Archive for the ‘great depression’ Category

How dead is Keynes? Very.

3 September 2011

Eric Alterman hits the nail right on the head right here. Just as E. Cary Brown concluded about New Deal fiscal policy in the 1930s, the problem wasn’t that Keynesian fiscal stimulus was tried and found wanting, it’s that it wasn’t tried. Or was barely tried. In the 1930s the federal deficits were too small, were largely offset by budget cutting at the state and local level, and were reversed by a misguided attempt at budget balancing in 1936-37. Sound familiar? A key difference between then and now, however, is that Pres. Roosevelt and the Democratic Congresses of the 1930s believed in direct government job creation. The New Deal added an average of 3.5 million workers per year to the federal payroll. Pres. Obama was under great political pressure to keep that number at zero, and to hope that job creation would come from tax cuts (not promising, since much of that money gets saved or spent on imports) and government contracts (also not promising, since profit-maximizing contractors try to economize on labor costs).

For the last few quarters the government has actually been cutting spending and as a result its contribution to GDP growth has actually been negative. Yes, that’s from too little government, not too much.

Alas, this famous passage by Keynes no longer seems to be true:

‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.’

One could argue that Keynesian economics gave way to another academic branch of economics, like monetarism or new classical economics, but I see little in recent political or policy debates to suggest that either of those schools is being consulted. What about supply-side economics, you ask? It’s not really an academic school of economics, more a fig leaf for certain vested interests. Consider for, example former Reagan budget director David Stockman’s famous admission that the Kemp-Roth/Reagan “supply side” tax cuts were really just a Trojan Horse for cutting taxes on the rich.

Speaking of Reagan, his declaration thirty years ago that “government is the problem” seems to have become the  guiding light for economic policy-making in America. Score one for “the power of vested interests.”

The deficits between politicians’ ears

17 August 2011

‘This isn’t hard. Hire people to build things with the free money the world is offering us.’

— Jay Ackroyd, at Eschaton (Hat tip: Brad DeLong)

Well, yeah. We should worry about the long-term deficit, but when the world is ready to lend us more money at zero real interest rates, the world clearly has other priorities. And so should we — like the 16% of the labor force that’s either unemployed or underemployed. What might we do with all this money the world is so eager to lend us?

The closest thing to a proposal to build things that’s come out of Washington lately is an infrastructure bank, to fund various improvements in the nation’s roads, bridges, levees, and such. A recent Bloomberg editorial praises the idea, and Pres. Obama is urging Congress to create such a bank. The obstacle, not surprisingly, is Congressional Republicans who view all domestic spending as “pork.” In this case, however, the pork is more like bacon bits. From the WSJ:

‘Under the White House plan, the infrastructure bank would augment current highway and transit programs. The bank would receive $30 billion over six years and would issue grants, loans and other financial tools.’

$5 billion a year? Barely a drop in the giant bucket that is the U.S. output gap. And barely a dent in our nation’s gaping infrastructure needs, which the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates as costing $2.2 trillion over 5 years. Way to think big, Mr. President. As Krugman wrote recently, the battle in Washington is between Republicans who want to do nothing and Democrats who want to do very, very little. And outside the beltway, we have a Republican presidential front-runner who thinks that doing anything to help the economy before November 2012 is not only wrong but treasonous.

But heroically assuming for a minute that Washington actually wanted to employ people to fix the nation’s infrastructure, the ASCE’s website provides ample details about where to do it. Talk about “shovel-ready projects.” Meanwhile, my former professor David F. Weiman recounts some of the infrastructural marvels of the New Deal. Even a longtime Great Depression researcher (me) was amazed:

‘The New Deal’s Public Works and Works Progress administrations spurred rapid productivity growth in the midst of the Depression. New roads and electrical power networks paved the way for post-World War II economic expansion built around the automobile and the suburban home. Astonishing 21st-century innovations such as next-day FedEx deliveries and Wi-Fi still rely on these aging investments. We associate FDR with massive hydroelectric dam projects — including the Grand Coulee and Hoover dams in the West, and the Tennessee Valley Authority in the South — but the New Deal also electrified rural America through cooperatives that distributed cheap, reliable power. Nearly 12 percent of Americans still belong to these collectives. Without the New Deal, they would be stuck in the much darker 1920s.

