Great Depression

Does “Pent Up” Demand Explain the Post-War Recovery?

Russ Roberts wonders about the meaning of “pent up” demand:

The usual way that Keynesians explain the post-[World War II] expansion despite the huge cut in government spending is to say, well of course the economy boomed, there was a lot of pent-up demand. What does that mean? There is always pent-up demand in the sense there is a stuff I wish I could have but can’t. But the standard story is that people couldn’t buy washing machines or cars during the war–they were rationed or simply unavailable or unaffordable. So when the war ended, and rationing and price controls ended, people were eager to buy these things. But the reason these consumer goods were rationed or unavailable is because all the steel went into the tanks and planes during the war. So when the war ended, there was steel available to the private sector. That’s why cutting government activity can stimulate the private sector. Fewer resources are being commandeered by the public sector.

Roberts refers to an earlier post of his, in which he rightly ridicules Keynesians for believing in the magical multiplier:

One of the most mindless aspects of the multiplier is to treat is as a constant, such as 1.52. It can’t be a constant, not in any meaningful way. If the government conscripted half of the US population to dig holes all day and conscripted the other half to fill them back in, and paid each of us a billion dollars a day for the task, and valued holes that were dug and holes that were filled in at a trillion dollars a hole, then GDP would be very very large, unemployment would be zero and there would be no stimulating effect and we would soon be dead from starvation.

Priceless.

I share Roberts’s disdain for the multiplier. (See this and this.)

Nevertheless, the availability of resources for private use after the war ended is only half the story. Consumers and businesses had to demand things — not just want them, but demand them with money in hand. That is where pent-up demand comes into play, as I explain here:

Conventional wisdom has it that the entry of the United States into World War II caused the end of the Great Depression in this country. My variant is that World War II led to a “glut” of private saving because (1) government spending caused full employment, but (2) workers and businesses were forced to save much of their income because the massive shift of output toward the war effort forestalled spending on private consumption and investment goods. The resulting cash “glut” fueled post-war consumption and investment spending.

Robert Higgs, research director of the Independent Institute, has a different theory, which he spells out in “Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed After the War” (available here), the first chapter his new book, Depression, War, and Cold War. (Thanks to Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek for the pointer.) Here, from “Regime Change . . . ” is Higgs’s summary of his thesis:

I shall argue here that the economy remained in the depression as late as 1940 because private investment had never recovered sufficiently after its collapse during the Great Contraction. During the war, private investment fell to much lower levels, and the federal government itself became the chief investor, directing investment into building up the nation’s capacity to produce munitions. After the war ended, private investment, for the first time since the 1920s, rose to and remained at levels sufficient to create a prosperous and normally growing economy.

I shall argue further that the insufficiency of private investment from 1935 through 1940 reflected a pervasive uncertainty among investors about the security of their property rights in their capital and its prospective returns. This uncertainty arose, especially though not exclusively, from the character of federal government actions and the nature of the Roosevelt administration during the so-called Second New Deal from 1935 to 1940. Starting in 1940 the makeup of FDR’s administration changed substantially as probusiness men began to replace dedicated New Dealers in many positions, including most of the offices of high authority in the war-command economy. Congressional changes in the elections from 1938 onward reinforced the movement away from the New Deal, strengthening the so-called Conservative Coalition.

From 1941 through 1945, however, the less hostile character of the administration expressed itself in decisions about how to manage the warcommand economy; therefore, with private investment replaced by direct government investment, the diminished fears of investors could not give rise to a revival of private investment spending. In 1945 the death of Roosevelt and the succession of Harry S Truman and his administration completed the shift from a political regime investors perceived as full of uncertainty to one in which they felt much more confident about the security of their private property rights. Sufficiently sanguine for the first time since 1929, and finally freed from government restraints on private investment for civilian purposes, investors set in motion the postwar investment boom that powered the economy’s return to sustained prosperity notwithstanding the drastic reduction of federal government spending from its extraordinarily elevated wartime levels.

Higgs’s explanation isn’t inconsistent with mine, but it’s incomplete. Higgs overlooks the powerful influence of the large cash balances that individuals and corporations had accumulated during the war years. It’s true that because the war was a massive resource “sink” those cash balances didn’t represent real assets. But the cash was there, nevertheless, waiting to be spent on consumption goods and to be made available for capital investments through purchases of equities and debt.

It helped that the war dampened FDR’s hostility to business, and that FDR’s death ushered in a somewhat less radical regime. Those developments certainly fostered capital investment. But the capital investment couldn’t have taken place (or not nearly as much of it) without the “glut” of private saving during World War II. The relative size of that “glut” can be seen here:

Derived from Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Income and Product Accounts Tables: 5.1, Saving and Investment. Gross private saving is analagous to cash flow; net private saving is analagous to cash flow less an allowance for depreciation. The bulge in gross private saving represents pent-up demand for consumption and investment spending, which was released after the war.

World War II did bring about the end of the Great Depression, not directly by full employment during the war but because that full employment created a “glut” of saving. After the war that “glut” jump-started

  • capital spending by businesses, which — because of FDR’s demise — invested more than they otherwise would have; and
  • private consumption spending, which — because of the privations of the Great Depression and the war years — would have risen sharply regardless of the political climate.

The post continues with an exchange between Higgs and me. The bottom line is the same.

What is the answer to the title question, then? It is that a period of forced, nominal saving can create pent-up demand, which can result in the employment of resources that had theretofore been unavailable. The pent-up demand at the end of World War II was, in great measure, responsible for the post-war recovery.

This rare phenomenon has nothing to do with the multiplier, and probably has nothing to do with the current economic situation. Government has commandeered a large chunk of the American economy, but so gradually that Americans have not acquire a “glut” of nominal savings, as they did in World War II.

The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty

In “A Keynesian Fantasy Land,” I gave six reasons for the failure of “stimulus” spending to stimulate the economy, despite the insistence of leftists and left-wing economists that economic salvation is to be found in bigger government. The reasons, which I elaborate in the earlier post, are these:

1. “leakage” to imports

2. disincentivizing effects of government borrowing and spending (regime uncertainty)

3. timing and targeting problems (spending that is too late and misdirected)

4. reversed causality (lower aggregate demand as symptom, not cause)

5. the negative consequences of bail-outs

6. the unaccounted for complexity of human behavior

An article by Casey B. Mulligan, “Simple Analytics and Empirics of the Government Spending Multiplier and Other ‘Keynesian’ Paradoxes,” underscores the futility of “stimulus” spending. These are among Mulligan’s conclusions:

From a partial equilibrium perspective, it would be surprising if government purchases did not crowd out at least some private consumption, and that a reduction in factor supply did not result in less output. Yet some “New Keynesian” models, not to mention much public policy commentary, claim that today’s economy has turned this partial equilibrium reasoning on its head, even while it might have been historically valid. Among other things, individual firms and the aggregate private sector are alleged to leave their production invariant to changes in factor supply conditions during this recession. This paper shows how the government spending multiplier and the “paradox of toil” are related in theory, and examines evidence from this recession on the output effects of factor supply…

This paper does not contain a numerical estimate of the government purchases multiplier. However, its examination of data exclusively from the 2008-9 recession suggests that sectoral and aggregate employment and output vary with supply conditions in much the same way they did before the recession. The results contradict Keynesian claims that the government purchases multiplier would be significantly greater during the recession than it was before 2008, suggesting instead that historical estimates of the effects of fiscal policies are informative about fiscal policy effects in more recent years. Moreover, the supply incentives created by government spending cannot be ignored merely because 2008 and 2009 were recession years; rather incentives mattered as much as ever. Government purchases likely moved factors away from activities that would have supported private purchases. Unemployment insurance, food stamps, and other expanding means-tested government programs likely reduced employment and output during this recession, in much the same way they did in years past.

