Ed Driscoll

Correcting Krugman

Amity Shlaes, the author of the seminal Depression-era flashback, The Forgotten Man, on “What Paul Krugman Misses About 1937 Redux:”

The Wagner Act, the great modern labor statute, became law in 1935. It made possible the closed shop, under which only unionized workers were allowed into a unit. In 1937, after Roosevelt was safely elected, labor leader John L. Lewis and his Congress of Industrial Organizations began using their new power to its full extent. Labor’s tour de force in this period is memorialized in the photos we still recognize today of sit-down strikes at the General Motors Co. plant in Flint, Michigan. Strike days in 1937 totaled 28 million, up from 14 million during the election year.Such labor stoppages, and the threat of more, led companies to raise wages more than they could afford to. Harold Cole of the University of Pennsylvania and Lee Ohanian of the University of California, Los Angeles, have demonstrated that wages in the latter half of the 1930s were well above trend for the entire century. Employers also hired less: Even as unionization increased, nonfarm unemployment did as well.

The second under-discussed issue is what scholar Robert Higgs has called “regime uncertainty.” Roosevelt’s victory in 1936 had been so convincing that people believed he might do anything. FDR reinforced this suspicion with an inaugural address so aggressive that modern presidential advisers would never allow it on the teleprompter. Roosevelt told the nation he sought in government “an instrument of unimagined power.” That scared markets and small businesses.

Roosevelt relished hunting down big firms through regulatory action and blaming new sectors, such as utilities, for slowdowns — on some days. Other days, he invited business leaders into the Oval Office and talked about partnership and a “breathing spell.”

This inconsistency itself posed a problem. The diary of an Ohio lawyer named Daniel Roth, which was recently republished, captures the pervasive anxiety of the period. “We are having a bad steel strike in Youngstown and the mills have closed,” Roth wrote on June 22, 1937. “The state and federal governments seem to support the labor unions and there has been a complete breakdown of law and order. Business is very quiet.”

From the U.K., John Maynard Keynes wrote to FDR that it was all right to nationalize utilities or to leave them alone — but what, Keynes asked, was “the object of chasing the utilities around the lot every other week?””

In this respect, the 1938 midterm gains by Republicans were important because they signaled to Americans that there were limits to Roosevelt’s power. And Roosevelt’s decision to turn his attention to Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, and away from the supposed excesses of big business, contributed as much as anything else to the eventual recovery.

But Krugman is particularly cool with that last part, as James Taranto noted last year:

Former Enron adviser Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, steps into the WABAC machine and guides us through some truly improbable history:

Here’s the situation: The U.S. economy has been crippled by a financial crisis. The president’s policies have limited the damage, but they were too cautious, and unemployment remains disastrously high. More action is clearly needed. Yet the public has soured on government activism, and seems poised to deal Democrats a severe defeat in the midterm elections.

The president in question is Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the year is 1938. Within a few years, of course, the Great Depression was over. But it’s both instructive and discouraging to look at the state of America circa 1938–instructive because the nature of the recovery that followed refutes the arguments dominating today’s public debate, discouraging because it’s hard to see anything like the miracle of the 1940s happening again.

What Krugman calls “the miracle of the 1940s” is more commonly known as World War II, a ruinous conflict that cost some 60 million lives, including more than 400,000 American ones, and that entailed the near-extermination of Europe’s Jewish population.

World War II is sometimes called a “good war,” meaning that few dispute American intervention was necessary or that we fought on the right side. But this easy moral clarity is possible only because the Axis actions that started the war were unambiguously evil.

In April 2009 we noted that David Leonhardt, a Krugman colleague at the Times, had praised the economic policies of Germany’s National Socialist Party. Now Krugman calls World War II itself a “miracle.” The Old Gray Lady is in the grips of utter madness.

Fortunately, like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black, the Timesmen in Gray carry their own neuralyzer spray in their pockets for whenever their brains gets too overtaxed.