‘As would modern travelers. Without the New Deal, New York commuters would be without the FDR Drive, the Triboroughand Whitestone bridges, and the Lincoln and Queens-Midtown tunnels. There would be no air traffic at LaGuardia and Reagan National airports. D.C.’s Union Station, wired for electricity during the New Deal, would have a very different food court. Between New York and Washington, Amtrak runs on rails first electrified during the New Deal.

‘Out West, the New Deal gave us Golden Gate Bridge access ramps, the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, the first modern freeways, and San Francisco and LAX airports. Between the coasts, it brought more than 650,000 miles of paved roads, thousands of bridges and tunnels, more than 700 miles of new and expanded runways, improvements to railroad lines, and scenic routes such as the mid-South’s Natchez Trace Parkway. Without the New Deal, of course, some of these would have eventually been built by state and local governments or the private sector — years after America’s recovery from the Depression.

‘Moreover, private infrastructure improvements would have bypassed poor regions such as the South. Because of its vision and virtually unlimited borrowing capacity, the New Deal underwrote Southern modernization with new roads, hospitals, rural electrification and schools. These public investments paid off. After 50 years of stagnation, average Southern incomes began to catch up with the national average during the New Deal era.’

Granted, economic historians have long criticized FDR’s New Deal deficits as being too small to restore the economy to full employment, but neither were they insignificant. An average of 3.5 million workers a year worked in New Deal jobs. From the above it’s clear that a great many of those jobs produced great gains for America’s infrastructure, economy, and society.

‘The market is rational and the government is dumb’

3 August 2011

The above quote is a favorite of former House Speaker Dick Armey (R-TX). He even used to write it on the blackboard on the first day of class when he was an economics professor. Armey has been out of government for years, but as a founding member of a Tea Party group, he’s been a big influence on that wing of the Republican Party. Not surprisingly, he seems pleased with the pounds of flesh they’ve extracted in the new Budget Control Act of 2011.

Armey and I have different ideas of “dumb.” He favors slashing government spending during our Little Depression and also favors a balanced budget amendment that would supposedly compel further slashing. I think those things are time-tested recipes (the times being 1932 and 1937) for worsening a depression. What do the markets think?

The stock market is on track for its eighth straight day of decline (as of 11:55 a.m., the S&P 500 is down 0.5%, and its biggest drop, 2.6%, was yesterday, when the Budget Control Act finally passed). 10-year Treasury bond prices have been rising, and T-bond interest rates falling, over the same span, now down to 2.57%. How to interpret those numbers?

Hard to do, because nobody (as far as I know) takes scientific polls of market participants to ask them why they did what they did. Armey would probably say, as some commentators have, that stocks have tanked because the $2.1 – 2.5 trillion in cuts over a decade aren’t enough. I would say, as have others, that the market is reacting to the dismal state of the economy and to the likelihood that, as basic macroeconomic theory tells us, the spending cuts will make it even more dismal.

What about bonds? The rosy view would be that T-bond prices have improved because the debt-ceiling vote means no default through 2012 and the spending cuts reduce the overall burden of debt. Armey and I might actually agree that the unrosy view is correct: T-bonds are in higher demand because of a worldwide “flight to safety,” as grim economic news causes people to move away from risky, cyclical assets like stocks and toward safe assets like T-bonds. Again, is the grimmer news the “failure” to slash spending more or the weakening economy?

I’m thinking Armey’s quote fits right now, except it’s the budget bloodletters who are dumb and the markets are rationally reacting by anticipating that they will cause further hemorrhaging of the economy.

P.S. At least one market participant agrees. From the Aug. 2 Financial Times:

‘Jim Reid, strategist at Deutsche Bank, . . . has warned the US could be approaching a “1937 moment” – when authorities removed post-Depression stimuli from still-fragile markets and triggered another recession. This risk, he says, has in fact only been magnified in the markets’ eyes by agreement on raising the US debt ceiling.’

(Hat tip: Brad DeLong)

Feeling 1932 (updated, Aug. 1)

28 July 2011

I’ve written already that the best deal on the debt ceiling would simply be to raise it (or better still, abolish it), without attaching it to a bill that punishes the economy further by slashing spending and/or raising taxes. The last thing this ailing economy needs is a Grand Bargain to reduce the current deficit. It was disastrous policy during the Great Depression — first by Congress and President Hoover in 1932, then by Congress and President Roosevelt in 1937. I would have thought those historic blunders would not be repeated, but I guess it’s always a mistake to assume that politicians know economics or history. But I’ve said all that before.

