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The Political Economy of Argentina in the Twentieth Century

Author(s):Conde, Roberto Cortés C
Reviewer(s):Fritscher, André Martínez Fr

Published by EH.NET (July 2009)

Roberto Cort?s Conde, The Political Economy of Argentina in the Twentieth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xi + 388 pp. $85 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-88232-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Andr? Mart?nez Fritscher, Department of Economics, Boston University.

Most of the world’s wealthy nations have been so since the nineteenth century. However, while Argentina enjoyed standards of living similar to the most developed countries during the second half of the nineteenth century, this South American country has reversed its fortune and fallen behind over the course of the twentieth century. Currently Argentina has a GDP per capita closer to other Latin American countries than the group of the developed countries to which it belonged a century ago. In his new book Roberto Cort?s Conde, a professor of Economics at the University of San Andr?s, describes in detail the evolution of Argentina’s economy in the twentieth century. The exceptionality of the Argentinean experience has been a fertile ground on which to explore relevant questions within the literature of economic growth. Why was Argentina unable to grow in the twentieth century at the same pace as countries with similar economic characteristics and endowments, such as Australia and Canada? Is the very poor Argentinean economic performance explained by exogenous shocks or domestic policies? What was the institutional framework in which the economic policies were instituted? Cort?s Conde?s narrative addresses the last two questions in particular, arguing that domestic choices and a weak government explain Argentina’s economic fall.

The book is organized chronologically in six chapters; each covering a different phase of the Argentinean economy from 1880 to 1989. Chapter 1 addresses the period during which Argentina experienced the fastest growth rates around the world in the pre-World War I era (the GDP per capita growth rate was 6.6%, twice as high as the rates of many developed countries). The export of agricultural goods drove this impressive and sustained economic performance, as Argentina is endowed with extensive and very productive portions of land. The profitability of this sector attracted foreign capital for railroads and industries. Moreover, Argentina was host to millions of European immigrants, who were tempted by the high wages. Chapter 2 discusses the economic transformation that Argentina underwent from World War I to the Great Depression. Like many other countries, Argentina entered into a recession following the commencement of hostilities as international flows of goods, capital and labor declined. Additionally, the introduction of universal male suffrage in 1912 changed the balance of power in Argentina. Cort?s Conde argues that higher democratization increased the role of the government in the economy as it intervened more actively in the determination of prices and wages. Now economic policy was put under pressure from different interest groups. Chapter 3 is a detailed description of the exchange and monetary policies in the 1930s. After abandoning the gold standard, the devaluation of the peso increased the competitiveness of Argentinean exports and protected domestic production. The strategy of growth was based on import substitution in which tariffs and quotas for final goods were raised. This period was also marked by the use of exchange margins to finance government activities and the foundation of the Central Bank.

Chapter 4 describes the main economic policies and events during Juan Per?n?s government. Argentina’s inward growth strategy not only remained during Peronism but the period was also characterized by direct public intervention through subsidies and state ownership of certain key industries. In addition, Per?n used subsidies, price controls, and monetary, exchange and trade policies to increase capital formation and real wages and to ensure full employment. The economic policy thus set up a complex and persistent network of interests, manipulated the incentives of the agents and furthermore, inefficiently allocated the factors, hindering long term growth. Chapter 5 provides a description of the period between Peron’s two terms as President (1955-1973), during which political and social instability affected economic performance. This period was characterized by innumerable military coups, reflecting the Army?s fear of Per?n?s return and communism. Any attempt to change the economic model was blocked by interest groups (e.g. land owners, entrepreneurs, unions). As a consequence Argentina underwent a process of decapitalization, macroeconomic instability and limited productivity gains. The sixth chapter analyzes the economic and political conditions that led Argentina to experience negative growth in the period from 1974 to 1989. Despite several orthodox and non-orthodox attempts, civil and military governments failed to put the economy on track. In sum, the seventies and eighties were a continuation of the institutional, political and economic problems inherited from previous periods.

The book is an excellent resource for those who wish to learn about the Argentinean economy and its main limitations during the twentieth century and it is highly recommended for any course on the economic history of Latin America. One of Cort?s Conde?s principal contributions is his fabulous effort to compile historical data and create a narrative of the evolution of the main variables. Do not expect, however, any empirical analysis that would corroborate his main points, although the data he gathers may be an important source for future empirical work. Cort?s Conde proposes that the economic failure of the Argentinean economy is due to a variety of factors and choices accumulated across time. But the initial institutional framework in which the decision making process occurred remains unclear. For instance, the reader may wish to see a discussion of whether the quality of institutions by the end of the nineteenth century was better than the quality of institutions in the next century. Moreover, it would have been enlightening to contrast the Australian and Canadian experiences with that of Argentina. What did they do right compared to Argentina? How were the interest groups held in check during the twentieth century? Would it not be the case that, since the nineteenth century, both countries had better institutions than Argentina, which would have allowed them to overcome the international shocks of the first half of the twentieth century? Furthermore, a brief discussion of why Latin American countries with similar institutions and development strategies could grow faster would help clarify Argentina’s particular situation. Finally, the potential reader would like to know a little bit more about hypotheses, proposed by other authors, concerning Argentina’s economic failure, and how they differ from the one proposed by Cort?s Conde. Although the book aptly describes the changes in economic policies and their consequences, an analytical framework explaining the winners, the losers, and the players’ sources of bargaining power would have been very useful.

Andr? Mart?nez Fritscher recently completed his Ph.D. at Boston University and will be joining Banco de M?xico as a research economist in the fall. His work focuses on the public finances and regional development in Latin American at the turn of the twentieth century.

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Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII