Washington Consensus Controversy

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Washington Consensus Controversy

Washington Consensus Controversy


No statement about how to deal with the debt crisis in Latin America would be complete without a call for the debtors to fulfill their part of the proposed bargain by "setting their houses in order," "undertaking policy reforms," or "submitting to strong conditionality." The question posed in this paper is what such phrases mean, and especially what they are generally interpreted as meaning in Washington. Thus the paper aims to set out what would be regarded in Washington as constituting a desirable set of economic policy reforms. An important purpose in doing this is to establish a baseline against which to measure the extent to which various countries have implemented the reforms being urged on them.

The paper identifies and discusses 10 policy instruments about whose proper deployment Washington can muster a reasonable degree of consensus. In each case an attempt is made to suggest the breadth of the consensus, and in some cases I suggest ways in which I would wish to see the consensus view modified. The paper is intended to elicit comment on both the extent to which the views identified do indeed command a consensus and on whether they deserve to command it. It is hoped that the country studies to be guided by this background paper will comment on the extent to which the Washington consensus is shared in the country in question, as well as on the extent to which that consensus has been implemented and the results of its implementation (or nonimplementation).

The Washington of this paper is both the political Washington of Congress and senior members of the administration and the technocratic Washington of the international financial institutions, the economic agencies of the US government, the Federal Reserve Board, and the think tanks. The Institute for International Economics made a contribution to codifying and propagating several aspects of the Washington consensus in its publication Toward Renewed Economic Growth in Latin America (Balassa et al. 1986). Washington does not, of course, always practice what it preaches to foreigners.

Fiscal Deficits

Washington believes in fiscal discipline. Congress enacted Gramm-Rudman-Hollings with a view to restoring a balanced budget by 1993. Presidential candidates deplore budget deficits before and after being elected. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has long made the restoration of fiscal discipline a central element of the high-conditionality programs it negotiates with its members that wish to borrow. Among right-wing think tanks there may be a few believers in Ricardian equivalence—the notion that individuals adjust their saving behavior to anticipate future taxation, so that whether public expenditure is financed by taxation or bonds has no impact on aggregate demand—who are prepared to deny the danger of large fiscal deficits, but they clearly stand outside the Washington consensus. Left-wing believers in "Keynesian" stimulation via large budget deficits are almost an extinct species.

The budget deficit has traditionally been measured in nominal terms, as the excess of government expenditures over receipts. In 1982 Brazil argued with the IMF that this way of measuring the deficit ...
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