Compounding the futility of “stimulus” spending is the general climate of economic fear that Obama’s policies have engendered; for example:

Thanks to Regulatory Burdens, We’ve Got Both A Creditless Recovery and A Jobless Recovery (at Carpe Diem)

Why aren’t we seeing a jobs recovery? Maybe it’s ObamaCare’s fault (at Questions and Observations)

Home Depot Founder: Obama’s Regulations Are Killing Businesses (at Commentary)

As John Steele Gordon points out,

[t]he greatest periods of American economic growth came when taxes were very low—such as in the 19th century—or being lowered and simplified, as in the 1920s, 60s, and 80s. Inescapably, to tax wealth creation is to discourage it. But there is a large and politically potent segment of the population that, because its interests are now aligned with those of the government, seek to promote dependency through entitlements. This segment favors ever higher taxes (although they disguise the fact by demanding that only “the rich” pay their “fair share.”) But, as with regulation, high taxes inevitably produce low growth—and low growth threatens entitlements in the long term. If the United States remains in the doldrums for several more years without hope of a real turnaround, Medicare as it is currently constituted will go bankrupt in 2019. Raising taxes to prevent that will only slow overall growth, and that will actually defeat the purpose of saving Medicare.

So there is really no alternative to pursuing policies that encourage economic growth through private action by liberating the forces of the free market. A presidential candidate who finds a way to ground his economic policies in this core truth—and harnesses the idea to a larger and more optimistic understanding of the United States, both past and future, and resists the take-your-medicine tone that dominates the conservative policy discussion of the present moment—will be able to draw a sharp and effective contrast with the failures of the Obama years. (“Growth: The Only Way out of This Mess,” Commentary, July 2011)

But there is no point in cutting taxes unless government spending is cut — and cut drastically — for government spending, along with regulation, is the real drag on the economy. Only in the left’s magical thinking is government spending a good thing. In reality, it is a destructive force — even during recessions and depressions.

Related posts:
The Causes of Economic Growth
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
The Price of Government
The Fed and Business Cycles
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
How the Great Depression Ended
Microeconomics and Macroeconomics
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Experts and the Economy
We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help You
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Our Enemy, the State
Competition Shouldn’t Be a Dirty Word
The Stagnation Thesis
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations

A Keynesian Fantasy Land

This post examines practical reasons for the failure of “stimulus” to stimulate and the “multiplier” to multiply. The deeper truth is that the Keynesian multiplier is a mathematical fiction, as explained here, and government spending is in fact destructive of economic growth, as discussed here and in some of the posts listed at the end.

“Liberal” economists and pundits complain incessantly that the recovery from the Great Recession is weak, and in jeopardy, because the federal government hasn’t spent “enough” money. (See this for some examples of the “liberal” view.) How much is “enough” for Paul Krugman et al.? It is always more than the government spends, of course.

Why should that be? The blindingly obvious answer — but not obvious to Krugman and company — is that demand-side fiscal policy (i.e., government “stimulus” spending) is ineffective. If the economy depends on government spending, how does one explain the decades after the Civil War, when government spent less than 10 percent of GDP (vs. today’s 40 percent), while America’s economy grew faster than at any time in its history? It took World War II and regime change (the disruption of the New Deal by the war) to end the Great Depression. Mr. Roosevelt’s adoption of Mr. Keynes’s hole-digging prescription (the Civilian Conservation Corps and similar make-work projects) had nothing to do with it. Mr. Roosevelt may have been an excellent marketeer, but he was a dismal economic engineer.

This is not to reject supply-side fiscal policy: tax-rate reductions. When tax-rate reductions are prospectively permanent — as opposed to one-time tax rebates and “holidays” — they can and do spur economic growth. Christina Romer, former chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, once proved it — though she developed a convenient case of amnesia when she became a proponent of “stimulus.”

As any reputable economist will tell you, however, the best that one can expect of a temporary increase in government spending is a temporary increase in economic activity; it is a stop-gap until the economy recovers on its own. (And a reputable economist, unlike Krugman, will also tell you that a permanent increase in government spending diverts resources from productive uses — uses that yield economic growth and satisfy actual economic wants — toward less-productive and counter-productive ones, including the creation of paper-shuffling, regulatory bureaucracies.)

Despite the promises of Obama, Romer, and company, the “stimulus” has evidently failed to do much — if anything — to alleviate the Great Recession and its lingering aftermath. (See this, this, and this, for example.) Thus the wailing and gnashing of teeth by Krugman and company — who want to replicate the failure on a grander scale.

WHY THE “STIMULUS” FAILED TO STIMULATE: GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

What went wrong? Anthony de Jasay offers a piece of the explanation:

…In Keynesian parlance there is the multiplier effect and it is greater than 1. As long as there is spare capacity (unemployment) in the economy, the government ought to go on spending more, working through the multiplier, because the extra private saving takes care of the government dissaving and the extra consumption is, so to speak, a welcome windfall gain. Timidly refusing to generate it is criminal waste.

Despite truculent voices to the contrary, the Keynesian logic is faultless in that the conclusions do follow from the assumptions. Why it does not really work and why it singularly failed to work in 2009-2010 and maybe beyond, is that other things do not remain equal. Part of the extra spending stimulus fails to stimulate domestic income because as much as 0.3 of the multiplier might leak out through extra imports. Much of the rest may be offset by industry taking fright of the rising budget deficit and reducing investment, and consumers striving to reduce their indebtedness producing some saving to balance the government’s dissaving. The total effect of higher imports and lower investment might be a multiplier barely higher, or maybe even lower, than 1 and the stimulus stimulating nothing except the national debt. This is not the fault of Keynes but of those whose macro-economics exist in a fantasy land. (Library of Economics and Liberty, “Micro, Macro, and Fantasy Economics,” December 6, 2010)

Generally,

[t]he available empirical evidence does not support the idea that spending multipliers typically exceed one, and thus spending stimulus programs will likely raise GDP by less than the increase in government spending. (Robert J. Barro and Charles J. Redlick, “Stimulus Spending Doesn’t Work,” WSJ Online, October 1, 2009)

(For more on the subject see Barro’s “Government Spending Is No Free Lunch,” WSJ Online, January 22, 2009.)

WHY “STIMULUS” FAILS: SPECIFIC REASONS

Altogether, there are six reasons for the ineffectiveness of Keynsesian “stimulus.”

1. The “leakage” to imports, as indicated by de Jasay.

2. The disincentivizing effects of government borrowing and spending, to which de Jasay alludes.

As de Jasay suggests, industry (and the high-income earners who finance it) are being cautious about the implications of additional government debt. As I say here,

the sophisticat[ed] … institutions and persons who have the greatest interest in government’s actions [are] large corporations and persons in high-income brackets. They will react to government borrowing as if it would affect them and their heirs (corporate and individual).

That is to say, even if additional debt does not crowd out private-sector borrowing to finance business expansion, it will nevertheless inhibit investments in business expansion. This inhibiting effect is compounded by the reasonable expectation that many items in a “stimulus” package will become permanent fixtures in the government’s budget.

