Great Recession

Making a Worse “Mess”

Obama and his pet grinning baboon VP like to claim that the economy is still in bad shape because of the “horrific mess” that they inherited from Bush. That the mess wasn’t Bush’s is lie number 1. That Obama’s policies would have “worked” but for Republican intransigence is lie number 2. There are many more lies lying around the Obama White House, but a distaste for nausea prevents me from detailing them.

I will give Obama the benefit of the doubt by measuring the effectiveness of his “stimulus” not by the current state of the economy, but by how far it has advanced the economy since the depth of the Great Recession. As it happens, the Great Recession bottomed in the second quarter of 2009. The latest estimates of real GDP, 12 quarters later, indicate real growth since the bottom of 2.2 percent a year. How does that stack up against previous post-WWII recessions? Here’s how:

Even the short-lived recoveries from the 1958 and 1980 recessions were more robust than the Obama recovery of 2009-2012. Enough said.

Related posts:
Economic Growth Since World War II
The Economy Slogs Along
The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment
Obama’s Economic Record in Perspective
Where We Are, Economically
Keynesianism: Upside-Down Economics in the Collectivist Cause

Where We Are, Economically

UPDATED (10/26/12)

The advance estimate of GDP for the third quarter of 2012 has been released. Real growth continues to slog along at about 2 percent. I have updated the graph, but the text needs no revision.

*  *   *

It occurred to me that the trend line in the second graph of “The Economy Slogs Along” is misleading. It is linear, when it should be curvilinear. Here is a better version:


Derived from the October 26, 2012 release of GDP estimates by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. (Contrary to the position of the National Bureau of Economic Research, there was no recession in 2000-2001. For my definition of a recession, see “Economic Growth Since World War II.”)

The more descriptive regression line underscores the moral of “Obama’s Economic Record in Perspective,” which is this:

The claims by Obama and his retinue about O’s supposed “rescue” of the economy from the abyss of depression are ludicrous. (See, for example, “A Keynesian Fantasy Land,” “The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty,” “Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate,” “Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession,” The Real Multiplier,” “The Real Multiplier (II),”The Economy Slogs Along,” and “The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment.”) Nevertheless our flannel-mouthed president his sycophants insist that he has done great things for the country, though the only great thing that he could do is to leave it alone.

Obama is not to blame for the Great Recession, but the sluggish recovery is due to his anti-business rhetoric and policies (including Obamacare, among others). All that Obama can rightly take “credit” for is an acceleration of the downward trend of economic growth.

Related posts:
Are We Mortgaging Our Children’s Future?
In the Long Run We Are All Poorer
Mr. Greenspan Doth Protest Too Much
The Price of Government
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Rationing and Health Care
The Fed and Business Cycles
The Commandeered Economy
The Perils of Nannyism: The Case of Obamacare
The Price of Government Redux
As Goes Greece
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
More about the Perils of Obamacare
Health Care “Reform”: The Short of It
The Mega-Depression
I Want My Country Back
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
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 Stagnation Thesis
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Understanding Hayek
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
The “Jobs Speech” That Obama Should Have Given
Say’s Law, Government, and Unemployment
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
Don’t Just Stand There, “Do Something”
The Commandeered Economy
Stocks for the Long Run?
We Owe It to Ourselves
Stocks for the Long Run? (Part II)
Bonds for the Long Run?
The Real Multiplier (II)
The Burden of Government
Economic Growth Since World War II
More Evidence for the Rahn Curve
The Economy Slogs Along
The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment
Obama’s Economic Record in Perspective

Economic Growth Since World War II

As we await (probably in vain) the resumption of robust economic growth, let us see what we can learn from the record since World War II (from 1947, to be precise). The  Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) provides  in spreadsheet form (here) quarterly and annual estimates of current- and constant-dollar (year 2005) GDP from 1947 to the present. BEA’s numbers yield several insights about the course of economic growth in the U.S.

I begin with this graph:

The exponential trend line indicates a constant-dollar (real) growth rate for the entire period of 0.81 percent quarterly, or 3.3 percent annually. The actual beginning-to-end annual growth rate is 3.2 percent.

The red bands parallel to the trend line delineate the 99.7% (3-sigma) confidence interval around the trend. GDP has been running at the lower edge of the confidence interval since the first quarter of 2009, that is, since the ascendancy of Barack Obama.

The vertical gray bars represent recessions, which do not correspond precisely to the periods defined as such by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). I define a recession as:

  • two or more consecutive quarters in which real GDP (annualized) is below real GDP (annualized) for an earlier quarter, during which
  • the annual (year-over-year) change in real GDP is negative, in at least one quarter.

