The Practices of Structural Policy in Western Market Economies since the 1960s
Conference held at the Centre for Contemporary History Potsdamin cooperation with the German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C., and the History Department of Emory University, 28-29 May 2015
As the postwar boom abated in the Western industrial nations, a broad variety of state economic interventions rapidly gained significance that were subsumed (though with partly differing connotations) under the labels of “structural” or “industrial policy.” Unlike regulatory and stabilization policies that address economic conditions on the macro level, structural policy focuses on the development of particular regions or sectors. It has always implied expectations and assumptions about the desired composition and development of a national economy and its regional and sectoral labor markets. Through the use of subsidies and infrastructure projects financed by the state, tax money was redirected in favor of certain regions, industries or even single companies. The costs of such measures, their economic outcomes and the concomitant socio-political principles required public justification and have frequently been the subject of debates.
Structural policy therefore stands at the intersection of politics and economics. Despite its centrality for both, the historical practice of political decisions relating to structural policy after the boom decades has yet to be explored. This conference aims at convening economic and political historians to discuss the driving forces, debates and practices of structural policy in Western Europe and the United States since the 1960s. It seeks to address the range of reactions within the “varieties of capitalism” to challenges posed by global structural changes. It intends to elucidate negotiations between political players and industrial actors as well as the economic causes and consequences of subsidies. The goal of this conference is to set the sectoral and regional policies enacted since the 1960s into the context of economic history and to assess them in light of changing economic concepts and political goals. We also want to explore the interaction between sectoral and regional policy and other policy areas, such as labor market policy, infrastructure policy, and spatial planning.
The conference will focus on analyzing concrete attempts to influence economic structures through protectionist policies, national and supranational controls and regulations, socialization, financial incentives, and investment activity by the state. Since structural policy is the outcome of complex and contested negotiation processes, a whole range of actors moves into focus: besides national institutions, European integration added a layer of supranational institutions and regulatory agencies. Other players are companies, unions, regional entities such as counties, academic experts and the media. In view of limited state budgets, the competition between sectors and regions deserves particular attention: what was the relationship between the cushioning of the accelerated structural change in “old industries” such as coal and steel on the one hand and the investment in assumed trendsetting industries like information technology and aircraft construction on the other? How important were lobby activities of companies and unions? How were subsidies publicly discussed, justified and financed? Which concrete objectives and general perceptions of (socio)-economic change and economic crises prevailed at any given time, and how did they influence the direction of structural policy? How were the financial instruments and the legal framework adapted over time? In which cases did structural interventions secure the continued existence of production sites? To what extent did companies use production sites as testing grounds for restructuring purposes?
The conference also aims to compare political responses to structural change and the historical roots of regional development programs in individual countries and in the European Economic Community. Political events and developments such as the division of Germany and its re-unification initiated long-term regional support programs (West Berlin subsidies, “Zonal Borderland Aid”, Aufbau Ost). On the European level,political events marked the beginning of regional policy when Great Britain made the creation of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) a condition for its accession to the EEC. How have such political “triggers” influenced the criteria by which “structurally weak” and “less favored regions” were defined? How can one explain the rapid rise of regional development aid since the mid-1970s both on the level of the European Community and in its individual member states? The European Regional Development Fund initially made up five percent of the EC’s budget but now takes up one third; similarly, in 1980 no less than sixty percent of West Germany’s territory qualified for regional aid. This “growth of the growth programs” raises the question of whether, and under which circumstances political decision-makers were still able to cut or at least curb subsidies and development funds. Have the political goals of these programs such as the creation of “equal living conditions” in Germany or the convergence objective in Europe ever been considered as attained, and did these ambitious goals themselves drive regional aid spending?
Last but not least, the conference needs to interrogate common periodizations, national historical traditions, path dependencies and convergences: a cursory look at various sectors that have benefitted from subsidies reveals that the beginnings of a need for structural adjustments and related state subsidies do not fit neatly into the 1970s, a decade frequently referred to as a “decade of crisis.” Similarly, although the rise of regional aid policies under the direction of the EEC “after the boom” suggests a connection to global economic trends, the West German program of “Zonal Borderland Aid” or the history of West German spatial planning point to longer-term continuities not necessarily and exclusively tied to economic developments.
We welcome contributions addressing the above themes. Please submit an abstract of 300 words (max.) and a short bio with institutional affiliation in one file by Oct. 1, 2014 to Ralf Ahrens (email@example.com), Astrid M. Eckert (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Stefan Hördler (email@example.com). The language of this conference is English. Participants will be asked to submit an extended abstract (3-5pp.) by April 30, 2015.
Ralf Ahrens, Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam (firstname.lastname@example.org);
Astrid M. Eckert, Department of History, Emory University (email@example.com);
Stefan Hördler, German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C. (firstname.lastname@example.org) Email: email@example.com
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