Highly worthwhile piece in weekend FT on path dependency in economic development, using the U.S.’s 20th century rise and Argentina’s decline as examples:
Everyone remembers the world-changing events of the morning of September 11, 2001. Everyone remembers the planes commandeered by terrorists slamming into the twin towers of the Centro Mundial de Comercio in Buenos Aires. As the richest country on earth and the modern world’s first global hyperpower, Argentina was a prime target for malcontents revolting against the might of the western capitalist order.
Fewer recall the disaster that befell the United States of America three months later. Fewer recall the wrenching moment when the US federal government, crushed by the huge debts it had run up borrowing abroad in pesos, announced it was bankrupt. The economic implosion that followed, in which thousands of jobless, homeless Americans slept rough and picked through trash tips at night in Central Park, shocked only those still used to thinking of the US as a first-world country.
Well, no. It happened the other way round. But that was not inevitable. And the crisis that has hit the US – and then the entire global financial system, threatening to plunge the world into another Great Depression – should be a warning. The US could have gone the way of Argentina. It could still go that way, if the painfully learnt lessons of the past are forgotten.
A short century ago the US and Argentina were rivals. Both were riding the first wave of globalisation at the turn of the 20th century. Both were young, dynamic nations with fertile farmlands and confident exporters. Both brought the beef of the New World to the tables of their European colonial forebears. Before the Great Depression of the 1930s, Argentina was among the 10 richest economies in the world. The millions of emigrant Italians and Irish fleeing poverty at the end of the 19th century were torn between the two: Buenos Aires or New York? The pampas or the prairie?
A hundred years later there was no choice at all. One had gone on to be among the most successful economies ever. The other was a broken husk.