In 2001 and 2002, Argentina experienced one of the worst economic crises in its history. Output was reduced by 20% in a three year time period (Daseking et al. 2004), inflation increased from -0.9% in 2000 to 41% in 2002.1 The unemployment rate increased from 15% in 2000 to 21.5% in 2002.2 GDP growth reverted from 0.8% of GDP in 2000 to -14.7% in 2002.3 During this time period of the early 2000s, Argentina went through an enormous debt crisis. Government debt had increased from 43% of GDP in 2000 to 165.3% in 2003.4 These enormous debts forced the Argentinian government to first accept an IMF loan offer and structural adjustment conditions (especially between 1999 and 2001), and then to repudiate the adjustment process with a selected default in late 2001 (Hornbeck 2002). While some loans were maintained, creditors had to accept a 70% cut in the value of their holdings through debt restructuring. Ever since the devaluation, the Argentinian economy has improved enormously thanks to greater export to China and Brazil (Lopez 2011, 429), and generous loan support from Venezuela (Baribeau 2005). In this paper, I will describe the conditions under which Argentina developed and resolved its debt crisis, using the historical perspective of institutional development espoused by Paul Pierson (2004). I will then tie the analysis of the Argentinian debt crisis to the current debt crisis in the Eurozone, and will conclude with a theoretical conceptualization of debt as a social relation, drawing on Marxian and Weberian conflict themes. In regard to the Argentinian debt crisis, I find that the Argentinian decision to cancel most of the debts have contributed to the positive economic performance of the Argentinian economy.
Before I start with my investigation of Argentina, I will briefly describe Pierson’s theoretical scheme of institutional development. Pierson argued that the political development of institutions happen over periods of time, and the first policy outcome determines future policy outcomes. Once policy-makers have implemented a policy it produces certain positive results for those in power that further policies reinforce the existing policies. He called this scheme ‘path dependence’. This scheme helps explain historical continuity. Argentina, which has been trapped in a severe debt crisis in the early 2000s, has been placed into an economic framework that resulted in its debt dependence. Few debtor countries have been capable to completely free themselves from the fiscal constraints they operate in. Pierson’s most interesting contribution, however, is the acknowledgment that a historical framework is important when explaining the political-economic circumstances of the country, either of the past or present. According to this model, it would be as inaccurate to draw negative conclusions about Argentina’s economic future back in 2001 (Daseking et al. 2004; Veigel 2005) as it would be to draw overly optimistic conclusions about the same economy in 2011 (Weisbrot 2011).
The Argentinian debt crisis was preceded by economic developments going back to the 1970s. Argentina opened up private access to external finance, which was part of a market friendly reform (Damill, Frenkel and Rapetti 2013, 298). External finance was available due to the oil crisis of the early 1970s, which enormously increased oil revenues for OPEC states, who promptly used the surplus for foreign investments in Latin America (Williams 2008). In addition to opening access to capital accounts to the private sector, Argentina liberalized the domestic financial system, reduced taxes on trade, and privatized public companies. The capital inflow was halted in the early 1980s, leading to financial and currency crises in Latin America. Argentina itself defaulted on its debts in 1982 (Miranda and Milana 2011). Access to international finance was restored by the late 1980s. The military government in Argentina under Raul Alfonsin enormously increased public debts (Cohen 2011, 43). Argentina’s inflation rate was rising during the late 1980s, which induced the military government to implement a fixed convertibility regime in 1991, meaning that the Argentinian peso would be tied to the value of the US dollar. While this policy brought down inflation, it led to a sharp appreciation of the domestic currency, causing competitive export disadvantages, large current account deficits, and a growing external debt. The country de-industrialized as a result of many firms being uncompetitive in the world market, while income inequality increased (Cohen 2011, 43).