For example:

Annualized real GDP in the second quarter of 1953 was $2,366.2 billion (i.e., about $2.4 trillion in year 2005 dollars). Annualized GDP for the next  five quarters: $2,358.1, $2,314.6, $2,303.5, $2,306.4, and $2,332.4 billion, respectively. The U.S. was still in recession (by my definition) even as GDP began to rise from $2,303.5 billion because GDP remained below $2,366.2 billion. The recession (i.e., drop in output) did not end until the fourth quarter of 1954, when annualized GDP reached $2,379.1 billion, thus surpassing the value for the second quarter of 1953. Moreover, the year-over-year change in GDP was negative in the first three quarters of the recession.

Unlike the NBER, I do not locate a recession in 2001. Real GDP, measured quarterly, dropped in the first and third quarters of 2001, but each decline lasted only a quarter. But, whereas the NBER places the Great Recession from December 2007 to June 2009, I date it from the first quarter of 2008 through the third quarter of 2011 (at least).

My method of identifying a recession is more objective and consistent than the NBER’s method, which one economist describes as “The NBER will know it when it sees it.” Moreover, unlike the NBER, I would not presume to pinpoint the first and last months of a recession, given the volatility of GDP estimates:

This graph suggests three things: (1) the uncertainty of quarterly estimates, (2) a declining rate of growth since 1947, and (3) some degree of periodicity in economic growth.

The periodicity, though irregular, can be seen more clearly in the following graph, where the vertical gray bars indicate quarters in which growth is below the declining trend line shown in the preceding graph.

The two preceding graphs lead to two observations:

The following statistics underscore the first point:

Inter-recessionary period Annual  growth rate
1947q4 – 1948q4 4.6%
1950q1 – 1953q2 7.5%
1954q4 – 1957q3 3.9%
1958q4 – 1960q1 3.7%
1961q2 – 1969q3 5.1%
1970q3 – 1973q4 4.4%
1975q4 – 1980q1 4.2%
1981q1 – 1981q3 3.3%
1983q2 – 1990q3 4.2%
1991q4 – 2007q4 3.1%

To put a point on it, here are the rates of growth during the three longest periods of above-trend growth since World War II:

  • 1963q1 – 1966q1 — 6.6%
  • 1983q1 – 1986q1 — 5.1%
  • 1995q3 – 1999q4 — 4.5%

It is hard to deny the almost-constant deceleration of growth in the post-war era — especially the sharper deceleration after 1970 — a deceleration that is embedded in the longer downward trend that began in the early 1900s.

In this connection, I note that the “Clinton boom“ — 3.4 percent real growth from 1993 to 2001 — was nothing to write home about, being mainly the product of Clinton’s self-promotion and the average citizen’s ahistorical (if not anti-historical) perspective. The boomlet of the 1990s, whatever its causes, was less impressive than several earlier post-war expansions. In fact, the overall rate of growth from the first quarter of 1947 to the first quarter of 1993 — recessions and all — was 3.4 percent.

What about the lingering Great Recession? It lingers mainly because it has been used — first by Bush, then by Obama — as an excuse for eve more disastrous expansions of the cost and reach of government.

Related posts:
Are We Mortgaging Our Children’s Future?
In the Long Run We Are All Poorer
Mr. Greenspan Doth Protest Too Much
The Price of Government
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Rationing and Health Care
The Fed and Business Cycles
The Commandeered Economy
The Perils of Nannyism: The Case of Obamacare
The Price of Government Redux
As Goes Greece
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
More about the Perils of Obamacare
Health Care “Reform”: The Short of It
The Mega-Depression
I Want My Country Back
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
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 Stagnation Thesis
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Understanding Hayek
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
The “Jobs Speech” That Obama Should Have Given
Say’s Law, Government, and Unemployment
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
Don’t Just Stand There, “Do Something”
The Commandeered Economy
Stocks for the Long Run?
We Owe It to Ourselves
Stocks for the Long Run? (Part II)
Bonds for the Long Run?
The Real Multiplier (II)
The Burden of Government

The Great Recession Is Barely Over … Maybe

UPDATED 12/22/11

The third estimate of real GDP for the third quarter of 2011 (3Q2011) is $15 billion lower than last month’s advance estimate. The annualized rate of $13,331.6 billion (in chained 2005 dollars) is only $5.6 billion above the estimate for the fourth quarter of 2007 (4Q2007), the last pre-recession quarter.

