Cool Trilemmas

I’ll admit that my vocabulary did not contain the word “trilemma” until a few weeks ago. It’s a natural extension of the commonplace “dilemma” where we have three options. Then, in a span of no more than days, I was exposed to two interesting trilemmas.The first trilemma that I would like to introduce is the so-called “Impossible Trinity”. This hypothesis states that a national economy can only achieve two of the following three characteristics: a fixed exchange rate, free capital movement, independent monetary policy. A nation with a fixed exchange rate is able to maintain a stable currency as it relates to the rest of the global economy. China, for example, maintains a fixed exchange rate by pegging its currency to the U.S. Dollar. Nations with free capital movement allow goods and services to be (relatively) freely traded by private citizens across borders without significant taxes or other restrictions. This is a common feature of globalization. Finally, independent monetary policy implies that a nation’s banking system (usually via the central bank) can set interest rates and manage the supply of money without outside interference.This trilemma is an important one to understand (and I think it is generally accurate) in the context of global political economy. Using the China example again, it is clear that as they open up their economy to freer movement of capital, they have to cede monetary authority in order to maintain their fixed exchange rate. This is one major factor in the accumulation of U.S. debt by China. If they wanted to exert a more independent monetary policy, they would either have to be more restrictive in managing capital flows (i.e. less exports to the U.S.) or abandon their fixed peg to the Dollar.The second trilemma comes courtesy of Dani Rodrik, a Turkish economist at Harvard. Rodrik suggests that the world economy is subject to the following: we cannot simultaneously achieve a deeply integrated global economy, maintain national sovereignty, and operate democratic governments. We can only achieve two of the three at any time. This argument appears to hold true. If we want advanced globalization while maintaining the nation-state, governments would have to forgo much domestic policy – national policy would be focused on policies which enable global economic integration (this appears to be the general direction today, in my opinion, fueled by financial elite corporatism). The second choice would be to pursue globalization while protecting democratic principles. Such an option would require a global government which could act in the interest of the entire world under a democratic framework. Third, we could maintain democratic government and national sovereignty while settling for less global economic integration. Rodrik suggests that this is what the Bretton-Woods system sought to achieve.So, in summary, trilemmas provide cool thought experiments. These two are interesting and are good to keep in mind when attempting to understand the working of the global political and economic system.

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