The ensuing boom in the early 1990s was interrupted by the Mexican financial crisis in 1994, which had adverse impacts to economic growth in Argentina. Due to US and IMF help, Mexico was able to meet its financial commitments, which restored investor confidence. In 1995, the capital inflows were booming again. Two years later in 1997-98 the Asian and Russian financial crises undermined investor confidence again, which led to an enormous economic and financial crisis in Brazil to which Argentina had strong export relations. The devaluation of the currency in Brazil put pressure on Argentina, as exports to Brazil decreased. (Damill, Frenkel and Rapetti 2013, 298-299) Its economic situation was deteriorating so dramatically, and its public debt burden rising so sharply that investors removed their capital from Argentina, yielding in higher interest charges. In December 1999, the government under Fernando de la Rua pleaded for IMF assistance, which promptly lent the country $40 billion. Argentina was subjected to austerity measures in order to conform to the IMF guidelines of structural adjustment, yielding in anti-austerity protests organized by unions (Hornbeck 2012). Between 1998 and 2000, the country’s GDP declined by more than 20%, while unemployment increased to more than 25% (Embassy of the Argentine Republic 2012).
The debt became so large that Argentina, now under the leadership of Eduardo Duhalde, was ultimately forced to renege on 70% of its debt in December 2001. The government also lifted the dollar convertibility to allow the peso to devalue in 2002, which immediately improved the country’s export status (as commodities could be sold at a cheaper and more competitive price). It allowed the government further to convert external debt from dollars (stable value) to pesos (devalued), effectively reducing Argentina’s effective debt payments (Hornbeck 2002). Argentina was subsequently excluded from international credit markets until 2005 (Kaplan 2013, 263). Foreign direct investment remained limited since the default (Weisbrot et al. 2011, 5). The IMF extended another loan to Argentina in 2003, which required a radical restructuring and liquidation of banks, and a repeal of the currency exchange controls.5 The Argentinian government disagreed with these policy prescriptions and have found different ways to resolve the financing problems (Embassy of the Argentine Republic 2012, 29-31). Budgetary shortfalls have henceforth been covered by Venezuela’s bilateral financing, local bond markets and commodity proceeds (Kaplan 2013, 44). In 2005, Argentina’s economy had improved sufficiently and alternative financing options have improved so much that it was able to pay off the IMF loans in advance without further subjecting itself to the structural adjustment conditions of the IMF (Embassy of the Argentine Republic 29-31). The government under the leadership of President, Nestor Kirchner, and finance miniser, Roberto Lavagna, had also subjected the public budget to enormous fiscal discipline in order to hold down inflation and repay the remaining debt (Kaplan 2013, 265). However, being shunned by foreign investors has also meant that Argentina can more freely intervene with monetary and fiscal policies than countries that had subjected themselves to stricter fiscal and monetary controls (Kaplan 2013, 288).
Source: Weisbrot et al. (2011), http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/10/the-verboten-story-of-argentinas-economic-success.html
There are some scholars, who argue that Argentina’s default had been a mistake, because that decision subjects them to a tighter fiscal outlook (Ravier 2013), while others think that Argentina was benefited from the default, because without it the political and economic consequences of a debt overhang would have been worse (Krugman 2012; Embassy of the Argentine Republic 2012). With the partial default, Argentina was able to bring down the debt from a high of 165% of GDP in 2002 down to 49.1% of GDP in 2010.6 The GDP that shrunk by 10.3% around the time of the debt default in 2002 increased by 9.4% in 2010, and had been increasing very strongly from 2003 onward (with the exception of the recession year of 2009).7 The economy also improved, partially as a result of a lower effective debt burden, and mainly due to a commodity export boom (mainly soya, corn and wheat) to China. Argentina recorded a $521 million trade surplus as of February 2013.8 Poverty rate was reduced from 51.7% in 2003 to 13.9% in 2010. But it increased to 30% in 2012.9 The unemployment rate was brought down from a peak of 25% in 2001 to 7.2% in 2011.10 The high US interest rates that had burdened Latin American economies during the 1980s were reduced, which provides excess liquidity, which is invested into commodity futures that contribute to more demand and and higher prices for Argentinian export products (Cohen 2011, 21). The economic crisis in Europe and the US led to a reduction in trade exports from Argentina, which brought down economic growth, but it has been improving since 2011 (Cohen 2011, 22)
Despite the default on some debts, Argentina continues to carry some foreign debts.11 After two debt swap programs in 2005 and 2010, the creditors are still guaranteed 30% of the loan value.12 Argentina’s creditworthiness was recently downgraded by the rating agency Fitch after a US court ruling mandating Argentina to repay its debt to Cayman Island based vulture funds induced the Argentinian government to reject the payment (Ghosh and Vernengo 2012). However, this downgrading displays not the weakness of Argentina’s economic performance13, but rather the fear of the financial capitalist class that a successful economic development in a country following default and averting austerity policies might set a positive precedent for other countries, thus making these capitalists redundant. The financiers have a subsequent interest to attack Argentinian policy moves. This would be a theory that is well supported by Erik Olin Wright (1997), who argued that if the lower classes would have their own means of production independent from the capitalist, the capitalist would be unnecessary.
