In memory of John Williamson, 1937-2021

From a VoxEU post by Avinash Persaud:

John Williamson, one of the icons of international economics, passed away in April 2021. This column outlines some of his many and varied contributions to economic analysis and economic policymaking. In his work on exchange rates, the international monetary system and the challenges of economic crises, transition and development, he was the consummate problem-solver and understood any problem in the round of politics, economics and institutions. 

One of the icons of international economics, John Williamson, passed away in April of this year. I had the honour of being invited by the family to say a few words about John as a colleague at his Memorial on Sunday, 7 November 2021 at “Hemlock Grove”, Woodend, Audubon Naturalist Society, where John volunteered (he was a very keen birdwatcher). The following is what I said. 

In an age in which fundamentalism no longer slips between the shadows, but openly stalks the pastures of thought, and even the ramparts of Capitol Hill, John Williamson could be counted on to be the grown-up in the room.

He was seldom ‘black or white’ in his thinking. He revelled in the grey. In the nuance. He was neither ‘Dirigiste’ nor ‘Laissez-Faire’; neither fixed nor floating; neither full nor anti capital mobility. He made the case for the intermediate, to paraphrase one of his papers (Williamson 2007). His was a Golden Mean; between two vices or two corners if you may.1

He did not set out to arrive at balance, for the sake of balance. He was more considered than that. He got there in active pursuit of the right solution to the right problem given the time and place. He was the consummate problem-solver and understood the problem in the round of politics, economics, and institutions.2

Which is why he cared so much about refining an idea, always trying to make it better, more suited to time and place. And which is why too, his contributions seem so varied. They are spread across the critical problems of the day, which did not always arrive in logical order.

When in the 1970s, Bretton Woods collapsed into the ‘Non-System’, as he called it, he wrote about the reform of the international monetary system and later its failure (Williamson 1977). And played more than a bit part too in the development of ideas at the time.3 He was a lanyard-carrying member of the Second Row Club – that group of senior officials who sat behind their ministers trying their best to advise and nudge them to greater ambition during the day, and drowning disappointments with laughter and drink in the evenings.4

When the newly floating exchange rates were stretching their muscles and exploring their limits in the 1980s and 1990s, he wrote about and developed new exchange rate arrangements (Miller and Williamson 1987). For instance, he and Fred Bergsten played a significant role in the ‘reference rate’ design of the Louvre Accord of February 1987 that tried to stabilise the dollar – an effort thwarted by the October 1987 stock market crash. 

When Asia arrived, the Berlin Wall tumbled, and Latin America found its footing, he wrote about transition, development, and, of course, the Washington consensus around such matters (Williamson 1990). And when commercial debt to middle-income countries emerged as an intractable problem, he wrote in praise of new instruments that could better share the risks between borrower and creditors, like GDP-linked bonds (Williamson 2017, Benford et al. 2018).

So far, I may have given the impression that his work was largely responsive, but in truth it was just as anticipatory. My recent proposal here on Vox for the regular issuance of $500 billion of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) in order to support the huge investment required to halt climate change (Persaud 2021), in its design, owes a debt to John Williamson’s earlier Vox column on the desirability of regular issuance of SDRs (Williamson 2009).”

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Posted by at 7:54 AM

Labels: Profiles of Economists


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