Neil Smelser: “Economic sociology, intellectually, is one of the strongest fields in sociology”

economic sociology smelserA brilliant and influential sociologist Neil Smelser passed away on Monday at the age of 87, leaving behind an extraordinary intellectual legacy. Among many contributions during his prolific academic career, unparalleled in its diversity and breadth (in social change, social movements, sociology of education, comparative  history,  sociological theory, etc) — UC Berkeley Professor Smelser has laid the foundations for the rebirth of Economic Sociology and steadily promoted it on the scholarly as well as organizational levels.
In 1956, during his first year at Harvard graduate school, Smelser coauthored with the renowned Talcott Parsons Economy and Society, a 300-page book of mostly theoretical deliberations and insights, which starts with the following sharp and programmatic statement:

This volume is designed as a contribution to the synthesis of theory in economics and sociology. We believe that the degree of separation between these two disciplines — separation emphasized by intellectual traditions and present institutional arrangements — arbitrarily conceals a degree of intrinsic intimacy between them which must be brought to the attention of the respective professional groups.” (p. xvii)

But the book, that elaborated on the role of institutions in the economy, got a negative reception by economists and failed to ignite an interest among sociologists, mainly because of insufficient empirical data and the ascendancy of static Parsonian categories.
In 1963 Smelser published a modest in its size but thought-provoking and thorough The Sociology of Economic Life (open access).
 This book was a precocious work that did not immediately advance distinct new lines of research (although the publisher initiated its second edition in 1976); but in retrospect, one can say that it was a pioneering work that adumbrated the directions of renascent economic sociology. On the page 32, Smelser articulated the analytical focus of economic sociology, which since then has become the point of departure for various definitions of the nowadays vibrant field of study:   

Economic sociology is the application of the general frame of reference, variables, and explanatory models of sociology to that complex of activities concerned with the production, distribution, exchange, and consumption of scarce goods and services.”

The Handbook of Economic Sociology, edited by Smelser and Richard Swedberg and published in 1994, already marked the intermediate pick of the discipline, following the 10-15 fruitful years in which ‘new’ economic sociology had enjoyed remarkable developments propelled by the researches of Mark Granovetter and others in the US and Europe. The second edition of The Handbook (2005; open access) undoubtedly signified the scientific culmination of this evolutionary process of creation and dissemination of knowledge on the ontological embeddedness of state-economy-society; the fountain of knowledge  which vigorously continues to well and gush.
In 2013, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library released a massive volume consisting of dozens of interviews with Neil Smelser, in which he told about his professional lifelong path and the institutional history of US social science. Amidst hundreds of pages of intriguing stories and thoughts, Smelser revealed that as a consultant to the Economic Sciences Nobel Prize committee he recommended against awarding Chicago School economist Gary Becker:

“[His nomination was for] the extension of rational choice to the analysis of racial discrimination. He became involved in the analysis of family… and marriage rates and marriage bargains and so on. He did it in strictly economic terms. And he and his colleagues developed a rational choice theory of drug use… All within a very orthodox economic framework…. I played exactly the devil’s advocate for the value of these extensions of economic reasoning into areas which did not lend themselves to it. In other words, I thought it was an intellectually erroneous adventure on his part and bold, to be sure, and consistent and persuasive, as Becker always is. But nonetheless, I thought it was not intellectually worth what was claimed for it and the results that were argued for. I simply had a judgment that this was not the right way, right intellectual way to approach institutions which were fundamentally not economic in character. That’s my take on what is called economic imperialism.” (p. 542)

I would like to conclude this unforgivably brief depiction of the small portion of Neil Smelser’s academic journey by rereading his words (p. 412-3) which I found not just descriptive in regard to past economic sociology, but also prescriptive to future economic sociologists. 

