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Friday, January 02, 2009

Some Thoughts for the HAW Panel Tomorrow on War and the Economy

From 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. tomorrow in the Empire Ballroom East of the Sheraton New York, 7th Ave. and 53rd St., HAW members and friends will participate in a roundtable: "One Faltering Economy 
and Two Wars: What Can Historians Contribute?
 Unfortunately, I can’t be there. While I’m sure there will no shortage of topics, I hope they will include the widely believed theory (at least among my students) that “wars have been good for the economy” in American history.

Variants of this thesis can be found among across the political spectrum. On the right, neocon Conrad Black argues that World War II “had restored prosperity after the free market had failed.” On the left, Paul Krugman similarly writes: “There's nothing magic about spending on tanks and bombs rather than roads and bridges. The reason World War II worked more effectively than the WPA [in terms of promoting economic growth] as that it was *bigger.*” While Krugman might prefer that this “bigger” spending be on roads and bridges, rather than bombs, this does not change the fact he still accepts the overall premise that spending on wars can be good for the economy. If anyone should have greater reason to call this theory into question, it is antiwar historians.

A good place to start are the works of Robert Higgs on war and the economy. Few historians have provided a more powerful response to the Krugman/Black thesis. Higgs examines the most commonly measures of wartime prosperity and finds them wanting. He makes a compelling case that genuine prosperity did not begin to return until the wartime demoblization of 1945 and 1946. Higgs followed in the tradition of Thomas Cochran who in 1961 had convincingly challenged the thesis of Charles Beard that the Civil War had spurred industrialization.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An Answer to Critics: "Krugman's Prescription for Disaster"

"Economics of Contempt" and to some extent Per Paterson have raised some questions and challenges to my blog, "Krugman's Prescription for Disaster." I will try to answer them as best I can. "Economics of Contempt" writes:

the logical implication of Krugman's argument is that the New Deal would have made the Great Depression at least somewhat shorter than it would have been had we followed the old approach for curing recessions. How do you know that the old anti-recession policy would have made the Great Depression shorter than it actually was? How do you know that in the absence of the New Deal, the Great Depression wouldn't have been longer than the Long Depression? You don't.

I don’t know for sure that that the old anti-depression policy would have made for a shorter downturn but, then, Krugman doesn't know that the reverse is true. I point to the historical evidence from previous depressions that were fought by using the old anti-depression policy. These were mostly over in two or three years.

If Krugman believes that the decade-long Great Depression was exceptional in nature compared to previous depressions and could only be fought with a new Keynesian approach, he needs to give some evidence for that claim. As far as I can tell, however, he doesn't try. Pending such an attempt, the main burden of proof is on him.

Also, comparing the Great Depression with the recession in 1921-1922 is ridiculous. Output in 1929 alone contracted more than twice as much as output contracted in the entire 1921-1922 recession. And 1929 was before Hoover started his expansionary fiscal policy (which I agree Hoover never gets credit for, although you'd probably call it "blame" rather than "credit"!).

It is not ridiculous at all, that is if the goal is to understand why we had an unprecedented decade long depression. The comparison becomes especially instructive if we limit the analysis to the first year of both downturns. Between 1921 and 1922, there was a significantly faster drop in prices and GDP and a greater rise in unemployment than between 1929 and 1930. From 1921 to 1922, Unemployment advanced from 4 percent to twelve percent, the gross national product fell by a staggering 17 percent. All this was in one year. By contrast, unemployment was still well under 10 percent at the end of 1930.

Hoover may not have started his expansionary fiscal policy until later when, for example, he ramped up agricultural loans in 1930 and 1931 but his began his ultimately more destructive high wage policy only a month or so after the Crash.

During that period, he called the first of several White House conferences. He successfully used these to pressure employers to maintain nominal wage rates. Henry Ford actually raised wages for his workers after attending. Later, Hoover reinforced this high wage policy through Smoot-Hawley (which kept out low wage competition) and Davis-Bacon (which required prevailing (e.g. union) wages for federal contractors. The upshot, as I said, that nominal wages did not begin to fall into 1931 and real wages were actually 12 percent higher in 1932 than they had been in 1929. Even Keynes, Krugman's hero, often commented that "downward stickiness" of wages had not occured during previous depressions.

By contrast, Harding allowed wages, prices, profits, and the GDP to fall relatively unobstructed from 1921 and 1922. As a result, by the beginning of 1923, unemployment was down to 1921 levels. By allowing the malinvestments to readjust, Harding, unlike Hoover, had prevented a very steep initial downturn from turning into a decade long depression.

