Tag: Great Depression

Imaginary Squabbles Part 3: Krugman and DeLong’s Changing Theories and Missing Facts

Responding to a student question after a recent Kansas State debate with Brad DeLong I posed a conceptual puzzle.  I asked students to ponder why textbooks treat Treasury sales of government bonds as a “stimulus” to demand (nominal GDP) in the same sense as Federal Reserve purchases of such bonds.  “Those are very different polices,” I noted; “Why should they have the same effect?”  

The remark was intended to encourage students to probe more deeply into what such metaphors as “stimulating” or “jump starting” really mean, not to accept as dogma that fiscal and monetary policy are equally effective or that economists are certain just how they work.

DeLong’s misinterpretation of my question led him to lecture me that, “if you really do think that monetary expansion undoes fiscal expansion because monetary expansion buys bonds and fiscal expansion sells bonds, you need to educate yourself.” Citing that wholly imaginary rewriting of my question, Paul Krugman wrote, “My heart goes out to Brad DeLong, who debated Alan Reynolds and discovered that his opponent really doesn’t understand at all how either fiscal or monetary policy work.”

Did I really say that “monetary expansion undoes fiscal expansion”?  Of course not.  If that had been my question, I would have answered myself by saying that piling more debt on the backs of taxpayers is unlikely to stimulate private spending (much less encourage more or better labor and capital) unless the added debt is “monetized” by the Fed and regulators allow banks to lend more to private borrowers.  DeLong made much the same point by saying, “Expansionary monetary policy makes it a sure thing that expansionary fiscal policy is effective by removing the channels for interest-rate and tax crowding out.” 

The Fed’s current bond-buying spree is bound to have some effect, if only to facilitate cheap corporate buybacks of shares and speculative day trading of such stocks on margin.   But selling more government bonds per se (if the Fed won’t buy more) would be just as much an added burden for taxpayers as it would be a benefit to whoever receives the resulting government transfers, contracts or subsidies. 

This make-believe squabble about monetary expansion undoing fiscal expansion exists only in DeLong’s imagination, like my non-prediction of mammoth inflation or Krugman’s non-facts about Ireland’s fiscal frugality.

Can We Have An Evidence-Based Debate about the Future of the IMF?

On Saturday, March 30, the New York Times ran a curious editorial about the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The piece makes the case for a quick ratification of IMF’s quota reform by the United States, which it pictures as being in America’s interest. Unfortunately, the article is somewhat casual when it comes to the evidence it presents in support of its argument.

Firstly, the authors claim that the IMF

“has helped stabilize the global economy, most recently by providing loans to troubled European countries like Greece and Ireland.”

It is far from obvious that the repeated bailouts to Greece, in which the IMF has participated, have done much to calm the financial markets or to help the country’s economy. Recall that Greece is still going through a recession deeper than the Great Depression, with youth unemployment at around 60 percent, and no signs of recovery.

Secondly, there is the following assertion:

“[T]he fund’s capital […] has fallen sharply as a percentage of the global economy in the last decade.”

That is misleading as it does not take into consideration the increased use of the ‘new arrangements to borrow,’ (NAB) through which the Fund’s lending capacity was tripled in 2009, from $250 billion to $750 billion. That represented a historically unprecedented hike in the amount of resources available to any international organization.

Thirdly, the statement that the increase in quotas will happen “without increasing America’s financial commitment to the organization” is disingenuous. While the increase in quotas is to be accompanied by a reduction in the use of NAB’s – making it appear fiscally neutral on surface – the deployment of the NAB’s is accompanied by a stringent approval procedure, whereas the quotas can be deployed towards various lending purposes at the Fund’s discretion. Greater reliance on quota funding would thus enable the Fund to make bigger claims on the public purse, with less accountability.

A debate about the future of the IMF is long overdue in this country. But it should be a debate based on a careful examination of the Fund’s track record in mitigating financial crises around the world. To flatly assert, like the editorial does, that “[i]ncreasing the fund’s resources will ensure that it can respond quickly to another wave of turmoil in Europe or elsewhere” does not do the job. If anything, that claim - like much of the editorial - only strains credulity.

No Matter How Hard He Tries, Obama Will Never Be as Bad as FDR

I’ve explained on many occasions that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was bad news for the economy. The same can be said of Herbert Hoover’s policies, since he also expanded the burden of federal spending, raised tax rates, and increased government intervention.

