Can We Blame Larry Summers for the Collapse of Russia?

August 03, 2013

Between 1990 and 1998, Russia’s economy suffered perhaps the worst downturn of any major country that was not the victim of either war or natural disaster. The proximate cause of course was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the replacement of its system of central planning with a market economy. Larry Summers played a large role in shaping this transition, first as chief economist for the World Bank, then as the undersecretary for international affairs at the Treasury Department and later as the Deputy Treasury Secretary.  

Since Russia’s economy had been guided largely by central planning for close to 70 years, this transition would have been difficult even under the best of circumstances. However the actual transition was hardly the best of circumstances. Corruption infested every aspect of the privatization. Those with connections in the government were able to become billionaires almost overnight, as they were allowed to buy Russia’s businesses and resources at a small fraction of their market value.

According to the World Bank, Russia’s government was paid just $8.3 billion from privatizing assets over the years 1990-1998, a period when most of its economy was turned over to private control. By comparison, Lukoil, Russia’s largest private oil company, had a market value of $268.8 billion on August 2, more than 30 times as much as the payments that Russia’s government received for all the assets it sold over this 8-year period. 

The data clearly show the devastation that this failed transition imposed on the Russian people. According to the United Nation’s Human Development Report, Russia’s per capita income fell by one-third between 1990 and 2000, a decline that dwarfs the falloff in the Great Depression in the United States. This had enormous consequences in the daily lives of the Russian people as the system of social supports that provided basic services collapsed with nothing to replace it. The Development Report shows a drop in life expectancy fell from 68 in 1990 to 65 in 2000, a drop implying that millions of people would be dying at a younger age than would have been the case a decade earlier.

The Development Report has no shortage of grim statistics about the plight of the Russian people in the 1990s. (Those getting depressed by this story should know that Russia made rapid progress in most measures of economic and social well-being after breaking with the Summers agenda in 1998. By 2012, the losses of the 1990s had been more than completely reversed.) However, the question remains whether we can blame Larry Summers for this disaster?

At the American Economic Association convention in January of 1994, Larry Summers gave a talk about the successes of the first year of the Clinton administration. He boasted how “this administration” (a phrase repeated many times) had created more than 1.8 million jobs. He also boasted about the 2.0 percent growth the economy had seen to date. [Note: These were weak numbers. The economy was coming out of the 1990-1991 recession. We might have reasonably expected 3-4 percent growth and 3 million jobs.]

This was peculiar for two reasons. First, the economy almost always creates jobs and grows; the relevant question is the rate of job creation and the pace of economic growth. Boasting that jobs are being created and the economy is growing is a bit like taking credit for the sun rising. The other reason that Summers’ talk was peculiar was that he was making these boasts to economists, all of whom know that the economy typically creates jobs and grows.

Alan Blinder, who was also on the panel and one of Summers’ colleagues in the administration as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, provided an interesting contrast in his own presentation. Blinder managed to talk forthrightly about the fact that the economy was not growing as fast as the administration wanted, nor was it creating as many jobs as was hoped. He did this in a way that provided useful insights to the audience while not providing any of the reporters in the room with fodder for embarrassing headlines in the next day’s paper.

But the point of this digression is Summers, not Blinder. Summers apparently felt that the Clinton administration deserved credit for the meager number of jobs and slow growth that the economy had generated up to that point. If that’s the case, then by the Summers standard, surely we can hold Mr. Summers accountable for the devastation that Russia’s transition inflicted on its people in the 1990s.

Call it item # 412 in the case for Larry Summers for Federal Reserve Board chair.      


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