3. The timing-targeting problem.

The lag between the initial agitation for “stimulus” and its realization. In the extreme, the lag can be so great as to have no effect other than to divert employed resources from private to government uses. But even where there is a relatively brief lag, “stimulus” spending is essentially wasted if the result is simply to divert already employed resources from private to government uses.

The timing-targeting problem is one that strident Keynesians and their unsophisticated disciples in the media seem not to understand or care about. (They are happy as long as government “does something,” regardless of the cost.) The problem arises from the fundamental flaw in the Keynesian analysis: Economic output is portrayed as a homogeneous commodity, one that can be characterized  in terms of aggregate demand (AD) and aggregate supply (AS). Accordingly, in the Keynesian orthodoxy, all it takes to stimulate AD is to pump in some additional government spending (dG), and the rest takes care of itself.

Arnold Kling calls it “hydraulic” macroeconomics:

Once upon a time, Joe lived in Keynesiana, where he was a representative agent.

Joe worked in a GDP factory, making GDP. Every Monday morning, he went to work, and he worked five days a week. He was paid $1 for every 24-minute segment he worked, and he worked 100 segments (40 hours), so he earned $100 a week. Every Friday afternoon, Joe cashed his paycheck and went to the GDP factory outlet, where he spent it all on GDP.

One day, Joe decided that he needed to accumulate some savings. He made up a rule for himself. Knowing that he needed to consume at least $40 of GDP each week, he decided that his rule would be to save 20 percent of everything he earned over and above that $40. So the first week, that meant saving 20 percent of $60, or $12. So he cashed his $100 paycheck, but that Friday afternoon he only spent $88.

Next Monday, morning, Joe’s boss had some news. “A funny thing happened last week. We sold 12 percent less GDP than usual. So this week, we’re gonna put you on a short week. You work 88 segments, instead of 100.”

Joe was disappointed, because this meant he would only be paid $88 this week. Sticking to his new rule, he resolved to save 20 percent of $48, or $9.60. So that Friday afternoon, he cashed his $88 paycheck and spent $78.40.

Next Monday morning, Joe’s boss said. “Well, golly, it looks like we sold even less GDP last week. I’m afraid we’ll have to cut you back to 78.40 segments this week.” Still following his rule, Joe resolved to save 20 percent of $38.40, or $7.68. So he spent only $70.72 at the GDP factory outlet that Friday.

Seeing where this was going, the country asked Krug Paulman, the famous economist, what to do. He said, “The stupid people are saving too much. We need government to spend what the idiots are not spending.” So the government borrowed $29.28 from Joe and spent it at the GDP factory outlet.

Now, when Joe came to work on Monday morning, his boss said, “Good news, we sold 100 percent of what we used to sell, so you can work 100 segments this week.” Sticking to his rule, Joe saved $12 on Friday afternoon. But the government borrowed the $12 and spent it at the GDP factory outlet. They all lived happily ever after. (Library of Economics and Liberty, “Hydraulic Macro: A Fable,” August 30, 2009)

But in reality, economic activity is far more complex than that. One very important part of that reality the vast variety of goods and services changing hands, in response to constantly shifting tastes, preferences, technologies, and costs. The real economy bears no resemblance to the “hydraulic” one in which the homogeneous “fluid” is units of GDP. For “stimulus” — an increase in government spending (dG) — to generate an real increase GDP significantly greater than dG, several stringent conditions must be met:

a. dG must lead directly to the employment of resources that had been idled by a downturn in economic activity (or newly available resources that otherwise would lay idle), therefore eliciting the production of additional goods for delivery to consumers and businesses.

b. Accordingly, government functionaries must be able to distinguish between unemployment that occurs as a result of normal (and continuous) structural changes in the economy and unemployment that occurs because of a general slowdown in economic activity.

c. To the extent that the preceding conditions are satisfied, dG may be used to restore employment if government functionaries do the following things:

  • Ensure that dG is used to purchase goods and services that would have been produced in the absence of a general slowdown in economic activity.
  • Ensure that dG is used by those persons, businesses, and governmental units that have become unable to buy those goods and services because of a general slowdown in economic activity.
  • Allowing for shifts in tastes, preferences, technologies, etc., adjust the issuance, allocation, and use of dG so that goods and services are produced in accordance with those shifts in taste, etc.
  • Reduce dG as the demand for unemployed resources rises, in order to avoid the distorting and disincentivizing effects of inflation.

To the extent that dG is less than on-time and on-target, there is “leakage,” which causes the multiplier to recede toward a value of 1. It can easily slide below 1 — as Barro has found — because of the “leakage” to imports and the disincentivizing effects of government borrowing and spending.

4. Causality: Inadequate AD as symptom, not cause.

The fourth reason for the failure of the “stimulus” to stimulate is that it is does not address the cause of the drop in AD. A drop in AD usually is caused by an exogenous event, and that exogenous event usually is a credit crisis. Pumping money into the economy — especially when it results in the bidding up the prices of already employed resources — does not reinflate the punctured credit bubble that caused the slowdown.

If a credit crunch arises from a sharp rise in the rate of home-mortgage defaults — as in the case of the Great Recession — the obvious way to “solve” the problem is to prop up the defaulting borrowers and their lenders, and to do so quickly.

But, in practice, the propping up is hit-and-miss, and the misses have drastic consequences. Consider, for example, the decision not to bail out Lehman Brothers and the effects of that decision on financial markets.

Which leads into the fifth reason…

5. Inequity, moral hazard, and their consequences.

Any kind of “stimulus” that targets particular individuals and firms, in an effort to rectify their failures of judgment, has adverse political and economic effects.

Favorable treatment of defaulters and failing companies generates considerable popular resentment, which — in the present instance — has found a vocal and politically potent outlet in the Tea Party movement. Favorable treatment of defaulters and failing companies also creates moral hazard; that is, it encourage unwise risk-taking that can (and probably will) spark future crises, leading the government to assume more obligations and impose more regulations, in a futile effort to change human nature.

All of this adds up to a climate of political contention and financial pessimism — conditions that militate against consumer confidence and business expansion.

6. The human factor.

The preceding five reasons for the ineffectiveness of Keynesian “stimulus” point to a sixth, fundamental reason: the human factor.

Models are supposed to mirror reality, not the other way around. Those who cling to the Keynesian multiplier would like the world to comply with it. But the world does not because it is filled with people, whose behavior is not determined (or described) by a simplistic model but by their responses to incentives, their political predispositions, their informed and reasonable skepticism about the consequences of government intervention in economic matters, and — above all else — their fallibility. And, believe or not, government officials and bureaucrats are no less fallible than the “ordinary” citizens whose lives they would like to organize.

The human factor is an inconvenient truth. But “liberals,” in their usual arrogance and ignorance prefer magical thinking to reality. Belief in the Keynesian multiplier is a prime example of magical thinking.

Related posts:
The Causes of Economic Growth
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
The Price of Government
The Fed and Business Cycles
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
How the Great Depression Ended
Microeconomics and Macroeconomics
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Experts and the Economy
We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help You
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Our Enemy, the State
Competition Shouldn’t Be a Dirty Word
The Stagnation Thesis
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations

Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations

Wherein the author finds money, banking, and credit to be good, not evil — as long as government keeps its hands off them.

MONEY LUBRICATES EXCHANGE

The important role of money as a lubricant of economic activity has been understood for a long time. Indeed, it must have been understood by the ancients who first devised money of one kind or another and used it to broaden the range of goods they could buy, sell, and use. For a less-than-ancient but venerable account of the role of money, I turn to Adam Smith:

When the division of labour has been once thoroughly established, it is but a very small part of a man’s wants which the produce of his own labour can supply. He supplies the far greater part of them by exchanging that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men’s labour as he has occasion for. Every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes, in some measure, a merchant, and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society.