The impulse of economic sociology has been critical of orthodox economics, not Marxist economics, largely for its artificiality and assumptions about rationality and assumptions about atomism of the individual actor and that social institutions play a role in dictating taste, behavior, conflict, market processes. It’s more of a polemic, in a negative sense, on the world view of economists, and an attempt to substitute a world view that personal interaction, social institutions, cultural understandings play a role in dominating economically relevant action… Economic sociology became primarily analytic and did not have a single ideological thrust to it. It’s diverse and eclectic from the standpoint of perspectives… Economic sociology, intellectually, is one of the strongest fields in sociology.” 

economic sociology

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The Art of Central Banking (3) — No working theory of inflation and economists’ instinctual attachment to concepts

Daniel K. Tarullo, a former member of the Board of Governors of the United States Federal Reserve, draws two sharp and sound, yet unsurprising, conclusions from his eight-year (2009-2017) service: 

The substantive point is that we do not, at present, have a theory of inflation dynamics that works sufficiently well to be of use for the business of real-time monetary policy-making. The sociological point is that many (though certainly not all) good monetary policymakers who were formally trained as such have an almost instinctual attachment to some of those problematic concepts and hard-to-estimate variables… The macroeconomists [on the FOMC] seemed to display an almost paradoxical coincidence of intellectual doubt and continued affirmation of the utility of some unobservables.”

An open-access source: Tarullo, Daniel K. 2017. “Monetary policy without a working theory of inflation.”

> See the previous peculiar pieces of Art of Central Banking: here and here

Daniel Tarullo Fed

Daniel K. Tarullo

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The economy derives its meaning only from its uneconomic purpose

A German-Swiss philosopher Karl Jaspers:

“We must realize that neither the economy nor any of its forms are absolutes. The economy is not the standard for all that we are and can be. It is indispensable – as water is to life, which instantly ends without water; but it is not life any more than water is. The economy derives its meaning only from its uneconomic purpose. It is pervaded by the motives it serves.” 

Jaspers, Karl. 1961. The Future of Mankind. University of Chicago Press. P. 176.


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Zygmunt Bauman on Uncertainty

I can’t think of any period in human history when people were really certain what to do, had no surprises and no unexpected developments. What is novel is not uncertainty; what is novel is a realization that uncertainty is here to stay [Therefore], we are challenged with a task, which I think is unprecedented — and the task is to develop an art, to develop an art of living permanently with uncertainty.” 

— Zygmunt Bauman, The Trouble with Being Human These Days, 2013

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BITS & BRIEFS: The Pro-market // From healthcare to a profit gear // Financialization against the Climate // History of constructing equality // Gentrification and neoliberalism

> How The Economist thinks: The journal always strives not to risk conclusions that may hurt the case for unregulated markets — by Nathan J. Robins

How during the 20th century health insurance initiatives shifted from protecting patients to an industry seeking profit — by Elisabeth Rosenthal

Financialization of the economy obstructed Climate Change mitigation: Evidence from the 1980s US solar industry — by Max Jerneck

Constructing Equality: Women’s wages, physical labor, and demand factors in Sweden, 1550-1759 — by Kathryn E. Gary

> Gentrification as a geography of inequality and a planned neoliberal policy: it wouldn’t happen unless it was profitable for the wealthy — an talk with Peter Moskowitz, author of How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood

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Great academic opportunities: 12 calls for papers, 11 jobs, 2 workshops, 2 prizes, a research grant

Dear ES/PE community member, see below an abundant list of great and interesting academic opportunities: call for papers12 calls for papers for conferences and workshops (partially funded), 11 job openings, 2 training workshops, 2 prizes, and a research grant — in various areas of economic sociology and political economy, with September 30 – October 25 deadlines. Share this post with your colleagues and students. Good luck!

Calls for papers:

> CfP: “Power, Violence and Justice: Reflections, Responses and Responsibilities“, The XIX International Sociological Association Congress of Sociology, Toronto (Canada), July 15-21, 2018. RC02 on Economy and Society runs various sessions in economic sociology and political economy such as “Interpreting and questioning finance as social relationships”, “Price, Value & Worth”, and many more; RC16 Sociological Theory runs, among others, a session on “Theorizing and Historicizng Economic Culture; RC48 Social Movements runs, among others, a session “Can Anti-Globalization, “New” and “Old” Social Movements Work Together?RC09 Social Transformations and Sociology of Development and RC30 Sociology of Work also organize relevant sessions. Travel grants available. DL: September 30