In many respects, Argentina’s debt crisis of the early 2000s is comparable to the current debt crises unfolding in most of Europe. Iceland had participated in the global housing bubble, which took down the three major banks in 2008. Iceland rather than bailout the banks similarly defaulted, which forced the loss on mostly foreign creditors. Iceland then devalued its currency to improve export competitiveness, leading to an economic recovery (Hollander 2011, 56). President Olafur Grimmson attributes the economic recovery to the currency controls, the default of the banks and strong support policies for the poor rather than austerity measures to guarantee bank bailouts (Zeis 2013)
Other countries like Greece, Spain, Ireland or Portugal, who are part of the Eurozone, have experienced the opposite, namely a ballooning state debt crisis followed by austerity policies squeezing the lower and middle classes. Similar to the Argentinians they pegged their currency to that of strong countries, namely the euro, which is tied to Germany, France and other countries. They were also significantly less export-competitive due to their weak productivity rate, making them net importers. In addition, the currency union lowered the interest rate for the bonds of the weak debtor countries, making them capable of taking out more loans than they could bear (European Union Center 2011). When the US financial crisis spilled over to Europe, the investors had sent the bond yield of Greece sky-rocketing, bringing it to the verge of bankruptcy. Spain’s and Italy’s bond yield increased too, as investors feared that these economies would not be able to repay their debts. The IMF, EU commision and the ECB (European Central Bank)- also known as the ‘troika’- have subsequently invested billions of euros to guarantee the repayment of the debts and the solvency of the current Eurozone countries. Here, there is an important difference to the Argentinian case. While the IMF-style austerity policies applied to Greece are strikingly similar to Argentina’s case, Argentina had not been bailed out by another country, such as the United States. In addition, in Argentina’s case both liquidity and solvency was a problem, while in Greece only solvency had been a problem, while liquidity was guaranteed by the ECB (Sturzenegger 2012). The euro currency union indicates a deeper integration of different countries than the Argentinian currency peg, which made the Argentinian government technically free to de-couple the peso from the US dollar at any moment’s notice. This option was not offered to the Greeks, when their debt became unsustainably high. The austerity measures, however, have so severely negatively impacted the economy of Greece that even the IMF itself admitted in a report that “the fiscal consolidation has been associated with lower growth than expected” (Blanchard and Leigh 2013). Greece has already received two bailouts, and after the second bailout the EU mandated that bondholders take a loss of roughly 75% of the original value, but in exchange for austerity programs and privatization of state assets (Rowley 2012). Despite this debt relief, Greek GDP shrank from $29,967 per capita in 2008 to $25,100 per capita in 2012.14 Its debt increased from 110.7% of GDP to 161.3% in the same time period.15 The partial default has clearly not helped the Greeks. A final difference between Argentina and Greece is that Argentina practiced external devaluation, weakening the domestic currency, while the Greeks exercised internal devaluation, in which wages are drastically reduced, which has severely negative consequences for the Greek economy (Weisbrot et al. 2011, 15).