So when I was specifically asked to take part in a symposium on Barack Obama, Franklin Roosevelt, and the New Deal, I quickly said yes.

I was asked to respond to this question: “Was that an FDR-Sized Stimulus?” Here’s some of what I wrote.

President Obama probably wants to be another FDR, and his policies share an ideological kinship with those that were imposed during the New Deal. But there’s really no comparing the 1930s and today. And that’s a good thing. As explained by Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell, President Roosevelt’s policies are increasingly understood to have had a negative impact on the American economy. …[W]hat should have been a routine or even serious recession became the Great Depression.

In other words, my assessment is that Obama is a Mini-Me version of FDR, which is a lot better (or, to be more accurate, less worse) than the real thing.

To be sure, Obama wants higher tax rates, and he has expanded government control over the economy. And the main achievement of his first year was the so-called stimulus, which was based on the same Keynesian theory that a nation can become richer by switching money from one pocket to another. …Obama did get his health plan through Congress, but its costs, fortunately, pale in comparison to Social Security and its $30 trillion long-run deficit. And the Dodd-Frank bailout bill is peanuts compared to all the intervention of Roosevelt’s New Deal. In other words, Obama’s policies have nudged the nation in the wrong direction and slowed economic growth. FDR, by contrast, dramatically expanded the burden of government and managed to keep us in a depression for a decade. So thank goodness Barack Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt.

The last sentence of the excerpt is a perfect summary of my remarks. I think Obama’s policies have been bad for the economy, but he has done far less damage than FDR because his policy mistakes have been much smaller.

Moreover, Obama has never proposed anything as crazy as FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights.” As I pointed out in my article, this “would have created a massive entitlement state—putting America on a path to becoming a failed European welfare state a couple of decades before European governments made the same mistake.”

On the other hand, subsequent presidents did create that massive entitlement state and Obama added another straw to the camel’s back with Obamacare. And he is rigidly opposed to the entitlement reforms that would save America from becoming another Greece. So maybe I didn’t give him enough credit for being as bad as FDR.

P.S.: Here’s some 1930s economic humor, and it still applies today.

P.P.S.: The symposium also features an excellent contribution from Professor Lee Ohanian of UCLA.

And from the left, it’s interesting to see that Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research basically agrees with me. But only in the sense that he also says Obama is a junior-sized version of FDR. Dean actually thinks Obama should have embraced his inner-FDR and wasted even more money on an even bigger so-called stimulus.

New Video Punctures Myths about Great Depression, Exposes Damaging Impact of Statist Policies by Hoover and FDR

I’ve commented many times about the misguided big-government policies of both Hoover and FDR, so I can say with considerable admiration that this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity packs an amazing amount of solid info into about five minutes.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation in the video, at least to everyone other than economic historians, is that America suffered a harsh depression after World War I, with GDP falling by a staggering 24 percent.

But we don’t read much about that downturn in the history books, in large part because it ended so quickly.

The key question, though, is why did that depression end quickly while the Great Depression dragged on for a decade?

One big reason for the different results is that markets were largely left unmolested in the 1920s. This meant resources could be quickly redeployed, minimizing the downturn.

But this doesn’t mean the crowd in Washington was completely passive. They did do something to help the economy recover. As Ms. Fields explains in the video, President Harding, unlike Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt, slashed government spending.

We’ve Had Enough Government ‘Stimulation’

After three years and $4 trillion in combined deficit spending, unemployment remains stubbornly high and the economy sluggish. That people are still asking what the government can do to stimulate the economy is mind-boggling.

That the Keynesian-inspired deficit spending binge did create jobs isn’t in question. The real question is whether it created any net jobs after all the negative effects of the spending and debt are taken into account. How many private-sector jobs were lost or not created in the first place because of the resources diverted to the government for its job creation? How many jobs are being lost or not created because of increased uncertainty in the business community over future tax increases and other detrimental government policies?

Don’t expect the disciples of interventionist government to attempt an answer to those questions any time soon. It has simply become gospel in some quarters that massive deficit spending is necessary to get the economy back on its feet.