What I want to point out here is that we’re due for some ill-timed spending cuts (and maybe tax increases), regardless of what Congress does in the next week. Remember that $787 billion stimulus package that Congress passed in early 2009? It was spread out over two years, so roughly $400 billion a year, about $250 billion of which was spending and $150 billion tax cuts, almost all in 2009-2011. So that stimulus is just about “spent.” The main tax cuts, like extending the patch for the alternative minimum tax, will probably be maintained because they’re politically popular, but the spending almost surely will not. So that’s an abrupt drop of about $250 billion in government spending, or about 2% of GDP, over the next year. This chart from James Fallows’ blog for The Atlantic shows the projected big drop in fiscal stimulus from “Relief measures.” That’s the trouble with stimulus — it’s finite. Congress passes these things reluctantly, and if the economy still needs stimulating when it’s over, people are more likely to conclude that it failed rather than that it was too small (which it was) or that it spared us even worse devastation (which it did).

Now it is possible, perhaps even probable, that Congress will fail to pass any deficit-reduction deal and will end up raising the debt ceiling anyway — after all, that’s what’s happened virtually every previous time that a debt-ceiling vote has come up. But even if Congress ends up not inflicting any new wounds on the economy, we’re looking at big-time deficit reduction that will do plenty of damage on its own.

UPDATE, 1 Aug. 2011: Actually, it looks like it’s already happened. In the dismal GDP figures released last week, the government’s contribution to real GDP growth was negative 1.2 percentage points in the first quarter of 2011, with about two-thirds of the decline coming from the federal government. Government purchases account for about 20% of GDP, so cuts in government purchases reduce GDP. “Fiscal drag,” the economists call it. Federal government purchases fell 9.4% in the first quarter (the unwinding of the stimulus surely had much to do with this), and state and local government purchases fell 3.4%. (In the second quarter federal purchases rose 2.2% and state and local purchases again fell 3.4%.)

P.S. The title’s musical inspiration is forty years off and I’ve used it before, but hey, it’s a good song.

If we make it through December

3 December 2010

The BLS unemployment report for November is out, and it ain’t pretty.  Less than a third as much job creation (+39,000) as expected, not nearly enough to absorb new entrants into the labor force, so the official unemployment rate edged up to 9.8%.  (The comprehensive U-6 unemployment rate was unchanged at 17.0%.)

The private sector added 50,000 more jobs, and the government shed 11,000 jobs.  It is a bit hard to disentangle private sector jobs from the government, in view of the fact that the $787 billion stimulus went mostly to the private sector as opposed to new government jobs, but it is rather remarkable how little the government is doing in terms of direct job creation.  At the federal level this comes down to politics — in this conservative age, creating 3.5 million temporary government jobs, as the New Deal did each year, is considered a bad thing.  Indirectly creating or saving 3.5 million jobs, as the Obama Administration credits the stimulus with having done, is politically viable (or was in early 2009) but hard to prove, which is probably why the stimulus is unpopular with most of the public.  At the state and local level, of course, it comes down to balanced-budget requirements — with tax revenues down for the count, everyone’s cutting government payrolls to try to close the budget gap.  (Without emergency federal aid to make up the difference, the recession gets magnified at the state and local government level.)   If I eyeballed the numbers correctly, employment is down for the year at all three levels of government.

The only good news I noticed in the report was that the number of temp workers, a leading economic indicator of employment, increased for the fourth straight month.  (And even then, the increase is smaller than in several months earlier this year.)  Another leading indicator, weekly hours worked, did not improve, instead holding steady at 34.3 hours.

Now, the unemployment rate is a lagging indicator, and there are positive signs of recovery elsewhere, but that’s cold comfort to the nation’s 15 million unemployed. Seems like we’re back to where Merle Haggard  was in 1973, especially with Republicans in Congress so far refusing to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless:

Stimulate some action

26 August 2010

Michael Grunwald of Time has an interesting new article about the specifics of the stimulus spending, which began with “shovel ready” projects that could employ people right away but is now about to move onto “shovel worthy” projects that required more advance planning and are more in line with the Obama Administration’s long-term policy goals on energy, education, etc.  The article differs from others I’ve read on the stimulus in that the focus is not on its impact on jobs or GDP but on how these programs may yield a greener energy policy, expanded scientific research and broadband access, and school reform.  There’s an analogy to be made with the New Deal, whose early jobs programs were sometimes derided as “leaf raking” or “ditch digging” but which came to include enduring projects like highways, bridges, buildings, and parks.