Sociological Perspectives on the Debt Crisis
Debt crises have been theorized especially within the conflict sociological tradition. The relationship between creditors and debtors is antagonistic rather than consensual. The creditor wants to collect as much interest as he can, and the debtor tries to repay as little as he can. In order to illuminate the nature of the state debt crisis, I highlight the conflict perspectives of the two theorists Max Weber and Karl Marx. In Weber’s economics and sociology the various parts of society do not hold together as a single unit, but struggle with each other on multiple fronts (Collins 1994, 85). Weber’s class struggle takes place on three dimensions: class, status groups and political parties (Weber 1978  926-939). Class is considered a social unit with a cohesive objective that may stand in conflict with the objective of other classes. He divided class conflict into three parts: the conflict between capitalists and workers, finance capitalists and borrowers of capital, and sellers and consumers. Different social classes struggle to gain control over particular markets, such as money and credit, land , manufacturing industries and labor skills (Collins 1994, 87). In the Argentinian case, there is a class conflict between the creditors, who are wealthy Argentinians and foreign investors, and the debtors, which is the government and the taxpayers of Argentina. The state has racked up enormous debts beyond its ability to repay them, which induced the government to default on some of the debts. This causes uproar among the investors, and leads to a lowering of Argentina’s debt rating by the credit rating agencies. Argentina is subsequently excluded from borrowing money from financial markets, i.e. the institution that controls most of the active financial capital. On the other hand, the recent re-issuing of Argentinian government bonds in the financial market indicates the fact that the investors have a short memory and are probably swayed by an improving economy (which incidentally improved after debt repayments were significantly lowered after the default). The investors that stand to lose money and vigorously use US courts to force Argentina to repay bondholders display the inevitable class struggle between creditors and debtors.
Weber’s theme of social struggle has another important application to the sovereign debt crisis: the state, which is considered a sovereign, can dominate all other organizations within a state (Collins 1994, 91). Unlike private organizations like banks, corporations or hedge funds, who form the creditors, the state controls the military, the bureaucracy, the tax collectors, and the law courts. All of these institutions are coercive devices by the state, which makes their debt position different from the debt of other entities. If a bank loans out money to an individual person, and he can not afford to repay his debts, the bank can be sure to use the court system to tie that person’s current and future earnings to repaying the debt, because the individual has few means to protect himself against the courts and the banks. If, however, the state as a debtor takes on too much debt, then a peculiar power struggle arises, because the debtor is both in a stronger position (as a coercive sovereign) and in a weaker position (as a debtor), while the creditors (domestic and foreign investors, the financially rich) are both in a stronger (as creditors) and in a weaker position (as subjects being coereced by the state). Another layer of difficulty is that not only do loans happen within one state, but often they come from foreign investors, who live in different jurisdictions from the debtor countries. The same kinds of coercive mechanisms by the state against the creditors might not work. At the same time, the legal tools for the creditors against the foreign state might also be limited. The odds of one side winning is uncertain. In most cases, the weak state (Latin America, Africa etc.) subject themselves to the fiscal discipline of IMF structural adjustment programs, which is equivalent to the victory of the world’s creditors. This has been the case in most of the 1980s, when the structural adjustment packages were implemented (for a review and assessment consider Stiglitz 2002; Babb 2005). In other instances, when the state is stronger, or feels itself strong enough to bear the consequences of default, such as in Argentina, the debt is repudiated, while cooperation with the IMF is reduced. Finally, the question arises as to what would happen if a country does default, and the administrative structures of the government collapse (which did not happen in Argentina). Following Skocpol (1979), a state breakdown following a fiscal crisis or war lead to a social revolution, which is more profound than any private individual going bankrupt.