But when the division of labour first began to take place, this power of exchanging must frequently have been very much clogged and embarrassed in its operations. One man, we shall suppose, has more of a certain commodity than he himself has occasion for, while another has less. The former, consequently, would be glad to dispose of; and the latter to purchase, a part of this superfluity. But if this latter should chance to have nothing that the former stands in need of, no exchange can be made between them. The butcher has more meat in his shop than he himself can consume, and the brewer and the baker would each of them be willing to purchase a part of it. But they have nothing to offer in exchange, except the different productions of their respective trades, and the butcher is already provided with all the bread and beer which he has immediate occasion for. No exchange can, in this case, be made between them. He cannot be their merchant, nor they his customers; and they are all of them thus mutually less serviceable to one another. In order to avoid the inconveniency of such situations, every prudent man in every period of society, after the first establishment of the division of labour, must naturally have endeavoured to manage his affairs in such a manner, as to have at all times by him, besides the peculiar produce of his own industry, a certain quantity of some one commodity or other, such as he imagined few people would be likely to refuse in exchange for the produce of their industry. Many different commodities, it is probable, were successively both thought of and employed for this purpose. In the rude ages of society, cattle are said to have been the common instrument of commerce; and, though they must have been a most inconvenient one, yet, in old times, we find things were frequently valued according to the number of cattle which had been given in exchange for them. The armour of Diomede, says Homer, cost only nine oxen; but that of Glaucus cost a hundred oxen. Salt is said to be the common instrument of commerce and exchanges in Abyssinia; a species of shells in some parts of the coast of India; dried cod at Newfoundland; tobacco in Virginia; sugar in some of our West India colonies; hides or dressed leather in some other countries; and there is at this day a village In Scotland, where it is not uncommon, I am told, for a workman to carry nails instead of money to the baker’s shop or the ale-house. (From An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Chapter IV, “Of the Origin and the Use of Money.)

And so it went, until institutions of standing (banks, governments) began to issue money in standard, convenient forms, and which individuals would readily accept and use — within a particular region, principality, kingdom or nation, at least.

MONEY FACILITATES CREDIT, AND CREDIT CAN CREATE MONEY

Even in the absence of money, of course, there can be credit: the lending of products and services (i.e., economic goods or, simply, goods) for consumption or investment (i.e., capital formation: the creation of tools, facilities, and the like that can be used to produce goods in greater abundance, of higher quality, or of new kinds). Money facilitates credit because the borrower can use money to choose from a greater variety of consumption or investment goods; money, in effect, expands the time and space available to a buyer for the selection of goods.

Credit represents a kind of exchange, where the commodity involved is money, itself. The borrower and lender must agree to the terms of exchange, and the borrower (unless he is swayed by personal considerations and inclined to forgive a debt) will want some kind of assurance that his money will be repaid, at a rate of interest that he (the lender) is willing to accept, given the risk he assumes. Credit can underwrite the following activities:

  • Consumption (meeting daily wants, from shelter to food and clothing to such “frills” as internet service, faddish toys and clothing, etc.)
  • Purchases of durable consumer goods (e.g., automobiles, major appliances, and — for this purpose — residential dwellings)
  • Capital formation to enable the production of more, better, and new kinds of goods, including production goods (e.g., farm equipment) as well as final goods (e.g., home computers).

For purposes of this exposition, I consider stock purchases to be a form of credit. The purchaser is not making a loan to be repaid on a schedule, but he is hoping to participate in the dividends and/or capital gains that will be generated by the business that issues the stock. In other words, to buy stock is really to grant an unsecured loan, in the expectation of a high return and with the knowledge that a lot of risk attaches to that expectation.

CREDIT AND THE MONEY-MULTIPLIER

What is the source of credit? That is, who — if anyone — is relinquishing a claim on resources in order to lend that claim to someone else? The obvious answer to the question is: the lender. But that is not the whole story, because of fractional-reserve banking (FR, to distinguish it from FRB, or Federal Reserve Board). FR has a long history, which predates the involvement of governments in banking. With FR, the cash held in reserve by a bank (or private lender) can be parlayed into loans (and thus money) having a face value many times that of the original lender’s reserve. In what follows, I will use examples that assume a “money multiplier” of 10; that is, a cash reserve of a given amount may be used to generate loans with a total face value equal to 10 times that of the reserve. (This article explains the process and the formula  for determining  potential value of the loans, and money, that can be generated by a given cash reserve.) It should be  obvious that FR can be practiced only in a monetary economy; 100 head of cattle, for instance, cannot be parlayed into 1,000 head of cattle, because cattle cannot be created by the proverbial stroke of a pen, whereas money can — if others are willing to accept it.

Without FR, then, credit is created only when a lender forgoes spending that directly benefits him. For example, a lender who has just received $1,000 dollars for services rendered has a claim on the value of the goods he created by rendering those services. He could spend that $1,000 on some combination of consumption (e.g., groceries), durable consumer goods (e.g., a PC), or capital formation (e.g., new software for use in his tax-preparation business). Alternatively, he could lend the $1,000 (or some part of it) to someone else, who could put it to an analogous use or uses. Without FR, however, the growth of economic output depends (almost) entirely on the amount that individuals spend on capital formation or lend to others for capital formation. (I say “almost” because certain kinds of consumption and durable goods can also lead to future increases in output; for example, better nutrition and the use of refrigeration to prevent the contamination of food.)

THE MONEY-MULTIPLIER AND ECONOMIC GROWTH

FR can induce a higher rate of economic growth, if the following several conditions are satisfied:

  • Lenders lend additional sums as a result of FR.
  • The lending is not offset by reduced spending on the part of borrowers.
  • The money that is borrowed indistinguishable from money that is already in use. That is to say, the borrowed money is treated like “real” money when borrowers put it into circulation by spending it.
  • If it is “real” money, it give borrowers a claim on resources that they can exercise for the various reasons outlined above. But the resources that borrowers seek to command must be in addition to the resources that are already in use or that would have been in use in the absence of FR. (There may be some lags, as producers respond to additional spending with increases in output, and those lags will have an inflationary effect, but it may be offset by efficiencies of scale and/or greater productivity that results when some borrowers invest in capital formation.)

In summary: If enough additional money is created, if its expenditure calls forth enough additional production, and if enough that production flows into growth-inducing outlays, the result will be an acceleration of economic growth, relative to the growth that would have been attained without FR.

The biggest question mark attaches to the amount of lending that results when additional credit becomes available (potentially) because of FR. Potential increases in credit become actual increases only to the extent that particular lenders and prospective borrowers are willing to lend and borrow, respectively, at prevailing rates of interest, in light of their expectations of future economic conditions and the returns on particular uses of borrowed money. There is no mechanical or hydraulic process at work. (I am skirting a discussion of monetary policy, its shortcomings, and its merits relative to fiscal policy. For those who are interested in learning more about those matters, start here, here. here, and especially here.)

The essential point is that FR — like money — can foster the growth of economic activity. If there is nothing “artificial” about using money to expand economic activity — in the range of participants, their geographic scope, and the variety of goods they offer — there is nothing “artificial” using FR to further expand economic activity along the same lines.