> CfP: “Organizing for Resilience: Scholarship in Unsettled Times“, The Latin American and European Organization Studies conference, IAE Business School, Buenos Aires (Argentina), March 22-24, 2018. The conference has several specific CfPs for sessions related to economic sociology and political economy. DL: September 30

> CfP: “Capitalist Transitions, Empire Building, and American History“, Journal of Historical Sociology special issue. DL for proposals: October 1

Call for Mini-Conference Themes Proposals, The SASE annual meeting “Global Reordering: Prospects for Equality, Democracy and Justice”, Doshisha University (Kyoto, Japan), 23-25 June 2018. DL: October 2

> CfP: “Money, Finance, and Capital“, Business History Conference Annual Meeting, Baltimore (Maryland, USA), April 5 – April 7, 2018. DL: Oct 2

> CfP: “The Financial Life of Social Reproduction” session and several other sessions related to economic sociology and political economy at The American Association of Geographers meeting, New Orleans, April 10-14, 2018. DL: October 6.

> CfP: “The Crisis of Globalisation“, the 21st Forum for Macroeconomics and Macroeconomic Policies conference, Best-Western Hotel International, Berlin (Germany), 9-11 November, 2017. There will be lectures for graduate students prior to the opening panel, on topics in heterodox economics. DL: October 15

CfP “The Economic History of Natural Resources and Sustainable Development” workshop at Lund University (Sweden), January 15-16, 2018. There is no participation fee. Accommodation and meals will be covered. DL: October 15

> CfP: “Water and Economy“, The Society of Economic Anthropology Annual Conference, Arizona State University (Tempe, Arizona, USA), March 1-3, 2018. DL: October 15

> CfP: “Economics and Public Reason” workshop (at the University of Lausanne, May 2018) and Œconomia – History, Methodology, Philosophy special issue. DL for the expression of interest: October 25. 

Jobs and Positions:

Chair in “Political Economy and Historical Dynamics of Modern Capitalism” (up to 5 years) at Scuola Normale Superiore (Pisa, Italy). DL: September 30

Assistant Professor of Sociology (tenure-track) with expertise in social theory and economic sociology, Providence College (Providence, RI, USA). DL: September 30

Head (associate professorship) of a new Research Group on social inequality research from a sociological perspective with a strong quantitative profile, The WZB Berlin Social Science Center. DL: September 30 

> Postdoc two-year position within the project “Ethical issues in agricultural land markets” at The Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies in Halle (Germany). DL: September 30

> Assistant Professor of Sociology (tenure-track) with primary interests in economic sociology, work and/or labor markets, Southern Methodist University (Dallas, Texas, USA). DL: October 1

Lecturer in Accounting (full-time), School of Business, University of Leicester (UK). Research in the Division combines accounting with economic sociology, sociology of valuation, organisational theory, and more. DL: October 3

Assistant Professor in Social Inequality and Human Services (Full-time, tenure-track), The Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Moravian College (Bethlehem, PA, USA). DL: October 4

Lecturer in Employment Relations (full-time, permanent), University of Sheffield – Sheffield University Management School (UK). DL: October 5

Lecturer in Economic and Social History (permanent position), University of Helsinki (Finland). DL: October 8 

Social Stratification and Inequality Scholar (Assistant, Associate, or Full Professor), Department of Sociology, University of Colorado Boulder. DL: October 15 

> Professor in Regulation and Global Governance, School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University (Canberra).  DL: October 15

Calls for Applications

> CfA: “Working with European Union Labour Force Survey“, GESIS-Workshop for post-graduate and senior researchers, Leibniz-Institute for the Social Sciences (Mannheim, Germany), November 27-29, 2017. There will be no workshop fee. DL: September 30

> CfA: “Realising the Future“, A workshop on the politics, methodologies & technologies of economic prediction & expectation, Political Economy Research Centre, Goldsmiths University of London, 20 December, 2017. Speakers: Jens Beckert, Liliana Doganova, Fabian Muniesa, Nick Taylor. Attendance is free.