Much of this is dealt with at length in Lowell Vedder and Richard Gallaway, Out of Work: Unemployment and Government in Twentieth Century America and the works by Higgs cited in the previous blog.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Krugman's Prescription for Disaster

Paul Krugman calls for Obama and his advisors to push an expanded version of the New Deal (see the link below by Mark R. Hatlie). According to Krugman, they should boldly throw caution to the winds and “figure out how much help they think the economy needs, than add 50 percent. It’s much better in a depressed economy, to err on the side of too much stimulus.”

Obama should reject this advice. If he listens to Krugman, the likely result will be a wave of stagflation that makes the experience of the 1970s look mild by comparison. Such a prescription would both continue and accelerate Bush’s fiscally reckless policy of propping up malinvestments through massive increases in spending, deficits, and easy credit by the Federal Reserve. As the continuing fall of the stock market and the rise of unemployment indicate, more bailouts and more “shock socialism” do not work. Obama made a fatal mistake in failing to oppose the aptly described billionaire bailout.

This call for a hyper New Deal rests on a flawed view of history. According Krugman, the only reason Roosevelt failed to bring recovery was because he spent too little, not too much. At the same time, he tries to have it both ways by stating that the crisis of the 1930s would have been “much worse” without the New Deal.

A key problem with Krugman’s analysis is that it does not adequately explain why the decade-long New Deal era depression lasted so much longer than previous depressions. Prior to the 1930s, depressions (as in the sharp and short downturn of 1921 and 1922) had typically lasted for two to three years. The predominant anti-depression policy before Hoover and Roosevelt was to cut spending, balance budgets, and let prices, profits, and wages readjust to more sustainable levels. Yet Krugman regards this older approach for curing depressions as “much worse” than the New Deal. The logical implication of his argument is that the New Deal, modest as it was, would have made the Great Depression at least somewhat shorter than previous downturns. The fact that it did not stands as a stunning indictment of FDR’s policies.

The unprecedented duration of the depression also represents an indictment of Herbert Hoover’s approach. This was because Hoover intervened too much not, as Krugman would have it, too little. Krugman’s article neglects the relevant point that Hoover had pursued a mini-New Deal from 1929 to 1933 via programs such as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Federal Farm Board. It was Hoover, not Roosevelt, who was the first president to reject the advice of the “leave it alone liquidationists.” Instead of letting malinvestments (or toxic assets in today’s parlance) readjust at a lower level, he desperately propped them up. In great part because of Hoover’s high wage policies, real wages were actually 12 percent higher in 1932 than in 1929! Meanwhile, of course, unemployment advanced to record levels as businesses saved on payroll costs by laying off workers. Perhaps if Hoover had listened to the advice of the so-called “liquidationists,” the depression would have been over by 1931.

More troubling, at least for opponents of war, is Krugman’s dubious contention that “What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.” The evidence does not support the view that that war was beneficial for the economy. In a seminal article for the Journal of Economic History, Robert Higgs convincingly challenged the Keynesian theory of World War II as put forward by Krugman and others.

While unemployment disappeared during the war, it was hardly a step forward. Moving men and women from the unemployment lines to the killing fields of Anzio did not represent economic progress in any meaningful sense. During the war, Americans at home suffered from rationing, shortages, more accidents on the job, longer hours, and many other measures of economic deprivation. Moreover, as Higgs points out, “real personal consumption declined. So did real private investment. From 1941 to 1943 real gross private domestic investment plunged by 64 percent; during the four years of the war it never rose above 55 percent of its 1941 level; only in 1946 did it reach a new high.”

According to Higgs, genuine prosperity did not begin to return until the last months of 1945 and 1946. This prosperity occurred under a policy of reverse Keynesianism which included massive reductions in spending because of demoblization, rapid steps toward price decontrol, and scaled back deficit spending.

Higgs sums it up:

World War II, the so-called Good War, has been a fount of historical fallacies. One of the greatest—and one of the most pernicious for subsequent policymakers—is the notion that prosperity prevailed during the war. Although Americans might have been dying in the Pacific and European theaters of war, people on the home front actually benefited from the war, because it propelled the economy at long last out of the Great Depression. This view of the war would be sufficiently egregious if it were true, but despite the claims of historians for the past half century, it is not true.

Obama's best hope to bring lasting recovery is to let the economy go through a short, but sharp, readjustment. He needs to remove the malivestments not, contra Krugman, perpetuate them. Obama can faciliate this readjustment to a more sustainable level by cancelling the bailout, cutting spending, and pruning deficits. Another worthy goal would be to dismantle the Federal Reserve which helped to create this mess through its easy credit policies.

Most of all, however, Obama should end our costly empire by closing down our overseas bases and bringing home the troops. Only then, can we start to get our financial house in order and move towards genuine economic well being.

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