THE “PROBLEM” WITH CREDIT-FUELED ECONOMIC EXPANSION

The perceptual problem is that people are unable to know just how much worse off they would be in the absence of credit. Credit-related downturns occur at a relatively high level of economic activity — a level that would not have been attained in the first place had it not been for credit.

When economic expansion is credit-based, it can be halted and reversed by a tightening of credit. In other words, credit-tightening supplements and magnifies the usual causes of economic retractions: natural disasters, epidemics, wars, technological shifts, overly ambitious capital and business formation, and so on. It is no coincidence that most of the economic downturns in American history have been initiated or deepened by the onset of a credit crisis.

Michael D. Bordo and Joseph G. Haubrich essay a rigorous historical and quantitative analysis of the relationship between credit crises and economic downturns in “Credit Crises, Money, and Contractions: A Historical View.” This is from the abstract:

Using a combination of historical narrative and econometric techniques, we identify major periods of credit distress from 1875 to 2007, examine the extent to which credit distress arises as part of the transmission of monetary policy, and document the subsequent effect on output…. [W[e identify and compare the timing, duration, amplitude, and comovement of cycles in money, credit, and output. Regressions show that fi nancial distress events exacerbate business cycle downturns both in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and that a confluence of such events makes recessions even worse.

And this is from the concluding section:

[T]he narrative evidence strongly suggests, and the empirical work is at least consistent with, the claim that credit turmoil worsens recessions. The timing of cycles is likewise consistent with the work of Gilchrist, Yankov and Zakrajsek (2008) and others on the ability of corporate bond spreads to predictrecession in more recent periods.

The results are consistent with work, such as Barro and Ursua (2009), who find a high association between stock market crashes and large contractions, and Claessens Kose, and Terrones, who find an interaction between stock market crashes and tight money and credit….

The current episode combines elements of a credit crunch, asset price bust and banking crisis. It is consistent with the patterns we find using 140 years of US data. How does the current crisis measure up? Between August, 2007, and April, 2009, the difference between the yield on Baa bonds and long‐term Treasuries has moved up 342 basis points, a larger increase than seen in the 1929 contraction, and approaching the combined increase of 436 bp over both the Depression contractions. The percentage drop in S and P index of 42% is second only to the 78% of the Great Contraction…. Zarnowitz (1992) shows that business cycles downturns with panics are much more severe than others. Today because of deposit insurance, financial turmoil does not lead to panics and collapses in the money multiplier, and credit turmoil is less likely to feed into the money supply. The credit disturbance thus becomes relatively more important, given that disturbances on the asset side of the balance sheet no longer have as strong an influence on the money supply.

But there is nothing illusory about the relatively high level of economic activity from which a descent begins. It is real, and due in no small part to the availability of credit.

THE “HANGOVER” NARRATIVE AS A FALSE ANALOGY

A leading explanation of the Great Depression — and one that echoes today, in the aftermath of the Great Recession — is that Americans imbibed too much easy credit. Frederick Lewis Allen put it this way in his popular treatment of the Roaring Twenties and Great Crash, Only Yesterday (1931):

Prosperity was assisted … by two new stimulants to purchasing, each of which mortgaged the future but kept the factories roaring while it was being injected. The first was the increase in the installment buying. People were getting to consider it old-fashioned to limit their purchases to the amount of their cash balance; the thing to do was to “exercise their credit.” By the latter part of the decade, economists figured that 15 per cent of all retail sales were on an installment basis, and that there were some six billions of “easy payment” paper outstanding. The other stimulant was stock-market speculation. When stocks were skyrocketing in 1928 and 1929 it is probable that hundreds of thousands of people were buying goods with money which represented, essentially, a gamble on the business profits of the nineteen-thirties. It was fun while it lasted. (From Chapter 7, “Coolidge Prosperity.”

Thus:

Under the impact of the shock of panic, a multitude of ills which hitherto had passed unnoticed or had been offset by stock-market optimism began to beset the body economic, as poisons seep through the human system when a vital organ has ceased to function normally. Although the liquidation of nearly three billion dollars of brokers’ loans contracted credit, and the Reserve Banks lowered the rediscount rate, and the way in which the larger banks and corporations of the country had survived the emergency without a single failure of large proportions offered real encouragement, nevertheless the poisons were there; overproduction of capital; overambitious (expansion of business concerns; overproduction of commodities under the stimulus of installment buying and buying with stock-market profits… (From Chapter 13, “Crash!“)

And, finally:

Soon the mists of distance would soften the outlines of the nineteen- twenties, and men and women, looking over the pages of a book such as this, would smile at the memory of those charming, crazy days when the radio was a thrilling novelty, and girls wore bobbed hair and knee- length skirts, and a trans-Atlantic flyer became a god overnight, and common stocks were about to bring us all to a lavish Utopia. They would forget, perhaps, the frustrated hopes that followed the war, the aching disillusionment of the hard-boiled era, its oily scandals, its spiritual paralysis, the harshness of its gaiety; they would talk about the good old days …. (From Chapter 14, “Aftermath: 1930-1931.”)

The clear moral — in the view of Allen and many others, unto this day — is that America had overindulged in the Roaring Twenties and paid for it with a hangover, in the form of the Great Crash and subsequent Great Depression, which was in evidence by the time Only Yesterday was published.

The true story is that government caused the financial excesses of the Roaring Twenties, the evolution of the Great Crash into the Great Depression, and a deep recession that prolonged the Great Depression. This long, dismal story has been told many times; there is a fact-filled but concise retelling in the Mackinac Center’s “Great Myth of the Great Depression.” Jumping to the bottom line:

The genesis of the Great Depression lay in the irresponsible monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government in the late 1920s and early 1930s. These policies included a litany of political missteps: central bank mismanagement, trade-crushing tariffs, incentive-sapping taxes, mind-numbing controls on production and competition, senseless destruction of crops and cattle and coercive labor laws, to recount just a few. It was not the free market that
produced 12 years of agony; rather, it was political bungling on a grand scale.

The story ends with an assessment of the financial crisis that sparked the Great Recession:

The financial crisis that gripped America in 2008 ought to be a wake-up call. The fingerprints of government meddling are all over it. From 2001 to 2005, the Federal Reserve revved up the money supply, expanding it at a feverish double-digit rate. The dollar plunged in overseas markets and commodity prices soared. With the banks flush with liquidity from the Fed, interest rates plummeted and risky loans to borrowers of dubious merit ballooned. Politicians threw more fuel on the fire by jawboning banks to lend hundreds of billions of dollars for subprime mortgages. When the bubble burst, some of the very culprits who promoted the policies that caused it postured as our rescuers while endorsing new interventions, bigger government, more inflation of money and credit and massive taxpayer bailouts of failing firms. Many of them are also calling for higher taxes and tariffs, the very nonsense that took a recession in 1930 and made it a long and deep depression.

Just how bad is the government-caused Great Recession? It is the worst recession since the end of World War II and, therefore, the worst downturn since the Great Depression:


Derived from quarterly estimates of real GDP provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: Money and credit are not the problem. Government policies — including the mismanagement of money and credit — are the problem.

FREE FINANCIAL MARKETS ARE THE SOLUTION

Government control and monopolization of money, banking, and credit has been the norm for so long that it is taken for granted by almost everyone. But the record of government misfeasance and malfeasance with respect to economic activity (barely touched on above) is such that the proponents of governmental interventions should bear the burden of proving that those interventions are warranted.

I will close with another paraphrase, this time of Winston Churchill: the free market is the least effective means of making resource-allocation decisions that foster material progress, except for all the rest.