Karl Marx has been a prolific writer touching on state debt crises. In his theoretical scheme, almost the entire social conflict is based on the fundamental class conflict between bourgeois capitalists, or the owners of the means of production, and the propertyless proletariat, who have their surplus product expropriated by the capitalists (Marx 1990 ). Marx also observed many other forms of other social conflicts that run parallel to the main conflict he observed in the factory, including state debt crises. In order to explore creditor-debtor relationships, he distinguished between three forms of capitalists: the merchant, the industrial and the financial capitalist. The merchant capitalist buys goods produced by somebody else, and sells those good to somebody else at a higher price for profit. Over time, the merchant capitalists become industrial capitalists, who use their accumulated funds to operate factories, machines and employ workers to produce the goods that are sold at a profit to somebody else (Marx 1909 , Part IV, Chapter XX). A financial capitalist is a capitalist, who makes money by lending money to others at interest (ibid., Part IV, Chapter XIX). Marx regarded financial activities, such as stocks and bonds, interests, dividends, fees and commissions, as fictitious capital, i.e. the values of fictitious capital are claims on the future produce of society, and are not currently produced. It has a tendency to crowd out the real, productive capital, i.e. the tangible tools, equipment, means of production and workers, because the interest that is paid to the financiers takes out an increasing chunk of real capital.16 Another Marxist scholar, Rudolf Hilferding (1910, Chapter 14), pointed to the growing dependence of industrial capitalists on what he called ‘finance capital’ (mainly banks) to continue their operations. At the same time financial capital is unavoidable in a capitalist society, because the accumulating surpluses generated from the industrial sector can not immediately be used in other portions of industry due to a lack of expected profits in those sectors (Marx 1909, Part V, Chapter 32). According to Marx, the interest on the debt always grows quicker than the productive capacity of the society, revealing the fictitious rather than real nature of the debt. When the creditors call in their loans, the debtors are forced to default, which leads to a full-blown financial crisis. Marx (1850, Part I) applied his theory of financial capitalist power in states to France in the 1848 revolution. He argued that the so called ‘financial aristocracy’, consisting of bankers, stock-exchange kings, railway kings, owners of coal/iron mines and forests, and landed proprietors, essentially ran the government under Louis Phillippe. They were the state, which is defined as the “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” (Marx and Engels 1848, Chapter 1) Marx, furthermore, explained that those capitalists had an interest to keep the government in a permanent debt crisis, because the continuing deficits were an important source of speculation and enrichment for this part of the ‘big bourgeoisie’, who issued all the loans granted to the state. Large deficits also enabled the capitalists to receive subsidies from the government without having to pay more taxes for it. Another advantage for the capitalists is that the constant possibility of state bankruptcy prevents government officials from implementing radical economic policies that would benefit the masses, and potentially challenge the class power of the bourgeoisie. Because these financial capitalists do not contribute to the addition of wealth to society while living off the surplus produced by others, Marx (1850, Part I) considered them “the rebirth of the lumpenproletariat on the heights of bourgeois society.”
Argentina had been pushed into a financial crisis, because the oil-exporting countries had deployed their investible surplus as a loan to that country. Marx understood that banks and creditors can only develop strongly when there is sufficient surplus capital available, and if the need for financing among non-wealthy people and countries is strong enough. This debtor dependency relation was exacerbated by Argentina’s insistence in the 1990s to lower inflation by tying the peso to the US dollar, which immediately deteriorated the trade balance of the country, which forced them to increase capital inflow in the form of debt, while weakening their ability to use currency reserves to pay off their debts. Marx would have predicted that the Argentinian default was an inevitability. Before the default, Argentina had briefly subjected itself to structural adjustment policies of the IMF that curbed wages and other state expenditures to fulfill deficit reduction targets. As Marx had pointed out, countries subjecting themselves to the power of the creditors can not carry out other social policies that might benefit the mass of people more. Structural adjustment was followed by sluggish growth, growing income inequality and enormous protests. It was only the favorable economic developments in Latin America that these countries were able to reduce their IMF dependence (Miranda and Molina 2011).
In conclusion, the developments in Argentina show that in its specific case the debt default has been beneficial to the Argentinian economy. After about two decades of following the prescriptions of the IMF, Argentina has reduced its dependence on IMF financing, and took advantage of an improved economic environment in Latin America and China. The main question for policymakers will be whether Argentina’s example is replicable in Europe. Argentina’s fiscal and debt crisis most clearly fits with the social conflict perspectives articulated by Marx and Weber.
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