>  First Monograph Prize in Economic and/or Social History by The Economic History Society. DL: September 30 

> Mark Blaug Student Essay Prize by the Foundation for European Economic Development. Eligible essays for the prize must be critical discussions of any aspect of modern economics. DL: October 1

Research grant:

>  Research grants for projects on labour market policies, The Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy (Uppsala, Sweden). Applications from non-economists are welcome. DL: October 1

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The Washington Consensus: Sociology of Economics and History of Ideas

In 1989, John Williamson, a fellow at the Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC which previously advised the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, presented a background paper to a conference aimed to explore how extensive were the policy reforms that were then ongoing in Latin America. To try and ensure that the papers addressed a common set of issues, Williamson listed what seemed to him to be the central areas of reform that most Washington-based policy agencies and institutions at the time thought were needed for Latin American countries recovering from the economic and financial crises of the 1980s. Williamson labeled this list — “The Washington Consensus“. In the final paper published a year later, he elaborated this list into ten policy actions. 

1. Budget deficits … should be small enough to be financed without recourse to the inflation tax.
2. Public expenditure should be redirected from politically sensitive areas that receive more resources than their economic return can justify… toward neglected fields with high economic returns and the potential to improve income distribution, such as primary education and health, and infrastructure.

3. Tax reform… so as to broaden the tax base and cut marginal tax rates.
4. Financial liberalization, involving an ultimate objective of market-determined interest rates.
5. A unified exchange rate at a level sufficiently competitive to induce a rapid growth in nontraditional exports.
6. Quantitative trade restrictions to be rapidly replaced by tariffs, which would be progressively reduced until a uniform low rate of 10 to 20 percent was achieved.
7. Abolition of barriers impeding the entry of FDI (foreign direct investment).
8. Privatization of state enterprises.
9. Abolition of regulations that impede the entry of new firms or restrict competition.
10. The provision of secure property rights, especially to the informal sector.” (Williamson 2004: 196).

In the course of the years since that 1989 conference at the authoritative think tank, the phrase “Washington Consensus” has widely come to be used to describe a set of policy prescriptions promoting and implementing market fundamentalism.
In 2004, perhaps genuinely or perhaps ostensibly dissatisfied with the meanings that have been associated with the term he coined, Williamson published in Journal of Post Keynesian Economics “The Strange History of the Washington Consensus” (an open-access file below) to explain why, as he put this, “alternative versions of the Washington consensus” emerged. international monetary fund neoliberalism globalizationSpecifically, Williamson referred to the usage of the concept as the policy approach imposed by the IMF and the World Bank on their client countries and the widely perceived narrative attributed to “The Washington Consensus” as the creed and the toolkit of Neoliberalism. The latter, resents Williamson (2004: 201), is “a thoroughly objectionable perversion of the original meaning. Whatever else the term “Washington Consensus” may mean, it should surely refer to a set of policies that command a consensus in some significant part of Washington, either the U.S. government or the international financial institutions (IFIs) or both, or perhaps both plus some other group. Even in the early years of the Reagan administration, or during the administration of George W. Bush, it would be difficult to contend that most of the distinctively neoliberal policies, such as supply-side economics, monetarism, or minimal government, commanded much of a consensus, certainly not in the IFIs“. Evidently, as it appears in one of the footnotes, Williamson was unsatisfied by Joseph Stiglitz’s book Globalization and Its Discontents (2002) that greatly contributed to the dissemination of the term with these particular interpretations.
On the other hand, Williamson had “some sympathy” with the criticism laid by Dani Rodrick in “Growth Strategies (2003) regarding the pretended universality and insensitivity of the recommended reforms to local context. “The problem with the Washington Consensus was that it listed what became regarded as “ten commandments,” with an implicit promise that a country that did these ten things would grow“, noted Williamson (2004: 205).
Elsewhere I wrote that sociology of economics is about “the social and political processes, mechanisms and conditions of formation, articulation and diffusion of economic ideas, models and theories. In this respect academic, practical and administrative configurations of economic knowledge are always embodied in particular economies, epistemic cultures and institutions”. Williamson’s “The Washington Consensus” initial agenda, the life cycle and the global spread of this term and its meanings during the last three decades, and Williamson’s 2004 paper itself in which he tried to retrospectively reposition himself — are an interesting and rich example of sociology of economics. This story, especially after the 2007-8 global financial crisis which is certainly the result of Neoliberalism, clearly demonstrates the great influence of economic ideas, such as “The Washington Consensus”, in (inter)national economic policymaking, especially when deployed by the coalition of powerful actors and institutions.