Based on the third estimate, real GDP grew at an annual rate of 0.011 percent — 11/1000 of one percent — between 4Q2007 and 3Q2011. In other words, real GDP in 3Q2011 is the same as it was in 4Q2007. Whether or not the Great Recession has ended is still up in the air and will not be known (possibly) until the release of GDP estimates for 4Q2011.

Related posts:
The Great Recession is Not Over
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession

Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession

I have pointed out that the Great Recession is not over.Nor is it likely to end anytime soon, given the anti-business, anti-growth policies and rhetoric of the Obama administration. (Making nice with crony capitalists like Jeff Immelt only underscores Obama’s cynicism.)

Economists Scott Baker, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven Davis have weighed in with a similar assessment; for example:

A major factor behind the weak recovery and gloomy outlook is a climate of policy-induced economic uncertainty. An index we devised [chart below] shows U.S. policy uncertainty at historically high levels….

Our index shows prominent surges in policy uncertainty around the time of major elections, the outbreak of wars and after the Sept. 11 attacks. It shows another surge after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holding Inc. in September 2008. Policy uncertainty has remained at high levels ever since….

Why has policy uncertainty increased so much? One argument holds that the recent financial crisis created an atmosphere of extreme uncertainty, bringing new and difficult policy issues to the fore. No doubt, the crisis presented policy makers with difficult choices in 2008 and 2009. But the persistence of policy uncertainty wasn’t inevitable. Rather, it reflects deliberate policy decisions, harmful rhetorical attacks on business and “millionaires,” failure to tackle entitlement reforms and fiscal imbalances, and political brinkmanship. (“Business Class: Policy Uncertainty Is Choking Recovery,” Bloomberg.com, October 5, 2011)

Here is the chart that accompanies the article by Baker, Bloom, and Davis:

The rampant uncertainty — due in large part to Obama’s policies and rhetoric — has prolonged the recession because businesses are loath to hire and make job-creating investments:


Source: Mark J. Perry, “The Jobless Recovery Is Really an Investment-less Recovery,” The Enterprise Blog, October 3, 2011.

Greg Mankiw sees it this way:

The most volatile component of G.D.P. over the business cycle is spending on investment goods. This spending category includes equipment, software, inventory accumulation, and residential and nonresidential construction. And the recent economic downturn offers this case in point about the problem: From the economy’s peak in the fourth quarter of 2007 to the recession’s official end, G.D.P. fell by only 5.1 percent, while investment spending fell by a whopping 34 percent….

Myriad government actions influence the expected future profitability of capital. These include not only policies concerning taxation but also those concerning trade and regulation.

For example, passing the free trade agreement with South Korea, which has languished in Congress more than four years after first being negotiated, would be a step in the right direction. So would reining in the National Labor Relations Board; its decision to block Boeing from opening a nonunion plant in South Carolina may have been hailed by organized labor, but it surely did not hearten investors. (“How to Make Business Want to Invest Again,” The New York Times, September 10, 2011)

Stronger language about the negative effects of Obama’s policies can be found here:

Mark J. Perry, “Thanks to Regulatory Burdens, We’ve Got Both A Creditless Recovery and A Jobless Recovery” ( Carpe Diem, July 21, 2011)

Bruce McQuain, “Why aren’t we seeing a jobs recovery? Maybe it’s ObamaCare’s fault” ( Questions and Observations, July 21, 2011)

Jonathan S. Tobin, “Home Depot Founder: Obama’s Regulations Are Killing Businesses” (Commentary, July 21, 2011)

The present situation is scarily reminiscent of the Great Depression. As Robert Higgs writes,

the economy remained in the depression as late as 1940 because private investment had never recovered sufficiently after its collapse during the Great Contraction [of 1929-33]….

[T]he 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. (“Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed after the War,” The Independent Review, Spring 1997)

By way of closing the circle, I note that Higgs endorses Baker, Bloom, and Davis’s research.

It is more than evident that the only sure route to economic recovery is the replacement of Obama by a Republican (almost any one will do), and firm Republican control of both houses of Congress.

Related posts:
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
The Rahn Curve at Work
How the Great Depression Ended
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
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
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
Undermining the Free Society
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
The Great Recession Is Not Over
The Stagnation Thesis
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Say’s Law, Government, and Unemployment
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
“Tax Expenditures” Are Not Expenditures
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
The “Jobs Speech” That Obama Should Have Given

Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate

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.

I spell out the reasons in “A Keynesian Fantasy Land.” There are six of them, including the timing-targeting problem (number 3).

