The conservatives chime in with their vision of the Great Depression and FDR's response. And I clash my cymbals in reesponse, as shown in bold-face. His headlines are in italics.
The New York Times / November 23, 2008
The New Deal Didn't Always Work, Either
By TYLER COWEN
MANY people are looking back to the Great Depression and the New Deal for answers to our problems. But while we can learn important lessons from this period, they're not always the ones taught in school.
The traditional story [by whom?] is that President Franklin D. Roosevelt rescued capitalism by resorting to extensive government intervention; the truth is that Roosevelt changed course from year to year, trying a mix of policies, some good and some bad. It's worth sorting through this grab bag now, to evaluate whether any of these policies might be helpful.
If I were preparing a "New Deal crib sheet," I would start with the following lessons:
MONETARY POLICY IS KEY As Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz argued in a classic book, "A Monetary History of the United States," the single biggest cause of the Great Depression was that the Federal Reserve let the money supply fall by one-third, causing deflation. Furthermore, banks were allowed to fail, causing a credit crisis. Roosevelt's best policies were those designed to increase the money supply, get the banking system back on its feet and restore trust in financial institutions.
This is simplistic, to say the least: the adherence to the gold standard (until 1933) prevented the use of monetary policy to stimulate the economy, while banks opposed such policies. The dominant view of the monetary establishment at the time (the Fed's Board, including the Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon) was that the economy would recover automatically after purging imbalances from the economy. In other words, the Milton Friedmans and Tyler Cowens of that day did not want to use monetary policy. Nature would take its course, automatically solving the economy's problems. The gold standard was part of the solution, not part of the problem.
(These folks were "Austrian" in their temperament: the 1929-33 recession was simply punishment for the sins of over-expansion during the 1920s. Expiation was needed. Interestingly, there are a lot of so-called "Austrian" economists where Cowen teaches. I wonder it he's arguing against them.)
In addition, this story ignores the steep fall in fixed investment and exports in the 1930s, which could not have been counteracted easily: fixed investment is hard to stimulate when unused capacity and/or debt is large (and expectations are pessimistic), while exports are hard to encourage when there's a trade war going on.
Once deflation hits, expansionary monetary policy loses its usefulness. Nominal interest rates can't go below zero, while falling prices raise the real interest rate. When real interest rates (which are what counts in affecting the economy's path) rise, that encourages recession. BTW, this problem is currently on the horizon, cramping Bernanke's style.
MF and A.J. Schwartz's Big Book is totally descriptive, by the way. It's not very analytical at all. They really don't posit any understanding of how the money supply affects the economy or how the Fed controls the money supply. They don't look at the political economy of the era at all. (Along with Capitalism and Freedom, the book is worshiped by the Chicago-schoolers like Cowen. This fits the way that MF is seen as their prophet and the free market as their one true God.)
A study of the 1930s by Christina D. Romer, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley ("What Ended the Great Depression?," Journal of Economic History, 1992), confirmed that expansionary monetary policy was the key to the partial recovery of the 1930s. The worst years of the New Deal were 1937 and 1938, right after the Fed increased reserve requirements for banks, thereby curbing lending and moving the economy back to dangerous deflationary pressures.
The economy was also stimulated by government deficits at the time. It's a mistake to look for only one cause. However, Romer is a good economist, whose research shouldn't be rejected before reading it.
Today, expansionary monetary policy isn't so easy to put into effect, as we are seeing a shrinkage of credit and a contraction of the "shadow banking sector," as represented by forms of derivatives trading, hedge funds and other investments. So don't expect the benefits of monetary expansion to kick in right now, or even six months from now.
Still, the Fed needs to stand ready to prevent a downward spiral and to stimulate the economy once it's possible.
Gee, isn't it doing so already?? Where has Cowen been?
GET THE SMALL THINGS RIGHT It's not just monetary and fiscal policies that are important. Roosevelt instituted a disastrous legacy of agricultural subsidies and sought to cartelize industry, backed by force of law. Neither policy helped the economy recover.
It was Hoover who started the ag. subsidies, while if expansionary fiscal and monetary policy aren't being used (as they weren't), cartels and the like prevent deflation, which was a total disaster. Cowen wants to put all the weight on monetary policy, it seems. Cartels aren't pretty, but they may have been what more sophisticated economists than Cowen call "second best" solutions. That is, when real-world markets don't work as desired and are not likely to work well in the near future, adding non-market elements (what Cowen would call "imperfections") can actually be beneficial. This is well-known to economists outside of George Mason University.
I'm no fan of agricultural subsidies, but why are they "disastrous"? more disastrous than the Depression itself? They seem to be so horrible because Cowen is comaparing an imaginary Eden of the Perfect Market to the one sullied by the Snake of subsidies.