– Williamson, John. 1990. “What Washington Means by Policy Reform” Chapter 2 in Latin American Adjustment: How Much Has Happened?, edited by John Williamson. Washington, DC:  Peterson Institute for International Economics. (open access)
– Williamson, John. 2004. “The Strange History of the Washington Consensus.” Journal of Post Keynesian Economics 27 (2): 195-206. 

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What is’t to us if taxes rise or fall? Thanks to our fortune, we pay none at all

Charles Churchill

Charles Churchill

The 18th-century English poet and satirist Charles Churchill wrote the following witty and sharp words, jeering and criticizing the aristocracy and the establishment of his time.

The cit, a common-councilman by place,
Ten thousand mighty nothings in his face,
By situation as by nature great,
With nice precision parcels out the state;
Proves and disproves, affirms and then denies,
Objects himself, and to himself replies;
Wielding aloft the politician rod,
Makes Pitt by turns a devil and a god;
Maintains, e’en to the very teeth of Power,
The same thing right and wrong in half an hour:
Now all is well, now he suspects a plot,
And plainly proves, whatever is, is not:
Fearfully wise, he shakes his empty head,
And deals out empires as he deals out thread;
His useless scales are in a corner flung,
And Europe’s balance hangs upon his tongue.
Peace to such triflers! be our happier plan
To pass through life as easy as we can.
Who’s in or out, who moves this grand machine,
Nor stirs my curiosity, nor spleen.
Secrets of state no more I wish to know
Than secret movements of a puppet-show:
Let but the puppets move, I’ve my desire,
Unseen the hand which guides the master-wire.
What is’t to us if taxes rise or fall?
Thanks to our fortune, we pay none at all.

Churchill ends his poem, in which he pungently tackles various societal issues of that time and repels the attacks on him,  with a sound insight and invoke: 

What is this World?–A term which men have got
To signify, not one in ten knows what;
A term, which with no more precision passes
To point out herds of men than herds of asses;
In common use no more it means, we find,
Than many fools in same opinions join’d.
Can numbers, then, change Nature’s stated laws?
Can numbers make the worse the better cause?
Vice must be vice, virtue be virtue still,
Though thousands rail at good, and practise ill.
Wouldst thou defend the Gaul’s destructive rage,
Because vast nations on his part engage?
Though, to support the rebel Caesar’s cause,
Tumultuous legions arm against the laws;
Though scandal would our patriot’s name impeach,
And rails at virtues which she cannot reach,  
What honest man but would with joy submit  
To bleed with Cato, and retire with Pitt?
Steadfast and true to virtue’s sacred laws,     
Unmoved by vulgar censure, or applause,
Let the World talk, my friend; that World, we know,     
Which calls us guilty, cannot make us so.     
Unawed by numbers, follow Nature’s plan;     
Assert the rights, or quit the name of man.     
Consider well, weigh strictly right and wrong;     
Resolve not quick, but once resolved, be strong.     
In spite of Dulness, and in spite of Wit,     
If to thyself thou canst thyself acquit,  
Rather stand up, assured with conscious pride,     
Alone, than err with millions on thy side.