Read on:
Mr. Greenspan Doth Protest Too Much
Economic Growth since WWII
The Price of Government
The Fed and Business Cycles
The Commandeered Economy
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
Does the CPI Understate Inflation?
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
How the Great Depression Ended
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
Experts and the Economy
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
The Great Recession is Over
The Stagnation Thesis
Government Failure: An Example
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
The Great Recession Is Not Over

The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability

For reasons I outlined in “The Price of Government,” the post-Civil War boom of 1866-1907 finally gave way to the onslaught of Progressivism. Real GDP grew at the rate of 4.3 percent annually during the post-Civil War boom; it has since grown at an annual rate of 3.3 percent. The difference between the two rates of growth, compounded over a century, is the difference between $13 trillion (2009′s GDP in 2005 dollars) and $41 trillion (2009′s potential GDP in 2005 dollars).

As I said in “The Price of Government,” this disparity

may seem incredible, but scan the lists here and you will find even greater cross-national disparities in per capita GDP. Go here and you will find that real, per capita GDP in 1790 was only 4.6 percent of the value it had attained 218 years later. Our present level of output seems incredible to citizens of impoverished nations, and it would seem no less incredible to an American of 1790. In sum, vast disparities can and do exist, across nations and time.

The main reason for the disparity is the intervention of the federal government in the economic affairs of Americans and their businesses. I put it this way in “The Price of Government”:

What we are seeing [in the present recession and government's response to it] is the continuation of a death-spiral that began in the early 1900s. Do-gooders, worry-warts, control freaks, and economic ignoramuses see something “bad” and — in their misguided efforts to control natural economic forces (which include business cycles) — make things worse. The most striking event in the death-spiral is the much-cited Great Depression, which was caused by government action, specifically the loose-tight policies of the Federal Reserve, Herbert Hoover’s efforts to engineer the economy, and — of course — FDR’s benighted New Deal. (For details, see this, and this.)

But, of course, the worse things get, the greater the urge to rely on government. Now, we have “stimulus,” which is nothing more than an excuse to greatly expand government’s intervention in the economy. Where will it lead us? To a larger, more intrusive government that absorbs an ever larger share of resources that could be put to productive use, and counteracts the causes of economic growth.

One of the ostensible reasons for governmental intervention is to foster economic stability. That was an important rationale for the creation of the Federal Reserve System; it was an implicit rationale for Social Security, which moves income to those who are more likely to spend it; and it remains a key rationale for so-called counter-cyclical spending (i.e., “fiscal policy”) and the onerous regulation of financial institutions.

Has the quest for stability succeeded? If you disregard the Great Depression, and several deep recessions (including the present one), it has. But the price has been high. The green line in the following graph traces real GDP as it would have been had economic growth after 1907 followed the same path as it did in 1866-1907, with all of the ups and down in that era of relatively unregulated “instability.” The red line, which diverges from the green one after 1907, traces real GDP as it has been since government took over the task of ensuring stable prosperity.

Only by overlooking the elephant in the room — the Great Depression — can one assert that government has made the economy more stable. Only because we cannot see the exorbitant price of government can we believe that it has had something to do with our “prosperity.”

What about those fairly sharp downturns along the green line? If it really is important for government to shield us from economic shocks, there are much better ways of getting the job done that they ways now employed. There was no federal income tax during the post-Civil War boom (one of the reasons for the boom). Suppose that in the early 1900s the federal government had been allowed to impose a small, constitutionally limited income tax of, say, 0.5 percent on gross personal incomes over a certain level, measured in constant dollars (with an explicit ban on exemptions, deductions, and other adjustments, to keep it simple and keep interest groups from enriching themselves at the expense of others). Suppose, further, that the proceeds from the tax had a constitutionally limited use: the payment of unemployment benefits for a constitutionally limited time whenever real GDP declined from quarter to quarter.

Perhaps that’s too much clutter for devotees of constitutional simplicity. But wouldn’t the results have been worth the clutter? The primary result would have been growth at a rate close to that of 1866-1907, but with some of the wrinkles ironed out. The secondary result — and an equally important one — would have been the diminution (if not the elimination) of the “need” for governmental intervention in our affairs.

Related posts:
Basic Economics
The Economic and Social Consequences of Government

How the Great Depression Ended

Don Boudreaux writes:

No modern myth dies harder than the familiar claim – today repeated in the Los Angeles Times by one Joan Mortenson – that “It was the massive spending of World War II that finally ended the Depression.”

Between 1941 and 1945 Uncle Sam drew into his military 16 million persons – that was 22 percent of the pre-war labor force.  With so many workers then militarized, mostly through conscription, there’s no evidence that wartime spending restored the labor market to health.  And while real GDP did rise during those years because of military spending, the private economy shrank.  As Robert Higgs notes, “Real civilian consumption and private investment both fell after 1941, and they did not recover fully until 1946.  The privately owned capital stock actually shrank during the war.

It is true that the private economy shrank during World War II. But the important thing is what happened after that, and why. Here is a more complete picture, which I have lifted from an old post of mine:

Conventional wisdom has it that the entry of the United States into World War II caused the end of the Great Depression in this country. My variant is that World War II led to a “glut” of private saving because (1) government spending caused full employment, but (2) workers and businesses were forced to save much of their income because the massive shift of output toward the war effort forestalled spending on private consumption and investment goods. The resulting cash “glut” fueled post-war consumption and investment spending.

Robert Higgs, research director of the Independent Institute, has a different theory, which he spells out in “Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed After the War” (available here), the first chapter his new book, Depression, War, and Cold War. (Thanks to Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek for the pointer.) Here, from “Regime Change . . . ” is Higgs’s summary of his thesis:

I shall argue here that the economy remained in the depression as late as 1940 because private investment had never recovered sufficiently after its collapse during the Great Contraction. During the war, private investment fell to much lower levels, and the federal government itself became the chief investor, directing investment into building up the nation’s capacity to produce munitions. After the war ended, private investment, for the first time since the 1920s, rose to and remained at levels sufficient to create a prosperous and normally growing economy.

I shall argue further that the insufficiency of private investment from 1935 through 1940 reflected a pervasive uncertainty among investors about the security of their property rights in their capital and its prospective returns. This uncertainty arose, especially though not exclusively, from the character of federal government actions and the nature of the Roosevelt administration during the so-called Second New Deal from 1935 to 1940. Starting in 1940 the makeup of FDR’s administration changed substantially as probusiness men began to replace dedicated New Dealers in many positions, including most of the offices of high authority in the war-command economy. Congressional changes in the elections from 1938 onward reinforced the movement away from the New Deal, strengthening the so-called Conservative Coalition.

From 1941 through 1945, however, the less hostile character of the administration expressed itself in decisions about how to manage the warcommand economy; therefore, with private investment replaced by direct government investment, the diminished fears of investors could not give rise to a revival of private investment spending. In 1945 the death of Roosevelt and the succession of Harry S Truman and his administration completed the shift from a political regime investors perceived as full of uncertainty to one in which they felt much more confident about the security of their private property rights. Sufficiently sanguine for the first time since 1929, and finally freed from government restraints on private investment for civilian purposes, investors set in motion the postwar investment boom that powered the economy’s return to sustained prosperity notwithstanding the drastic reduction of federal government spending from its extraordinarily elevated wartime levels.

Higgs’s explanation isn’t inconsistent with mine, but it’s incomplete. Higgs overlooks the powerful influence of the large cash balances that individuals and corporations had accumulated during the war years. It’s true that because the war was a massive resource “sink” those cash balances didn’t represent real assets. But the cash was there, nevertheless, waiting to be spent on consumption goods and to be made available for capital investments through purchases of equities and debt.