He [FDR] also took steps to strengthen unions and to keep real wages high. This helped workers who had jobs, but made it much harder for the unemployed to get back to work. One result was unemployment rates that remained high throughout the New Deal period.
This is silly! Serious macroeconomists know that the main factor determining employment in a depression is aggregate demand and the amount of production, not the wage. Suppose real wages fall, as Cowen recommends. Why would an employer hire more workers, if the extra output can't be sold??
In any event, falling wages make matters worse on the demand side, as Keynes pointed out. Among other things, falling wages cause deflation, which even Cowen admists is a bad thing, encouraging depression.
Today, President-elect Barack Obama faces pressures to make unionization easier, but such policies are likely to worsen the recession for many Americans.
That's Cowen's opinion; he's anti-union.
DON'T RAISE TAXES IN A SLUMP The New Deal's legacy of public works programs has given many people the impression that it was a time of expansionary fiscal policy, but that isn't quite right [as has been known for a very long time, i.e., since E. Cary Brown's path-breaking research]. Government spending went up considerably, but taxes rose, too. Under President Herbert Hoover and continuing with Roosevelt, the federal government increased income taxes, excise taxes, inheritance taxes, corporate income taxes, holding company taxes and "excess profits" taxes.
Right. We should note, however, that raising taxes and government spending at the same time can stimulate aggregate demand, as in the famous but Cowen-forgotten "balanced budget multiplier" theorem.
When all of these tax increases are taken into account, New Deal fiscal policy didn't do much to promote recovery. Today, a tax cut for the middle class is a good idea — and the case for repealing the Bush tax cuts for higher-income earners is weaker than it may have seemed a year or two ago.
Right. In fact, at this point it looks like Obama is not going to abolish the Bush rewards for being wealthy and well-connected. Instead, he's just going to let them lapse. If he abolished them (a good thing to do), the middle-class tax cut or (even better) working-class tax-cuts would have to be larger to counteract the depressive effects of immediate abolition.
WAR ISN'T THE WEAPON World War II did help the American economy, but the gains came in the early stages, when America was still just selling war-related goods to Europe and was not yet a combatant. The economic historian Robert Higgs, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, has shown in his 2006 book, "Depression, War, and Cold War," just how much the war brought shortages and rationing of consumer goods.
Right. We knew that: WW II started before the US got in -- as did the stimulative effects on the US economy. Cowen seems to be eliding the fact that the shortages and rationing happened only when the war became a total war.
By the way, even if war wasn't "the weapon" back at the cusp of the 1940s does not mean that it can't be so now. We can learn from history, but when dealing with the present it's a mistake to rule out alternatives that didn't actually happen in the past. Cowen could just as well say that monetary policy "isn't the weapon" because it wasn't used successfully during the 1930s.
While overall economic output was rising [once it had been stimulated by military spending], and the military draft lowered unemployment, the war years were generally not prosperous ones. As for today, we shouldn't think that fighting a war is the way to restore economic health.
War does promote the demand side, which is what the US economy needed at the time (in the late 1930s). In the long run, I think that war and military spending are bad for supply side growth (i.e., for long-term trend of real GDP) because they are tremendously wasteful.
On the other hand, WW II and the early Cold War may be the exceptions. The working class was strong enough to win the GI Bill (partly because our rulers remembered the negative effects of soldiers being abandoned after WW I), which helped supply-side growth. That, plus Cold War related infrastructural investment and subsidies for housing, helped create the so-called "golden age" of the US economy. Also contributing, of course, was US dominance in the manufacturing, financial, and military realms.
YOU CAN'T TURN BAD TO GOOD The good New Deal policies, like constructing a basic social safety net, made sense on their own terms and would have been desirable in the boom years of the 1920s as well.
Now there's an irrelevant point! Was Cowen around back in the 1920s to convince Coolidge and Hoover of this point? Can he guess why they opposed a social safety net?
The bad policies made things worse. [well, duh! ] Today, that means we should restrict extraordinary measures to the financial sector as much as possible and resist the temptation to "do something" for its own sake.
I don't know who it is who is proposing to "do something" simply for its own sake. This seems the old ruse of seting up a scare-crow, just to knock it down.
In short, expansionary monetary policy and wartime orders from Europe, not the well-known policies of the New Deal, did the most to make the American economy climb out of the Depression. Our current downturn will end as well someday, and, as in the '30s, the recovery will probably come for reasons that have little to do with most policy initiatives. [That's Cowen's faith.]
Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
Jim Devine / "Nobody told me there'd be days like these / Strange days indeed -- most peculiar, mama." -- JL.