Monday, 2 February 2009

Government and the great depression

Harold L. Cole, professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, and Lee E. Ohanian, professor of economics and director of the Ettinger Family Program in Macroeconomic Research at UCLA, have an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on How Government Prolonged the Depression.

Cole and Ohanian open by saying
The New Deal is widely perceived to have ended the Great Depression, and this has led many to support a "new" New Deal to address the current crisis. But the facts do not support the perception that FDR's policies shortened the Depression, or that similar policies will pull our nation out of its current economic downturn.
They ask the question
Why wasn't the Depression followed by a vigorous recovery, like every other cycle?
Their answer
It should have been. The economic fundamentals that drive all expansions were very favorable during the New Deal. Productivity grew very rapidly after 1933, the price level was stable, real interest rates were low, and liquidity was plentiful. We have calculated on the basis of just productivity growth that employment and investment should have been back to normal levels by 1936. Similarly, Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas and Leonard Rapping calculated on the basis of just expansionary Federal Reserve policy that the economy should have been back to normal by 1935.

So what stopped a blockbuster recovery from ever starting? The New Deal.
They go on to say
The most damaging policies were those at the heart of the recovery plan, including The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which tossed aside the nation's antitrust acts and permitted industries to collusively raise prices provided that they shared their newfound monopoly rents with workers by substantially raising wages well above underlying productivity growth. The NIRA covered over 500 industries, ranging from autos and steel, to ladies hosiery and poultry production. Each industry created a code of "fair competition" which spelled out what producers could and could not do, and which were designed to eliminate "excessive competition" that FDR believed to be the source of the Depression.

These codes distorted the economy by artificially raising wages and prices, restricting output, and reducing productive capacity by placing quotas on industry investment in new plants and equipment. Following government approval of each industry code, industry prices and wages increased substantially, while prices and wages in sectors that weren't covered by the NIRA, such as agriculture, did not. We have calculated that manufacturing wages were as much as 25% above the level that would have prevailed without the New Deal. And while the artificially high wages created by the NIRA benefited the few that were fortunate to have a job in those industries, they significantly depressed production and employment, as the growth in wage costs far exceeded productivity growth.
The lessons from all of this?
The main lesson we have learned from the New Deal is that wholesale government intervention can -- and does -- deliver the most unintended of consequences. This was true in the 1930s, when artificially high wages and prices kept us depressed for more than a decade, it was true in the 1970s when price controls were used to combat inflation but just produced shortages. It is true today, when poorly designed regulation produced a banking system that took on too much risk.
They end by explaining
President Barack Obama and Congress have a great opportunity to produce reforms that do return Americans to work, and that provide a foundation for sustained long-run economic growth and the opportunity for all Americans to succeed. These reforms should include very specific plans that update banking regulations and address a manufacturing sector in which several large industries -- including autos and steel -- are no longer internationally competitive. Tax reform that broadens rather than narrows the tax base and that increases incentives to work, save and invest is also needed. We must also confront an educational system that fails many of its constituents. A large fiscal stimulus plan that doesn't directly address the specific impediments that our economy faces is unlikely to achieve either the country's short-term or long-term goals.

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