It helped that the war dampened FDR’s hostility to business, and that FDR’s death ushered in a somewhat less radical regime. Those developments certainly fostered capital investment. But the capital investment couldn’t have taken place (or not nearly as much of it) without the “glut” of private saving during World War II. The relative size of that “glut” can be seen here:

Derived from Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Income and Product Accounts Tables: 5.1, Saving and Investment. Gross private saving is analagous to cash flow; net private saving is analagous to cash flow less an allowance for depreciation. The bulge in gross private saving represents pent-up demand for consumption and investment spending, which was released after the war.

World War II did bring about the end of the Great Depression, not directly by full employment during the war but because that full employment created a “glut” of saving. After the war that “glut” jump-started

  • capital spending by businesses, which — because of FDR’s demise — invested more than they otherwise would have; and
  • private consumption spending, which — because of the privations of the Great Depression and the war years — would have risen sharply regardless of the political climate.

UPDATE: Robert Higgs, in an e-mail to me dated 06/24/06, submitted the following comment:

I happened upon your blog post that deals with my ideas about why the depression lasted so long and about the way in which the war related to the genuine prosperity that returned in 1946 for the first time since 1929. I appreciate the publicity, of course. I suggest, however, that you read my entire book, especially, with regard to the points you make on your blog, its chapter 5, “From Central Planning to the Market: The American Transition, 1945-47″ (originally published in the Journal of Economic History, September 1999. I show there that the “glut of savings” idea, which is an old one, indeed perhaps even the standard theory of the successful postwar reconversion, does not fit the facts of what happened in 1945-47.

Here is my reply of 10/12/06:

I apologize for the delay in replying to your e-mail about my post… Your book, Depression, War, and Cold War, has not yet made it to the top of my Amazon.com wish list, but I have found “From Central Planning to the Market: The American Transition, 1945-47″ on the Independent Institute’s website (here). If the evidence and arguments you adduce there are essentially the same as in chapter 5 of your book, I see no reason to reject the “glut of savings” idea, which is an old one, as I knew when I wrote the post. But, because it is not necessarily an old one to everyone who might read my blog, it is worth repeating — to the extent that it has merit.

At the end of the blog post I summarized the causes of the end of the Great Depression, as I see them:

World War II did bring about the end of the Great Depression, not directly by full employment during the war but because that full employment created a “glut” of saving. After the war that “glut” jump-started

  • capital spending by businesses, which — because of FDR’s demise — invested more than they otherwise would have; and
  • private consumption spending, which — because of the privations of the Great Depression and the war years — would have risen sharply regardless of the political climate.

In the web version of chapter 5 of your book you attribute increased capital spending to an improved business outlook (owing to FDR’s demise) and (in the section on the Recovery of the Postwar Economy, under Why the Postwar Investment Boom?) to “a combination of the proceeds of sales of previously acquired government bonds, increased current retained earnings (attributable in part to reduced corporate-tax liabilities), and the proceeds of corporate securities offerings” to the public. It seems that those “previously acquired government bonds” must have arisen from the “glut” of corporate saving during World War II.

What about the “glut” of personal saving, which you reject as the main source of increased consumer demand after World War II? In the online version of chapter 5 (in the section on the Recovery of the Postwar Economy, under Why the Postwar Consumption Boom?) you say:

The potential for a reduction of the personal saving rate (personal saving relative to disposable personal income) was huge after V-J Day. During the war the personal saving rate had risen to extraordinary levels: 23.6 percent in 1942, 25.0 percent in 1943, 25.5 percent in 1944, and 19.7 percent in 1945. Those rates contrasted with prewar rates that had hovered around 5 percent during the more prosperous years (for example, 5.0 percent in 1929, 5.3 percent in 1937, 5.1 percent in 1940). After the war, the personal saving rate fell to 9.5 percent in 1946 and 4.3 percent in 1947 before rebounding to the 5 to 7 percent range characteristic of the next two decades. After having saved at far higher rates than they would have chosen in the absence of the wartime restrictions, households quickly reduced their rate of saving when the war ended.

That statement seems entirely consistent with the proposition that consumers spent more after the war because they had the money to spend — money that they had acquired during the war when their opportunities for spending it were severely restricted. Not so fast, you would say: What about the fact that “individuals did not reduce their holdings of liquid assets after the war” (your statement)? They didn’t need to. Money is fungible. If consumers had more money coming in (as they did), they could spend more while maintaining the same level of liquid assets — because they had a “backlog” of saving. Here’s my take:

  • Higher post-war incomes didn’t just happen, they were the result of higher rates of investment and consumption spending.
  • The higher rate of investment spending was due, in part, to corporate saving during the war and, in part, to individuals’ purchases of corporate securities and equities.
  • At bottom, the wartime “glut” of personal saving enabled the postwar saving rate to decline to a more normal level, thus allowing consumers to buy equities and securities — and to spend more — without drawing down on their liquid assets.

Granted, business and personal saving during World War II was not nearly as large in real terms as it was on paper — given the very high real cost of the war effort. But it was the availability of paper savings that strongly influenced the behavior of businesses and consumers after the war….

Toward a Risk-Free Economy

If the real economy — which produces goods and services — could be disconnected from financial markets, the Great Depression (and thus the New Deal) and the Great Recession (and thus TARP and “stimulus”) would not be part of history. The problem is that financial markets are a necessary part of the real economy — unless your idea of an economy is one that functions without money, banking (as we know it), credit, and risk-pooling (e.g., insurance companies and corporations).

Money is the root of all financial crises because it eases the buying and selling of goods and services. That sounds good, but money also enables its holders to more readily change their minds about what and when they buy and sell. When Farmer Joe trades wheat to Farmer Jake in exchange for butter, he does so, in part, because wheat isn’t nearly as portable as money. If Farmer Joe gets money for his wheat, there’s no telling what he’ll do with the money from one day to the next. He might even decide to save some of it, thus depriving Farmer Jake of sales that he was counting on and triggering a Keynsian rollback in aggregate demand.

Banks would be okay, as long as they are warehouses for goods and are not in the business of holding money and lending it out. Instead of paying interest, banks would charge customers for storage services.

Why shouldn’t banks lend money? Because lending by banks is a form of credit, and credit is to be eschewed. If money is the root of all financial crises, credit is the thing that allows money to do its dirty work. When borrowers don’t repay their loans, banks (and other lenders) go belly-up, which just triggers another kind of Keynsian rollback in aggregate demand. Government actions to make lenders whole simply transfer the risk of lending from particular depositors and investors to taxpayers at large, whose natural reaction is to spend less now because they can see higher taxes in their future.

Risk-pooling goes hand-in-hand with credit. People who pool their money to underwrite risky propositions (e.g., business ventures) do so knowing that not all propositions will succeed. Obviously, the thing to do is to back only those propositions that are ensured of success, but there’s no way to do that. Solution: Don’t allow risk pooling because it’s too, well, risky.

So there you have it, a prescription for a risk-free economy: no money, no credit, no banking, no risk-pooling. Just plod down the road to Farmer Jake’s place and trade some of your wheat for some of his butter. And don’t worry about the fact that you live in a thatched hut with a dirt floor, drive a rickety cart which is pulled by a rickety donkey, dig potatoes out of the ground, and eat those potatoes (with a little butter) by the dim light of a few home-made candles.