[In an earlier version of this post, I also mentioned Ricardian equivalence, which is an aspect of reason number 2, the disincentivizing aspects of government borrowing and spending. I referred to a post by Steven Landsburg, which I had read hastily and misinterpreted as a discussion of Ricardian equivalence. When Dr. Landsburg graciously pointed out that I had the wrong end of the stick, I deleted the brief discussion of Ricardian equivalence from this post.]

A key component of the timing-targeting problem is the strong possibility that “stimulus” money will be spent on already-employed resources, thus bidding up their prices but doing little or nothing to stimulate real economic activity. Tyler Cowen recaps two papers that document the misdirection of “stimulus” money:

My colleagues Garett Jones and Daniel Rothschild conducted extensive field research (interviewing 85 organizations receiving stimulus funds, in five regions), asking simple questions such as whether the hired project workers already had had jobs.  There are lots of relevant details in the paper but here is one punchline:

…hiring people from unemployment was more the exception than the rule in our interviews.

In a related paper by the same authors (read them both), here is more:

Hiring isn’t the same as net job creation. In our survey, just 42.1 percent of the workers hired at ARRA-receiving organizations after January 31, 2009, were unemployed at the time they were hired (Appendix C). More were hired directly from other organizations (47.3 percent of post-ARRA workers), while a handful came from school (6.5%) or from outside the labor force (4.1%)(Figure 2).

One major problem with ARRA was not the crowding out of financial capital but rather the crowding out of labor.  In the first paper there is also a discussion of how the stimulus job numbers were generated, how unreliable they are, and how stimulus recipients sometimes had an incentive to claim job creation where none was present.  Many of the created jobs involved hiring people back from retirement.  You can tell a story about how hiring the already employed opened up other jobs for the unemployed, but it’s just that — a story.  I don’t think it is what happened in most cases, rather firms ended up getting by with fewer workers.

There’s also evidence of government funds chasing after the same set of skilled and already busy firms.  For at least a third of the surveyed firms receiving stimulus funds, their experience failed to fit important aspects of the Keynesian model.

The Keynesian model is deeply flawed because it is a simplistic model based on simplistic assumptions about the behavior of human beings and human institutions. I say in “A Keynesian Fantasy Land,” models are supposed to mirror reality, not the other way around. The Keynesian model — or the version embraced by Paul Krugman and his fellow leftists — is a version of the reality that they would prefer: a reality in which government runs the economy.

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
“Tax Expenditures” Are Not Expenditures
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty

The Great Recession Is Not Over

Here is my definition of a recession:

  • two or more consecutive quarters in which real GDP lower than real GDP in an earlier quarter, and
  • the year-over-year change in real GDP is negative in at least one quarter.

The latest GDP estimates from the Bureau of Economic Analysis indicate that the recession continues. By my definition, it has now lasted 14 quarters: 2008Q1 through 2011Q2. Real GDP for 2011Q2 was $13,270.1 billion (annualized rate, chained 2005 dollars), which is lower than the pre-recession peak of $13,326.0, which was reached in 2007Q4. Average annual real growth over the 3.5 years from 2007Q4 to 2011Q2 was -0.12 percent.

If real growth had continued at the 2007Q4 rate of 2.2 percent, real GDP in 2011Q2 would have been about $14,381 billion. That is to say, the shortfall in real GDP, was about 8 percent. Even worse, if real growth had continued at the 1866-1907 rate of 4.3 percent, real GDP would now be about three times its present level. But that is another story, which is told at the preceding link and several of the links at the bottom of this post.

Returning to the main theme of this post, here is how real GDP has fared from 1947Q1 through 2011Q2 (recessions are denoted by vertical bars):

(I have excluded the recession that was in progress as of 1947Q1 for lack of quarterly GDP estimates before that quarter.)

Here is a closer look at the depth and duration of post-war recessions:

Finally, here are year-over-year changes in real GDP, from the first quarter of 1948 through the third quarter of 2010:

This graph, by the way, updates the one I used in “The Price of Government: More Evidence,” where I say:

You will notice two things about the graph. First, the economy is cyclical, thanks in part to the actions of government (e.g., the low-interest, housing-bubble recession). Second, economic growth has declined from an annual rate of around 4 percent to an annual rate of about 2 percent, because of government.

“Because of government” refers to the unrelenting assault on the private (real) economy, in the form of transfers from productive persons to unproductive ones, other government spending, and ever-growing regulatory restrictions.

Related posts:
The Price of Government
The Fed and Business Cycles
The Commandeered Economy
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
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Stagnation Thesis
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty

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

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.