The Great Revision

Every time I argued with Keynes, I felt that I took my life in my hands and I seldom emerged without feeling something of a fool. Bertrand Russell 

In the past few days I’ve come across some common misunderstandings of what actually happened during the The Great Depression and what lessons it should provide us for monetary and fiscal policy today. One came from my uncle’s coworker and another from a fellow blogger. So readers here get a better sense of my thoughts on both with a risk of being slightly unfocused, I’ll just include some parts from my private email correspondences in with my response to “Rick.” 

Oh Rick, I’m almost sorry to have to chip away at the icon you’ve placed a top the pedestal. Maybe your love of one-dimensional Randian characters explains it, but Amity Schlaes and The Forgotten Man are hard for most of us to sympathize with. You ask your readers to “compare the two statements against easy to find historic facts and decide for yourself whose opinion is the most accurate.” Well, I did. I can understand the appeal of a novel like Atlas Shrugged, but I can’t get behind any of Schlaes’ fiction. 

First and most glaring is her pathological undercounting of jobs during the New Deal. She doesn’t count “work relief jobs” even though these jobs actually help living people and help generate more spending; the only reason I can see not counting them is because they make her argument even worse. Her whole thesis is basically torpedoed with one glance at a graph of the economic performance under the New Deal. 

So there’s your “easy to find historic facts.” No matter how many anecdotes she can cram into her revisionist history, they won’t blind us to the data. When Roosevelt came into office unemployment was over 20% and he cut it by more than half. Not really a glaring indictment. 

I’m also not sure she actually understands that critiquing the New Deal or FDR isn’t the same thing critiquing Keynesian economics or even Keynes himself. Knowledgable Keynesians don’t even make the argument that FDR ended the Great Depression, he helped in some ways and hurt the cause in others. The spending from the WWII and getting off the gold standard, which broke loose the contracting money supply, were far more instrumental. Drop Amity Schlaes and pick up some Milton Friedman at least

Here’s Bruce Bartlett, policy advisor to Ronald Reagan’s and a former treasury department economist.

I am not dogmatic on this issue. I am willing to look at evidence or analysis that recovery from the Great Depression would have been faster if spending had been cut to the level of revenues or even lower or whatever, but I have been unable to get any conservative critic of the New Deal to say that this is what they believe. They always change the subject to various other things Roosevelt did, much of which I agree was mistaken. I just want a simple answer from Amity Shlaes, Jim Powell, and Burt Folsom, all of whom have recent books critical of Roosevelt, to this question: Would recovery have been faster if spending had been cut and deficits had been smaller during the 1930s? If the answer is yes, please provide some logical and empirical evidence supporting this view. (my emphasis)

It also becomes clear trying to read her buckshot critique of Krugman that she doesn’t understand the dynamics of labor price. First of all, rampant deflation is the major cause of real wage rises and real interest rates. So monetary policy, not fiscal or labor policy is the culprit here. Also, when a depression is happening and interest rates are at the lower bound, lowering wages for all workers would be coupled with a lower real price level so demand for labor wouldn’t necessarily change that much.

Suppose that wages across the US economy had been, say, 20 percent lower than they actually were. You might be tempted to say that this would make hiring workers more attractive. But to a first approximation, prices would also have been 20 percent lower — so the real wage would not have been reduced. So how would lower wages lead to higher demand for labor?

What Keynes realized by applying the concept of “sticky prices/wages” (which Shlaes largely ignores) is that the government needs to intervene and push aggregate demand rightward while expanding the real money supply.

Don’t forget too that Keynes wasn’t a marxist, he wanted to save capitalism. Here he is on Hayek’s Road to Serfdom

I find myself moved, not for the first time, to remind contemporary economists that the classical teaching embodied some permanent truths of great significance, which we are liable today to overlook because we associate them with other doctrines which we cannot now accept without much qualification. There are in these matters deep undercurrents at work, natural forces, one can call them, or even the invisible hand, which are operating toward equilibrium. If it were not, we could not have got on even so well as we have for many decades past. 

The point here is that these extreme government interventions are only necessary during specific recessionary conditions. The government isn’t taking private capital out of the economy when it is jump starting idle factories and workers. The whole point is that the resources aren’t being used at all. If we don’t use them we’d get what happened in Japan, a lost decade. 
Let’s see why “simply printing” money can lead to prosperity during these types of economic conditions. When the government prints money it causes inflation, but since we’re well below inflation targets (we actually have a bigger potential problem with deflation right now) more inflation is a good thing. What more money in the economy will do right now is combine “together unemployed workers and idle factories. Remember a recession is a time when we have increasing unemployment and declining capacity utilization. We have factories without workers and workers without factories. Those are resources that could be used to produce things but are not being used.” 

The problem is that since there isn’t enough money in the economy right now consumers can’t spend enough of what’s available to push businesses into hiring more workers. Fortunately, the government can print more money and spend it directly to put those idle resources to use. Interest rates also happen to be at historically low levels so it won’t even cost us that much in future (less valuable) dollars to do so. 

Here’s another helpful way to look at it: “Long-term economic prosperity is determined by how much value a country is capable of creating. […] But in the short-term, gaps can arise between what could be produced and what’s actually being produced. If that gap is small or nonexistent, efforts to “stimulate” production will lead to inflation or mere shifting of resources around. But if the gap is large, then policy needs to induce people who are currently not doing anything to start producing goods and services again.” Stop caring about dollars and start caring about wealth. 

Another common criticism that keeps turning up is the “uncertainty” critique. It argues that businesses are uncertain what certain legislation and other government policies will result in so they won’t hire new workers, but will sit on their profits until they have a better idea of what is going to happen. Aside from not having much evidence (herehere) to support this claim, I’m also baffled that people somehow think the free market is more certain. The free-market does a lot of good things, but certainty isn’t really what defines it. Also, will sweeping reform that pulls the government out of huge portions of the economy really make things more certain? If you think it’d be better, than make that argument – just don’t tell me it’d make things less uncertain. 

Don’t trust Amity Schlaes and others that don’t seem to even understand the arguments for stimulus. Seek out actual economists on the left and the right for more useful arguments for and against stimulus; after reading “historian” Schlaes, it seems we should trust them more on history as well. 

Krugman’s column.
Schlaes’ response.
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