The Life and Times of Raul Prebisch, 1901-1986

Topic: 
History and Economics
Politics and Economy
Theory
Year: 
2008
Review by: 
Ugo Panizza
Author(s): 
Edgar J. Dosman
Publisher: 
McGill-Queen's Press
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Raul Prebisch is often identified with the inward-looking import-substitution industrialization policies adopted by many Latin American countries over the 1950-1980 period. He is also sometimes associated with the lax macroeconomic policies that accompanied import substitution and ultimately led to hyperinflation and excessive debt accumulation.

Edgar Dosman's fascinating biography suggests that Prebisch's views were much more nuanced than what is commonly thought. Dosman describes Prebisch as a centrist policymaker who favored sound money and was against excessive state intervention and protectionism.

The book is interesting on many levels. It provides a brief and well-written economic history of Argentina which culminates with Prebisch's attempt of creating an independent central bank. Dosman shows that the Central Bank was not so independent after all by describing how, on the morning 19 October 1943, Prebisch learnt that he had "resigned" from the Bank after his wife Adelita read the news in la Nacion and told him over breakfast: “You didn’t tell me that you had resigned.”

Readers interested in understanding the tensions which are still at work within the economic departments of the United Nations will learn a lot from the second part of the book. Here Dosman describes how, after being ousted from Argentina by Peron, Don Raul became a builder of international institutions. He was the driving force behind the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA, now ECLAC or CEPAL) and the creator and first Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Finally, Dosman does not shy away from discussing the contradictions between Prebisch's views and his lifestyle and in providing a detailed description of the radical changes in his personal life which followed his triumphal presentation at the 1949 ECLA conference in Havana.

The book has a main villain: Domingo Peron. Ironically, by pushing Prebisch out of Argentina, Peron is likely to have increased Don Raul's international visibility. Dosman also recounts that Prebisch was more interested in the IMF than in a job at the United Nations. Again, his aspirations were frustrated by Peron who, in his negotiations of Argentina's IMF membership, de facto vetoed Prebisch's appointment. Would Prebisch have been as influential at the Fund as in the United Nations? Would have the Fund become a different institution with Prebisch in a senior position?

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