The $787 million stimulus bill that passed in early 2009 is by now unpopular with the public.  A recent poll I saw in The Washington Post this summer (I’ll try to find the link later) found that the public, by a 56-41% margin, actually thought the stimulus had made the economy worse.  This is perhaps understandable considering that the unemployment rate has not come down much, but still mind-boggling in the face of empirical estimates by nonpartisan economists that the stimulus saved three million jobs.

The only part of Grunwald’s piece I didn’t like was his claim that “liberals” think the stimulus was not large enough.  While that much is basically true, it’s not just political liberals who believe that.  Keynesian economists, not all of whom are liberal Democrats, would tend to argue that another big round of stimulus is necessary to push the economy back toward “full employment,” i.e., an unemployment rate of about 5%, maybe 6% (it’s now 9.5%).  Three million jobs saved is better than none, but the glass is less than half full considering that there still are eight million more unemployed Americans now than in 2007, before the recession began.

Matt Yglesias presents another poll that tends to suggest that the stimulus’s unpopularity reflects not the content of the stimulus bill but basically just the sad state of the economy and the usual tendency of the public to blame it on the president — i.e., if the stimulus bill was his bill, then it must have been a bad bill, because the economy stinks.  Yglesias cites a poll that asks people whether they would like certain measures to be taken.  Asked if they would favor “additional government spending to create jobs and stimulate the economy,” 60% said yes.  Politicians, take note.

P.S. Today’s title is from J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight,” but the song I felt like posting was this one by The Flamin’ Groovies:

The Other 2%

15 August 2010

One of the big issues before Congress right now is whether and how to extend the Bush tax cuts, enacted in 2001 and scheduled to expire at the end of this year.  Congressional Republicans want to make them permanent.  President Obama and many Democrats want to extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone except the very wealthy, i.e., those in the top tax bracket (which would go from 35% back to 39.6%, where it was in 2001).

Throughout this debate I had agreed with the Democratic position, for reasons of both equity and economics.  Over the past thirty years, incomes and wealth in this country have become much more skewed in favor of the rich, so as long as we have a progressive tax system why not use it to push back against that trend?  (I’m not saying let’s equalize incomes, just that trying to check the increase in inequality is a reasonable thing to do.) Only about 2-3% of households — those earning over $373,651 —  are in the top tax bracket, and even then their first $373,651 of income would be taxed at the same rate as before, so the pain associated with raising the top tax rate seems small.  On the economic side, cutting taxes for the wealthy provides a smaller boost to consumer spending than just about any other tax cut or benefit increase you can think of.  See, for example, the “stimulus bang for the buck” table on page 5 of this testimony by Mark Zandi, Chief Economist of Moody’s Analytics back in April.  In the case of making the Bush tax cuts permanent, a dollar of tax cuts would raise GDP by 32 cents, compared with, say $1.41 from an increase in aid to state and local governments or $1.61 for an extension of unemployment benefits.  (The logic is that wealthy taxpayers save much of their income, so small differences in their after-tax income won’t affect their spending much, at least not compared with other taxpayers.  And increases in government spending increase GDP directly and can, if the government starts jobs programs, employ people directly.) And then there are the tax revenues to consider — those top 2-3% of taxpayers have a huge amount of taxable income, so a 4.6% difference in that top tax rate makes a big difference in the government’s deficit and debt.

But equity and economics are unlikely to carry the day in Washington, D.C.  Today’s New York Times has a remarkable op-ed by the same Mark Zandi, titled “A Tax Cut We Can Afford,” in which he argues for extending the Bush tax cuts, sort of.  He says they should be extended for the wealthy, too. His reasoning is political:  Yes, it would be ideal to let the top rate go back to 39.6% and use the new revenue to pay for jobs programs or bigger jobs tax credits, but that option is not on the table.  Republicans and conservative Democrats would undoubtedly block it.  Another truly sizable spending stimulus is not on the table either.  What is feasible, besides minor measures like the jobs bill passed this month, is . . . extending the Bush tax cuts.

Although extending tax cuts on those making $374,000+ a year is not a great option, Zandi says, raising their taxes and (with effective stimuli off the table) doing nothing with it is a worse option.  Most of U.S. GDP is people’s consumption, and even though the rich consume less of their income than other people do, they still consume a lot, so much that their consumption may determine the fate of GDP over the next few years.  The Times recently reported that rich Americans have cut back on their spending.  The article quotes Zandi yet again: “One of the reasons that the recovery has lost momentum is that high-end consumers have become more jittery and more cautious.”  The top 5% of Americans account for one-third of consumer expenditures, according to the piece.

