged low-growth, high-unemployment “secular stagnation” – with “the new mediocre” threatening to become “the new normal” – this week’s meetings will be just the starting-point in a series of events in 2015 that could define the development agenda for decades.

A July conference in Addis Ababa will determine the financing mechanisms for future development initiatives. A September summit at the United Nations in New York will adopt a detailed set of Sustainable Development Goals. A December forum in Paris will adopt – or reject – a worldwide treaty to restrain climate change. Along the way, the Bank and Fund will convene policymakers – in Lima rather than Washington – for the Annual Meetings in October.

Pulling off a success at any one such summit would be a dramatic achievement. Delivering triumphs at all three summits might require masterstrokes of diplomacy.

“When we look at the longer-term picture,” said Kim in his CSIS speech, “we see that the decisions made this year will have an enormous impact on the lives of billions of people across the world for generations to come." The challenges that Kim and Lagarde analyzed in their pre-Spring Meetings speeches require “governments [to] seize the moment” – starting this week – if they hope for success in the Addis-UN-Paris trifecta.
 

A decades-long or even centuries-long vision is critical to development progress, and what Kim called the “longer-term picture” brings to mind the sweeping perspective that historian Fernand Braudel envisioned as “the longue durée.” The longue durée view has been palpable lately around both Bretton Woods institutions, amid a quickening pace of seminars, symposia, brownbag breakfasts and lunchtime lectures.

Some of this season's most vivid insights were delivered recently, not by economists, but by historians. Barry Eichengreen of the University of California (the author of "Hall Of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses and Misues of History") spoke at the Bank's InfoShop; Craig Calhoun of the London School of Economics spoke at the Fund's Low-Income Countries forum. Both reflected on the lessons learned, so far, from the global financial crisis and crash of 2008.
 

Great Depression and Great Recession: The Uses of History

 
Eichengreen and Calhoun offered sobering analyses of what Eichengreen termed the “disastrous and entirely avoidable policy errors” that led to both the Great Depression and the Great Recession. “The ‘lessons’ of the Great Depression as distilled by scholars” – notably, onetime Princeton professor Ben Bernanke, who applied those lessons when he served as Federal Reserve chairman – “powerfully shaped the response by policymakers” after 2008: especially the avoidance of protectionism, the availability of ample liquidity (and lately a virtually unlimited money supply), and a momentary if alas all-too-brief fiscal stimulus via substantial budget deficits. Yet, for both Eichengreen and Calhoun, the puzzle remains why “even specialists in financial crises didn’t sound a warning” when disaster was approaching. Calhoun judged that “there is no going back to ‘the way things were before’ ” – a deceptively calm spell, after all, when undetected imbalances were intensifying dangerously. Calhoun suggested that the future portends a prolonged period of resurgent nationalism, regionalization that sees East Asia integrate while much of Europe stagnates, and a “return of geopolitics” retracing “the footprints of empire”  
 
The history-minded Eichengreen and Calhoun analyses offered a reminder that the perspectives of all the social sciences can inspire a broader understanding of the development trajectory than can economics alone. The value of economic insights can be enriched by the various analytical methods of such fields as political science, sociology and – crucially – history.
 
Taken together, the Eichengreen and Calhoun seminars reinforced the message of a remarkable recent work: “The History Manifesto” by Harvard professor David Armitage and Brown professor Jo Guldi. Issued just in time for October 2014’s Bank and Fund meetings, “The History Manifesto” has helped solidify an ever-stronger consensus: Interdisciplinary efforts – drawing on all the social sciences – recognize the vital contribution that history-informed thinking can make to policymaking.

“A spectre is haunting our time: the spectre of the short term,” write Armitage and Guldi. (Hmm: It seems to me that we’ve heard that “spectre” metaphor before. What was that guy’s name, again?) “We live in a moment of accelerating crisis characterized by the shortage of long-term thinking. . . . Almost every aspect of human life is plotted and judged, packaged and paid for, on time-scales of a few months or years. There are few opportunities to shake those projects loose from their short-term moorings.”
 
“Short-term-ism” is an inevitable factor in governing – “to be ‘policy-relevant’ is almost by definition to focus on the short term” – but lawmakers should seek solutions that will endure far beyond the next Election Day. Obsessed with tactical minutiae, “short-term-ism is an increasingly inadequate way to face up to contemporary challenges.” Robust analytical thinking, deeply informed by all the social sciences sans frontières, must “return to the longue durée” and “renew the connection between past and future, using the past to think critically about what is to come.”
 
In an era of gnawing popular discontent, frustrated voters – in both developed and developing countries – can take heart from Armitage’s and Guldi’s determined declaration: “The future need not run in the ruts of the past. It is possible to jump the tracks and take a new direction.” Beyond academe, many advocates of deeply informed decision-making – including private-sector leaders who urge businesses to look beyond the next quarterly profit-and-loss statement – are gaining a new appreciation for longue durée perspective: “Only by delving deep into the past can we hope to project ourselves imaginatively [for] any meaningful distance into the future.”

The multidisciplinary thinking of “The History Manifesto” parallels the multilateral approach that drives the daily dollars-and-cents work of the Bank and Fund. With history in the making, Spring Meetings attendees would be wise to heed the longue durée imperative – knowing that the road to Paris in December must lead through Addis in July, the United Nations in September and Lima in October. In this fateful year for development, the fulfillment of the World Bank Group's twin goals – eliminating extreme poverty and building shared prosperity – depends on making strong progress this week in Washington.
 

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