Wait a minute! There’s still the risk of bad weather, which could stunt or ruin your wheat crop. I guess there’s no such thing as a risk-free economy, is there? But don’t tell that to the regulators, you’ll spoil their fun.

The Mega-Depression

In the preceding post, I offered my definition of recession and asked whether the current one has ended. (The answer: not yet, but I may know soon — or sooner than the official score-keepers at the National Bureau of Economic Research.) It since occurred that to focus on the current recession — or any recession — is to ignore America’s mega-depression, which is now more than a century old.

As I explain here, the mega-depression began in the early 1900s, when the economy began to sag under the weight of “progressivism” (e.g., trust-busting, regulation, the income tax, the Fed). Then came the New Deal, whose interventions provoked and prolonged the Great Depression (see, for example, this, and this). From the New Deal and the Great Society arose the massive anti-market/initiative-draining/dependency-promoting schemes known as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The extension and expansion of those and other intrusive government programs has continued unto the present day (e.g., Obamacare), with the result that our lives and livelihoods are hemmed in by mountains of regulatory restrictions.

The mega-depression is an example of  “that which is not seen,” a coinage of Frédéric Bastiat. In “That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen,” Bastiat writes:

Have you ever chanced to hear it said “There is no better investment than taxes. Only see what a number of families it maintains, and consider how it reacts on industry; it is an inexhaustible stream, it is life itself.” . . .

The advantages which officials advocate are those which are seen. The benefit which accrues to the providers is still that which is seen. This blinds all eyes.

But the disadvantages which the tax-payers have to get rid of are those which are not seen. And the injury which results from it to the providers, is still that which is not seen, although this ought to be self-evident.

When an official spends for his own profit an extra hundred sous, it implies that a tax-payer spends for his profit a hundred sous less. But the expense of the official is seen, because the act is performed, while that of the tax-payer is not seen, because, alas! he is prevented from performing it.

In the case of aggregate economic activity, what we see is what has been left to us by government. What we do not see is the extent to which the money taken from us by government and the restrictions placed upon us by government have deprived the economy of entrepreneurship, innovation, technology, and productive capacity. The cumulative effect of those deprivations — that which we do not see — dwarfs the Great Depression in depth and extent. The cumulative effect is our mega-depression:

The Price of Government

UPDATED on 04/17/10, to include GDP estimates for 2009 and slight revisions to GDP estimates for earlier years. The bottom line remains the same: The price of government is exorbitant.

he federal government is mounting an economic intervention on a scale unseen since World War II. The excuse for this intervention is that without it the present recession will turn into a full-blown depression. Yet, with the Democrats’ and RINOs’ “stimulus” barely underway, the economy already shows signs of rebounding from an economic dip that bears no comparison with the calamitous gulch that was the Great Depression.

Despite the horror stories about a financial meltdown, what we have experienced since late 2007 is not much more than the downside of a typical, post-World War II business cycle. (For more on that score, see this post — especially the third graph and related discussion.) Would it have been worse were all failing financial institutions allowed to fail? I doubt it. Hard, fast failure leaves in its wake opportunities for the organization of new ventures by investors who still have money (and there are plenty of them). But those same investors are being shouldered out and scared off by Obama’s schemes for nationalization, taxation, regulation, and redistribution.

What we are seeing is the continuation of a death-spiral that began in the early 1900s. Do-gooders, worry-warts, control freaks, and economic ignoramuses see something “bad” and — in their misguided efforts to control natural economic forces (which include business cycles) — make things worse. The most striking event in the death-spiral is the much-cited Great Depression, which was caused by government action, specifically the loose-tight policies of the Federal Reserve, Herbert Hoover’s efforts to engineer the economy, and — of course — FDR’s benighted New Deal. (For details, see this, and this.)

But, of course, the worse things get, the greater the urge to rely on government. Now, we have “stimulus,” which is nothing more than an excuse to greatly expand government’s intervention in the economy. Where will it lead us? To a larger, more intrusive government that absorbs an ever larger share of resources that could be put to productive use, and counteracts the causes of economic growth.

Can we measure the price of government intervention? I believe that we can do so, and quite easily. The tale can be told in three graphs, all derived from constant-dollar GDP estimates available here. The numbers plotted in each graph exclude GDP estimates for the years in which the U.S. was involved in or demobilizing from major wars, namely, 1861-65, 1918-19, and 1941-46. GDP values for those years — especially for the peak years of World War II — present a distorted picture of economic output. Without further ado, here are the three graphs:

The trend line in the first graph indicates annual growth of about 3.7 percent over the long run, with obviously large deviations around the trend. The second graph contrasts economic growth through 1907 with economic growth since: 4.2 percent vs. 3.6 percent. But lest you believe that the economy of the U.S. somehow began to “age” in the early 1900s, consider the story implicit in the third graph:

  • 1790-1861 — annual growth of 4.1 percent — a booming young economy, probably at its freest
  • 1866-1907 — annual growth of 4.3 percent — a robust economy, fueled by (mostly) laissez-faire policies and the concomitant rise of technological innovation and entrepreneurship
  • 1908-1929 — annual growth of 2.2 percent — a dispirited economy, shackled by the fruits of “progressivism” (e.g., trust-busting, regulation, the income tax, the Fed) and the government interventions that provoked and prolonged the Great Depression (see links in third paragraph)
  • 1970-2008 — annual growth of 3.1 percent –  an economy sagging under the cumulative weight of “progressivism,” New Deal legislation, LBJ’s “Great Society” (with its legacy of the ever-expanding and oppressive welfare/transfer-payment schemes: Medicare, Medicaid, a more generous package of Social Security benefits), and an ever-growing mountain of regulatory restrictions.

Had the economy of the U.S. not been deflected from its post-Civil War course, GDP would now be about three times its present level. (Compare the trend lines for 1866-1907 and 1970-2008.) If that seems unbelievable to you, it shouldn’t: $100 compounded for 100 years at 4.3 percent amounts to $6,700; $100 compounded for 100 years at 3.1 percent amounts to $2,100. Nothing other than government intervention (or a catastrophe greater than any we have known) could have kept the economy from growing at more than 4 percent.

What’s next? Unless Obama’s megalomaniacal plans are aborted by a reversal of the Republican Party’s fortunes, the U.S. will enter a new phase of economic growth — something close to stagnation. We will look back on the period from 1970 to 2008 with longing, as we plod along at a growth rate similar to that of 1908-1940, that is, about 2.2 percent. Thus:

  • If GDP grows at 2.2 percent through 2109, it will be 58 percent lower than if we plod on at 3.1 percent.
  • If GDP grows at 2.2 percent for through 2109, it will be only 4 percent of what it would have been had it continued to grow at 4.3 percent after 1907.

The latter disparity may seem incredible, but scan the lists here and you will find even greater cross-national disparities in per capita GDP. Go here and you will find that real, per capita GDP in 1790 was only 4.6 percent of the value it had attained 218 years later. Our present level of output seems incredible to citizens of impoverished nations, and it would seem no less incredible to an American of 1790. In sum, vast disparities can and do exist, across nations and time. We have every reason to believe in the possibility of a sustained growth rate of 4.4 percent, as against one of 2.2 percent, because we have experienced both.

We should look on the periods 1908-1940 and 1970-2009 as aberrations, and take this lesson from those periods: Big government inflicts great harm on almost everyone (politicians and bureaucrats being the main exceptions), including its intended beneficiaries. Such is the price of government when it does more than “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, [and] provide for the common defence” in order to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”