The full poem: Churchill, Charles. 1761. “Night. An Epistle To Robert Lloyd”. London

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Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United States

by Andrew Kolin*

The task at hand is to place the political economy of repression within the contours of U.S. history and sketch in broad terms how, over time, repression is the product of dynamic and fixed relations between capital and labor. The goal of Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United States (2017) is to represent how capital is able to repress labor given essential prerequisites. By identifying how capital and labor interact, it is possible to outline the main features of repression. The intent is not to write a comprehensive history of capital-labor relations, instead it is to select specific points in time that best illustrate how capital represses labor. While this book makes use of important histories of labor, these histories do not address the book’s central themes, how a political economy of repression is produced and reproduced within institutional frameworks often overlooked in standard histories of  labor.
Labor historians often overlook how capital-labor interactions are structured in terms of the production and reproduction of repression, ignoring the bases of repression, grounded in and expressed through institutional exclusion. They also overlook how labor repression can be overcome due to the contradictory nature inherent in a political economy of repression. The first step in outlining the possible liberation of labor from a political economy of repression is to consider the historical conditions that produce the repression of labor in the United States.
Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United StatesThere are notable exceptions to this neglect of class relations in the context of institutional arrangements. This book’s emphasis is on key historical moments that illustrate how labor repression developed in terms of two key variables: first, a dependent variable that operates as institutional exclusion as capital assumes and works to maintain control over the state and the economy, and second, an independent variable, in key historical moments where one can measure the intent of labor repression in terms of the rise and fall of American capitalism.
The dependent variable appearing as institutional exclusion generates various forms of covert repression. For the repression to be covert, it would be built into the functions of the state and the economy in which capital has achieved hegemony. This dependent variable of institutional exclusion occurs as capital achieves a monopoly of ownership over the means of production. In so doing, ownership serves to legitimate the use of covert repression of labor in the workplace. In addition, excluding labor from a primary role as a decision-maker in the state results from elite ownership of state power, which in turn, justifies policies and actions, which recreate the oppression of labor. Frequently omitted from labor histories is this dual institutional exclusion, which makes it possible for elites to monopolize the resources of power, and in so doing, dominate labor. Expressions of overt repression, such as degrees of force and violence operating outside institutional frameworks, are the most visible forms of social control of labor.
Specific events dictate the usefulness of covert and overt repression. In comparing the present to the past, capital has been successful in utilizing with a greater degree of effectiveness covert rather than overt repression, especially in the latter part of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century. A qualification in assessing the use of covert and overt repression is the extent to which labor acknowledges its institutional exclusion, seeking to organize labor so as to be in a better position to achieve limited demands. This means that capital-labor relations and repression are not a zero-sum game. Capital and labor both understand at times the necessity of forging alliances. In specific historical moments, capitalists understand it is to their advantage to seek collective agreements with labor as a means of economizing the use of repression. For labor, it is not a matter of choice. Organized labor seeks inclusion, it seeks to collaborate in order to acquire short-term gains. Having achieved institutional exclusion from decision-making, capital maintains the upper hand in framing collaboration to its own advantage. Whether capital-labor engages in collaboration or labor segments engage in outright conflict in open antagonism is often determined by the economic cycles of American capitalism.
This is not to say there are no limits to labor repression expressed as collaboration and conflict between capital and labor. The inherent contradictions in how capital seeks to repress labor present possible alternatives. To identify alternatives to labor repression is to identify the built-in limitations inherent in a political economy of repression, thus identifying how labor would liberate itself from the dictates of capital. Discussing how labor could create economic and political democracy can include an examination of why repression is essentially self-destructive. Repression of labor by capital contains the seeds of its own destruction. Since the various means utilized to repress labor always out of necessity have to be reproduced, in this process of reproduction, the repression is never finalized and complete. In reproducing repression, labor, in combination with the appropriate historical circumstances, can work toward its liberation. So while the goal is to describe the production and reproduction of labor repression, such repression is always in contradiction to the social needs of labor, that is, the liberation of labor from the domination of capital. This inherent possibility of labor’s liberation is built into the limits of a political economy of repression.
* Andrew Kolin is professor of political science at Hilbert College

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The Art of Central Banking (2)

“The role of a central bank governor has a lot in common with that of a musical conductor, who leads people from different disciplines to create beautiful harmonies that add up to masterful symphonies. Of course, there were times we heard some discordant notes. But by and large, we played harmonious and beautiful music together, so to speak, that resulted in benefits for our people!
(Amando M. Tetangco, Former Governor of the Central Bank of the Philippines, Manila, 3 July 2017)

> See also the previous piece of Art of Central Banking

central banking

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