Ed Driscoll

How We Got Here

As President Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress attempt to ladle copious amount of pork to their cronies disguised as a “stimulus package”, it’s worth reading Bruce Bartlett’s thorough exploration in Forbes of “the role of government in economic recovery“, beginning with a short, sharp primer on the makings of the Depression, and then a look at today’s economy. Here’s a sample:

No one today believes that the Great Depression just happened or dragged on as long as it did because the private sector kept making mistake after mistake after mistake. It only made them and continued to do so because government interfered with the normal operations of the market and prevented readjustment from taking place.

The Great Depression resulted from a confluence of governmental errors–the Fed was too easy for too long in the 1920s, tightened too much in 1928-29 and then failed to fix its mistake, thus bringing on a general deflation that was very difficult to arrest once downward momentum had set in. Herbert Hoover compounded the problem by signing into law the Smoot-Hawley Tariff and sharply raising taxes in 1932.

Unfortunately, Franklin D. Roosevelt misunderstood the nature of the economy’s problem and tried to fix prices to keep them from falling–thus preventing the very readjustment that would have brought about recovery. (See this paper by UCLA economists Harold Cole and Lee Ohanian.) He doesn’t seem to have ever understood the critical role of Fed policy and mistakenly thought that arbitrarily raising the price of gold would make money easier.

Then, in 1937, just as the economy was starting to build some upward momentum, Roosevelt decided to raise taxes and cut spending, and the Fed suddenly concluded that inflation, rather than deflation, was the main problem and tightened monetary policy. (Note: According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Great Depression was basically two severe recessions–one from August 1929 to March 1933, and another from May 1937 to June 1938–not a continuous downturn.)

The result was an economic setback that didn’t really end until both monetary and fiscal policy became expansive with the onset of World War II. At that point, no one worried any more about budget deficits, and the Fed pegged interest rates to ensure that they stayed low, increasing the money supply as necessary to achieve this goal.

It was then and only then that the Great Depression truly ended. As a consequence, economists concluded that an expansive monetary and fiscal policy, which had been advocated by economist John Maynard Keynes throughout the 1930s, was the key to getting out of a depression.

Keynes was right, but many of his followers weren’t. They thought that budget deficits would stimulate growth under all circumstances, not just those of a deflationary depression. When this medicine was applied inappropriately, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, the result was inflation.

Read the rest.

(Via Jonah Goldberg.)