Trento examines the borders of economic freedom

The six-year history of the annual Festival of Economics held in Trento in northern Italy has appropriately coincided with the greatest turbulence seen in world economic affairs since 1945.

This year is no exception, with the stubborn Eurozone crisis leading a clutch of unresolved economic calamities whose origins are to be found in recent years of fiscal and banking lunacy.

The Festival Economia 2011 will be opened next Saturday 28th May by a past winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics who is held in particular esteem by development economists. Amartya Sen shook up the discipline with the single opening paragraph of his book, Poverty and Famines, which destroyed the myth that hunger is caused by failure of harvests.

It is inconceivable that Professor Sen will address the conference on its chosen theme, “The Borders of Economic Freedom”, without reference to almost one billion people currently experiencing hunger. The injustice of their plight, in contrast to the extreme wealth created by modern economic freedoms, has never been more explicit than in our era of rocketing food prices.

For an appropriate 2011 case study on hunger and wealth, festival-goers need look no further than a hundred kilometres or so across the Alps north of Trento. Few places in the world better illuminate the significance of geographical borders in economic freedom than the Swiss canton of Zug.

In this most secretive of enclaves, even by the standards of Swiss protection, it is possible to enjoy the freedoms of the modern business world without the responsibilities of transparency and disclosure normally imposed on global corporations.

It is in Zug that the world’s largest commodities trading company, Glencore, has quietly plied its trade. Shielded from investor and media scrutiny, the company has created a highly profitable trading model in food and minerals through its exclusive knowledge of supply chains – and with a capacity to influence prices by stockpiling its own stocks.

As commodity prices spiral, the Glencore executive team has chosen its moment to waltz into London and sell their business. A new culture of enforced disclosure is a small price to pay for the personal fortunes ranging from millions to billions of dollars which will coalesce for several hundred Glencore staff when formal trading on the London Stock Exchange begins next Tuesday.

Meanwhile, governments across the developing world are grappling with the consequences of higher food prices for their poverty reduction strategies. Leaders of the G20 countries too are exercised in a vain search for solutions to price stability and global food security.

The Trento festival organisers propose to put such divisive topics to an audience vote “before and after” the presentations. “We will try to enable everyone to form an opinion on the complex questions that define the new borders of free private initiative,” says Tito Boeri, Scientific Director of the Festival.

The tenor of previous Trento agendas suggests that festival-goers will be suspicious of the power of corporate interests in a modern globalised economy. They will learn much from a talk on “the future of globalization” by Dani Rodrik, professor of International Political Economy at Harvard, and one of the world’s leading experts on the subject.

The final afternoon of the festival sees outspoken development blogger, William Easterly, on the platform. He will address the topic of double standards “between the West and the Rest.”

Festival organisers promise to maintain their policy of free entry to all events, with no pre-booking. This might prove challenging on the final Saturday evening which sees a rare public appearance of one of Europe’s most popular thinkers and politicians – former Czech president, Václav Havel.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK