Saturday, November 29, 2008

Krugman's Depression

In an earlier essay, "War Mobilization Ended the Great Depression," I noted the strange veneration on the left for Paul Krugman because of his huge advocacy for a new round of New Deal-style spending programs.

It's funny, of course, that Krugman, a Princeton University economist, and Nobel laureate in international trade theory, is not a recognized expert on Keynesian pump-priming. No matter, just the mention of his name adds some kind of liberal legitimacy for those on
the radical left.

In any case, Amity Shlaes, who has written a book on the Depression, takes up the debate at today's Wall Street Journal:

Paul Krugman of the New York Times has been on the attack lately in regard to the New Deal. His new book "The Return of Depression Economics," emphasizes the importance of New Deal-style spending. He has said the trouble with the New Deal was that it didn't spend enough.

He's also arguing that some writers and economists have been misrepresenting the 1930s to make the effect of FDR's overall policy look worse than it was. I'm interested in part because Mr. Krugman has mentioned me by name. He recently said that I am the one "whose misleading statistics have been widely disseminated on the right."
Mr. Krugman is a new Nobel Laureate, teaches at Princeton University and writes a column for a nationally prominent newspaper. So what he says is believed to be objective by many people, even when it isn't. But the larger reason we should care about the 1930s employment record is that the cure Roosevelt offered, the New Deal, is on everyone else's mind as well. In a recent "60 Minutes" interview, President-elect Barack Obama said, "keep in mind that 1932, 1933, the unemployment rate was 25%, inching up to 30%."

The New Deal is Mr. Obama's context for the giant infrastructure plan his new team is developing. If he proposes FDR-style recovery programs, then it is useful to establish whether those original programs actually brought recovery. The answer is, they didn't. New Deal spending provided jobs but did not get the country back to where it was before.
This reality shows most clearly in the data -- everyone's data. During the Depression the federal government did not survey unemployment routinely as it does today. But a young economist named Stanley Lebergott helped the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington compile systematic unemployment data for that key period. He counted up what he called "regular work" such as a job as a school teacher or a job in the private sector. He intentionally did not include temporary jobs in emergency programs -- because to count a short-term, make-work project as a real job was to mask the anxiety of one who really didn't have regular work with long-term prospects.

The result is what we today call the Lebergott/Bureau of Labor Statistics series. They show one man in four was unemployed when Roosevelt took office. They show joblessness overall always above the 14% line from 1931 to 1940. Six years into the New Deal and its programs to create jobs or help organized labor, two in 10 men were unemployed. Mr. Lebergott went on to become one of America's premier economic historians at Wesleyan University. His data are what I cite. So do others, including our president-elect in the "60 Minutes" interview.

Later, Lee Ohanian of UCLA studied New Deal unemployment by the number of hours worked. His picture was similar to Mr. Lebergott's. Even late in 1939, total hours worked by the adult population was down by a fifth from the 1929 level. To be sure, Michael Darby of UCLA has argued that make-work jobs should be counted. Even so, his chart shows that from 1931 to 1940, New Deal joblessness ranges as high as 16% (1934) but never gets below 9%. Nine percent or above is hardly a jobless target to which the Obama administration would aspire.

What kept the picture so dark so long? Deflation for one, but also the notion that government could engineer economic recovery by favoring the public sector at the expense of the private sector. New Dealers raised taxes again and again to fund spending. The New Dealers also insisted on higher wages when businesses could ill afford them. Roosevelt, for example, signed into law first his National Recovery Administration, whose codes forced businesses to pay an above-market minimum wage, and then the Wagner Act, which gave union workers more power.
There's more at the link.

Hat Tip:


Anonymous said...

It must be depressing -- pun intended -- for Paul Krugman to realize that the people who got us out of the Depression weren't Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats in Congress, but Hideki Tojo and Adolf Hitler.

World War II created something new: very high levels of borrowing, a massive demand for products which would be quickly expended and needing replacement, and a world economic situation in which the United States had no industrial competitors left.

AmPowerBlog said...

Thanks Dana!

Law and Order Teacher said...

It's an unfortunate truth that the New Deal didn't get us out of the depression. The New Deal consisted of essentially make-work, feel-good government jobs that had no real lasting effects on the economy. FDR won because he espoused doing something about the economy. Hoover lost because he stated the economy will correct itself. In other words, wait it'll be fine. Oops. He, of course was right, but Americans only respond to doers. FDR was a doer, Hoover was not. Most of the New Deal programs were failures, but they and FDR made Americans feel like something was being done. FDR often said to do something even if it fails, experiment even if it doesn't work. Krugman and his ilk are statists. That explains his New Deal fetish and his desire for Obama to embark on the same path. We'll see if Obama falls into the rabbit hole.

dave in boca said...

The book by Amity should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in breaking through the hagiographic mythology surrounding FDR's "New Deal" and its creeping socialism nostrums.

Krugman has been panicking now for eight years saying the next recession is only a quarterly report away---he is the chief mouth-frothing hysteric in the crowd of leftist shemales howling that the sky is falling and that nationalization is the only cure.

Norman Thomas once said that socialism will be accomplished in America without ever even using that term in the transition. The histrionic hyperventilations of clown-mindfarters like PK are essential to buffaloing us into "quick fixes" that will end up permanently disfiguring and eliminating free markets.

PK and his crew of howler-monkey economists are part of the NYT scheme to deprivatize our economy.

Mau-mauing the flak-catchers all over again, in a different context!

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