The idea that government spending can “make up for” a slow-down in private economic activity has already been discredited by the historical record—including the Great Depression and Japan’s recent “lost decade.”

Our own history offers evidence that reducing the government’s footprint on the private sector is the better way to get the economy going.

Take for example, the “Not-So-Great Depression” of 1920-21. Cato Institute scholar Jim Powell notes that President Warren G. Harding inherited from his predecessor Woodrow Wilson “a post-World War I depression that was almost as severe, from peak to trough, as the Great Contraction from 1929 to 1933 that FDR would later inherit.” Instead of resorting to deficit spending to “stimulate” the economy, taxes and government spending were cut. The economy took off.

Similarly, fears at the end of World War II that demobilization would result in double-digit unemployment when the troops returned home were unrealized. Instead, spending was dramatically reduced, economic controls were lifted, and the returning troops were successfully reintegrated into the economy.

Therefore, the focus of policymakers in Washington should be on fostering long-term economic growth instead of futilely trying to jump-start the economy with costly short-term government spending sprees. In order to reignite economic growth and job creation, the federal government should enact dramatic cuts in government spending, eliminate burdensome regulations, and scuttle restrictions on foreign trade.

The budgetary reality is that policymakers today have no choice but to drastically reduce spending if we are to head off the looming fiscal train wreck. Stimulus proponents generally recognize that our fiscal path is unsustainable, but they argue that the current debt binge is nonetheless critical to an economic recovery.

There’s no more evidence for this belief than there is for the existence of the tooth fairy.

Not only has Washington’s profligacy left us worse off, our children now face the prospect of reduced living standards and crushing debt.

 

This article originally appeared in a PolicyMic debate between the Cato Institute’s Tad DeHaven and Demos senior fellow Lew Daly. Check out Daly’s piece here.

Andrew Sullivan Has No Idea What He’s Talking about, but I Agree with His Conclusion

Even though he’s become more partisan in recent years, I still enjoy an occasional visit to Andrew Sullivan’s blog. But I was disappointed last night when I read one of his posts, in which he discussed whether government spending helps or hurts economic performance. He took the view that a bigger public sector stimulates growth, and criticized those who want to reduce the burden of government spending, snarkily observing that, “The notion that Herbert Hoover was right has become quite a dogged meme on the reality-challenged right.”

Since I’m one of those “reality-challenged” people who prefer smaller government, I obviously disagree with his analysis. But his reference to Hoover set off alarm bells. As I have noted before, Hoover increased the burden of government during his time in office.

But maybe my memory was wrong. So I went to the Historical Tables of the Budget and looked up the annual spending data. As you can see from the chart (click for larger image), it turns out that Hoover increased government spending by 47 percent in just four years. (If you adjust for falling prices, as Russ Roberts did at Cafe Hayek, it turns out that Hoover increased real government spending by more than 50 percent.)

I suppose I could make my own snarky comment about being “reality-challenged,” but Sullivan’s mistake is understandable. The historical analysis and understanding of the Great Depression is woefully inadequate, and millions of people genuinely believe that Hoover was an early version of Ronald Reagan.

I will say, however, that I agree with Sullivan’s conclusion. He closed by saying it would be “bonkers” to replicate Hoover’s policies today. I might have picked a different word, but I fully subscribe to the notion that making government bigger was a mistake then, and it’s a mistake now.

On Government Spending and Job Creation

The standard Keynesian policy proposal for a weak economy is to have the government spend more money, and run deficits to do so.  Clearly much of current government spending is being financed by borrowing.  So current conditions are not subject to the New Deal critique that it was mostly paid for by taxes, as during the Great Depression. Current federal expenditures have increased about 41% since the housing market peaked in 2006.  Has all this government spending generated many jobs?  While keeping in mind that correlation is not the same as causality, it is interesting that the trend in government spending and total non-farm employees mirror one another, but not in the way you’d like.  The more the government has spent, the more people have lost their jobs.  The simple correlation between government spending and jobs has been a negative 0.9.   Also worth noting is that both the decline in jobs and increase in government spending began well before the financial crisis of Sept 2008.  In fact, almost 2 million jobs were lost between the beginning of the recession in Dec 2007 and the financial crisis in Sept 2008.  Again, I won’t pretend this proves anything, however, it does suggest to me that continued massive government spending is not going to turn around the job market.