Generally speaking, you don’t raise taxes in a recession.  That’s one of the endlessly repeated lessons of the Great Depression (Hoover and Congress raised taxes in 1932, Roosevelt and Congress did so in 1936), and it still applies.  Again, if you could raise upper-income taxes and use them to pay for well-targeted stimulus programs, that would be fine, but to quote Zandi again, “it is asking too much of our political system now to get it just right. I’m skeptical that a politicized Congress would be able to pull it off, and failure to do so would leave us next year with higher taxes and a hobbled recovery.”

Zandi says the tax-cut extension for wealthy households should be temporary, to be removed when “the economy is off and running,” with the increase phased in perhaps over a three-year period.

I am pretty well convinced.  I’ve been arguing in this space that the severe slump we’re in makes this a terrible time for drastic spending cuts.  By the same token, this is not a good time to raise taxes on anyone.


8 June 2009

G.D. vs now

From Barry Eichengreen & Kevin H. O'Rourke (h/t: Andrew Sullivan)

Lessons From FDR’s First Ten Days?

30 April 2009

Somewhat lost in this week’s media-created milestone of the first hundred days of the Obama Administration, and the inevitable comparisons to Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s momentous First Hundred Days (so momentous that they became a proper noun) is FDR’s even more extraordinary accomplishment in his first ten days:  the resurrection of the U.S. banking system.  Such resurrection, as you may have heard, has so far eluded Pres. Obama and his predecessor.  Are there lessons from how FDR and his guys did it?

First, a quick timeline:  FDR took office on March 4, 1933 (after that, the 20th Amendment moved the inauguration date up to January).  On March 5, he declared the famous “bank holiday.”  On March 9, he got Congress to pass the Emergency Banking Act, to give his administration unprecedented powers over the banks.  On March 12, he gave his first “fireside chat,” assuring people that the banks were about to reopen and would be healthy when they did.  On March 13 (day 10), banks reopened in 12 cities.  By March 16, the administration’s massive audit and purge operation, more than 70 percent of U.S. banks had reopened, while others were closed.

Economic historians are in less-than-complete agreement about the New Deal’s overall macroeconomic impact, with a substantial minority in a recent survey agreeing with a proposition that the New Deal harmed the economy.  But there does seem to be consensus that the bank overhaul was a great success.  Even FDR advisor-turned-harsh-critic Raymond Moley described it in glowing terms.  With the president’s signing of the Emergency Banking Act, he wrote in After Seven Years (a classic among Roosevelt bashers), without sarcasm, “The sequence of bold, heart-warming action had begun.”

The personnel involved in the great bank triage operation, which involved some 15,000 banks (i.e., twice as many as we have now) were various Treasury and Federal Reserve officials, with Secretary of the Treasury William Woodin at the helm.  In Moley’s words:

‘ . . . as I look back at those frenzied days, it seems to me that the country has never quite realized the extent to which Woodin, [Hoover’s Undersecretary of the Treasury Arthur] Ballantine, and, last but no means least, [Hoover’s Acting Comptroller of the Currency F.G.] Awalt helped to restore the confidence of the country by a rapid and unprejudiced approximation of the equities — social as well as financial — involved in each case. . . .’

‘Capitalism was saved in eight days, and no other single factor in its salvation was half so important as the imagination and sturdiness and common sense of Will Woodin.’

Mister, we could use a man like William Woodin again.

(to be continued)

A dead economist for our time

16 February 2009

The new Economist has a great piece on Irving Fisher, the great American monetary economist who articulated the destructive aspects of deflation better than anyone before him.  Fisher was a weird dude — eugenics and Prohibition were among his passions — but his “Debt-Deflation Theory of Depressions” (the lead article in the first issue of Econometrica in 1933)  lives on.  Virtually every monetary economist since, from Milton Friedman to Ben Bernanke, has absorbed Fisher’s lessons.  So has the Federal Reserve.  Nobody tries to defend deflation anymore.

A fine piece in the new Forbes, “The Real Lesson of the New Deal,” by ex (in more ways than one) Reaganite Bruce Bartlett, complements it nicely.  Bartlett sketches the devastating effects of deflation in the early 1930s and throws in some sensible points about policy in the Great Depression.  (Hat tip: Jeff Sachse.)