Sunday, February 1, 2009

Stimulus and the Great Depression

The Huffington Post has an article about the two views of the Great Depression,
The dominant story in the public mind is of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's success. It goes like this. Like Obama, FDR comes to power with the American economy haemorrhaging jobs. He believed that, if private industry is withering, the government has to take up the slack by large public spending programmes. He set millions to work preserving green spaces and rebuilding the country's infrastructure.
The other view is attributed to a small number of right-wing economists in the 1980s.
They argued that the American people had been wrong: the New Deal actually made the Depression worse. By borrowing and spending so much, the government created a climate of uncertainty. This made investors hold on to their money - prolonging the despair. It didn't restore private investment, it "crowded it out".
The author, Johann Hari. then argues the first is correct for two reasons. First, when FDR cut back spending and raised taxes in 1936, we had relapse. Second, it was the spending of WWII that finally ended the Depression.

The article skips the interesting questions that are needed to frame the whole debate. We have had recessions every few years for the past two centuries. Most of them have been mild. Nothing else was close to being as severe or as long-lasting as the Great Depression. Why was it so deep? At the time, many thought it revealed an inherent flaw in capitalism, that it showed that Marx was correct. A large part of the intellectual class that grew up in that era accepted this explanation and became Marxist. But when there was no depression after World War II, despite the predictions of people such as Paul Samuelson, an ardent Keynesian, people had to start looking for other explanations. The most convincing explanation that has emerged is a monetary interpretation, arguing that the Great Depression was special because government policy set up an amplifying feedback loop. As things became worse, government (monetary) policy changed to make it even worse, etc. That loop was not broken until FDR neutered the Federal Reserve by abandoning gold. There remains disagreement among economists as to the importance of the real-bills doctrine and the gold standard in contributing to that feedback loop, but most economists who have looked at the episode with any care now see Federal Reserve policy as key to understanding the decline from 1929 to 1933, and also the sharp recession in 1936-7 when the Fed raised reserve requirements. This explanation was developed and popularized by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwarz, but it can be found far earlier, in, for example, a book by Lauchlin Currie.

Compared with other recoveries, the recovery after 1933 was slow. Why was this recovery so slow? One answer, favored by the left, is that because the fall was so deep, normal resiliency of markets was impaired, and government policy was needed. The New Deal was doing the right thing, but just not enough of it. On the other side, the conservative answer focuses not only on expectations and uncertainty (though not primarily caused by borrowing and spending), but also on interference with markets. When a market has a surplus, either a fall in price or an increase in demand will restore market clearing. If there is no increase in demand, then an attempt to keep price from falling will stop that market from finding an equilibrium. In a system of markets, preventing some markets from adjusting can keep the entire system from re-adjusting. The New Deal interfered with price adjustment in many ways--various programs attacked a symptom of recession (deflation), not the cause (insufficient demand). Hence, it is only natural for economists to argue that some New Deal policies made the problems worse rather than better.

The first rule of medicine is, "First, do no harm." It should also be the first rule of economic policy making. Economists have made a convincing case that government policies during the Great Depression did harm. Hari does not seem to take seriously the possibility that the stimulus package being discussed in Washington could do more harm than good.

(If Johann Hari is correct on what got us out of the Depression, shouldn't he be advocating a massive expansion of the military?)

Update: The Wall Street Journal has an piece dated Feb 2, 2006 by economists Harold Cole and Lee Ohanian that emphasizes the negative role of the New Deal's attempts to micromanage markets.

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