Originalist Economists: What should the recently-discovered transcripts of the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference mean?

October 26th, 2012

The 1944 Bretton Woods conference was the seminal meeting that laid the foundation for modern monetary policy. Recently, an enterprising-economist discovered three copies of transcripts of that conference–something no one though existed.

Historians had never known that a transcript existed for the event held in the heat of World War II, when delegates from 44 allied nations fighting Hitler gathered in the mountains of New Hampshire to create the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But there were three copies in archives and libraries around Washington that had never been made public, until now.

But what do these transcripts add? Monetary policy has advanced for over 7 decades without these transcripts.

Economic historians who have viewed the transcript say it adds color and detail to the historical record, an already thick one given the many contemporaneous and subsequent accounts of Bretton Woods. The transcript seems to contain no great surprises, but it sheds light on the intense debates as the war raged abroad. . . .

“Everyone thinks they know what happened at Bretton Woods, but what they know has been filtered by generations of historical accounts,” Barry Eichengreen, a professor or economics and political science at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement. “International monetary history will never be the same.”

Should economists develop a strand of originalism, whereby the original statements of the participants of this meeting should influence modern policy? Should economists be bound by the dead hand of Keynes (literally)?

It depicts John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, hurrying to marshal support for the broad agreements on international finance. It underscores the tremendous power then wielded by Britain and, especially, the United States. It also shows the seeds of contemporary disputes being sown. . . .

The transcript provides “insight in how it was that they were able to maintain a pace of work which allowed them to reach two really big agreements, on the I.M.F. and the World Bank, within a space of three weeks,” Mr. Schuler said. “Keynes was something of a task master,” he added.

Or is it only a matter of history.

Interestingly, one historian compared it to discovering Madison’s notes:

“It’s as if someone handed us Madison’s notes on the debate over the Constitution,” said Eric Rauchway, a historian the University of California, Davis.

I hope Rauchway knows that these notes do exist, and they have been in circulation for over two centuries. Though, the question of what relevance and salience Madison’s notes have remains till today.

One other law-related footnote. Fred Vinson, who at the time was the Director of the Office of Economic Stabilization, and future Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Justice,participated with this floury prose:

“We fight together on sodden battlefields. We sail together on the majestic blue. We fly together in the ethereal sky,” said Fred M. Vinson, who later became chief justice of the United States. “The test of this conference is whether we can walk together, solve our economic problems, down the road to peace as we today march to victory.”