...the 1920s had been a period of dramatic economic growth and technological innovation that was lowering the costs of manufacturing and increasing the supplies of a wide variety of goods and services supplied to the consuming public.
Only agriculture remained to a great degree in the doldrums. With the end of the First World War, the global demand for American farm products had declined and the farming community had failed to adjust to the new international market situation. Once the Great Depression began, unemployment kept rising until it reached about 25 percent of the work force in late 1932. Both manufacturing output and construction decreased significantly, and international trade experienced a major decline.
He sees a primary source of the problem in the return to the gold standard by countries such as Great Britain at a rate of exchange that was too high relative to the domestic level of prices and wages that had been created by the wartime inflation. The problem was that the British trade unions had become too strong and wouldn’t accept cuts in money wages, and the British government was not willing to devalue the pound. Hence, Britain went into the Great Depression already in a severe recession.
...in 1927 and 1928 the Federal Reserve had increased the money supply to keep the stock market and construction booms going. Then the Fed brought the monetary expansion to a halt in late 1928 and 1929. That set the stage for the stock-market crash.
The economic policies of the Hoover administration were an unmitigated disaster. Taxes were raised and the government set up subsidy programs to prop up both unprofitable industries and wasteful agricultural production. Congress passed the Hawley-Smoot tariff that raised import taxes to a historical high, which set off an international trade war that ruined import and export markets around the world.
Anti-competitive price and wage rigidities were the primary reason the Depression grew in intensity as the early 1930s progressed, Smiley emphasizes.
The growing circle of unprofitable businesses in the face of these price and wage rigidities undermined the banking system, as an increasing number of enterprises could not pay off their loans. Bank-depositor panics broke out that led to bank runs. The financial sector of the American economy, as a result, went into a tailspin. The banking crisis was at its worst in the period between the November presidential election of 1932 and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration in March 1933.Smiley persuasively shows with a thorough and detailed analysis of the facts that, contrary to many popular impressions, Roosevelt’s New Deal did not end the Great Depression. Instead, it prolonged the imbalances and distortions and indeed in many cases made them worse.
Economic improvement began only after the U.S. Supreme Court declared most of the New Deal systems of planning and controls to be unconstitutional in 1935 and 1936. To the extent that the private sector was freed from the heavy hand of direct government supervision, industries slowly began to adjust and expand output and add to their labor forces. But Smiley explains that Roosevelt undermined this recovery in 1936 and 1937. Angry that the Supreme Court had thrown out most of the central features of his New Deal, he went on an anti-business crusade that weakened business confidence in the political and economic future.
Then, in 1937-38, the American economy experienced a new depression within the Great Depression, owing to the Federal Reserve’s raising reserve requirements on commercial banks, which induced a monetary contraction and a decline in investment lending. Durable-goods manufacturing fell by 67 percent between May 1937 and May 1938.
Smiley calculates that during both the 1930s and the war years of the 1940s, the American economy experienced periods of capital consumption, when capital equipment and other durable production assets were not replaced as they were worn out.
The enduring legacy of the Great Depression, Smiley concludes, has been a total misunderstanding of this period: it was government mismanagement and intervention that created this economic crisis. And furthermore, what the government did during the decade of the 1930s left us with the institutional burden of the regulated economy and the welfare state. “What failed in the 1930s were governments, in their eagerness to direct activity to achieve political ends,” Smiley says at the end of this insightful and valuable work. “It has taken us a long time to begin to understand these costly lessons of the 1930s.”
Thursday, May 01, 2008
Gene Smiley on The Great Depression
A review of the Gene Smiley book is here: