What can we learn from the Depression?

Free Exchange has discussed in a recent post the academic views on the Great Depression. They suggest that recent research (say the last 20 years or so) has produced a different view, and "that many traditional views about the causes of the Depression have been overturned by academics in recent decades." In particular, they suggest that neither protectionism nor the financial crash are seen as central anymore. They correctly note that the dominant view, associated to Barry Eichengreen and Peter Temin,* now puts an emphasis on the effects of the Gold Standard (note that Keynes also emphasized the role of the Gold Standard, to which he referred to as a 'barbarous relic'). 

And by the way that means that the consensus is that a demand shock caused the Depression. Note that a few authors have pushed the Real Business Cycle (RBC) story in recent times. For example, Prescott argues that:
“In the 1930s, there was an important change in the rules of the economic game. This change lowered the steady-state market hours. The Keynesians had it all wrong. In the Great Depression, employment was not low because investment was low. Employment and investment were low because labor market institutions and industrial policies changed in a way that lowered normal employment.”
In other words, the changes in incentives led to less supply of labor and less demand for investment goods by firms. Same ideas have been put forward by Cole and Ohanian, and by popularizers like Amity Shlaes in her The Forgotten Man. However, most of the New Deal regulations that the revisionists abhor, actually came to late to have caused the Depression. They generally try to explain the 'slow' recovery (growth averaged 8% in the first FDR term) as a result of the New Deal, and leave the question of what was the supply side shock that caused the Depression.

Lucas, who converted to RBC at some point in the 1980s, asked (cited here) poignantly: "Where is the productivity shock that cuts output in half in that period? Is it a flood or a hurricane? If it really happened, shouldn't we be able to see it in the data?" For that reason Lucas still believes, like Friedman, that the Fed did it. And if one is going to blame regulation for the duration of the Depression, one must deal with the fact that in the 1950s, if anything, labor and financial regulations were as stringent, if not more, than in the 1930s and unemployment was fairly low.

A more subtle critique of the conventional view, and its emphasis on the Gold Standard comes from Christina Romer. She suggests that the path of American output and unemployment before 1931 can be explained quite well with only domestic factors, and that even after 1931, international factors affected American economic conditions mainly through their impact on American policy decisions. Note that that this is not incompatible with Kindleberger's view that the US, in the process of becoming the hegemon, was central for the global economic collapse.

This should cast some doubts on FE's conclusion that:
"putting all the blame on Wall Street for the Great Depression -- or on bankers in the current crisis -- does not stand up to historical scrutiny. The responsibility may more properly lie in a complex combination of factors, like how global financial systems are structured."
Romer notes that in the US the collapse in consumption was more important than in other economies (harking back to Peter Temin's reply to Friedman that it was the collapse in consumption, not monetary policy, that caused the Depression). And the collapse in the demand for consumer durables, which depended on credit for their purchase, was affected by financial conditions. Romer argues:
“Both the initial recession in the United States in the summer of 1929 and the acceleration of the decline in late 1929 and 1930 are ultimately attributable to the stock market boom and bust of the late 1920s. The stock market boom is the prime explanation for why the Federal Reserve was pursuing tight monetary policy starting in 1928. The stock market crash is the prime source for the collapse in durable goods purchases starting in November 1929.”
So the financial bubble and the crash did matter, and John Kenneth Galbraith (among others) was correct about it. I would add that income distribution, which we know from Piketty and Saez, was as bad in the 1920s as now, did also play a role in the bubble and the expansion of private indebtedness. So Wall Street was to blame indeed, as much as it should be too in the recent Great Recession.

* Kindleberger, in his classic The World in Depression, goes further and suggests that it was the absence of an hegemon that acted as a source of demand in situations of crises (distressed markets), as a stabilizer of exchange rates, and as a source of international finance (an international lender of last resort) that caused  the Depression, since the UK was incapable and the US unwilling to assume that position. The Depression was essentially an hegemonic crisis.

PS: For further reading my forthcoming paper in the Cambridge Journal of Economics here.


  1. This essential underpinning of Real Business Cycle Theory is the dogmatic assumption that the the rate of interest is not a distributive variable; rather, its role is merely ensuring that consumption moves over time with labour productivity, so as to clear the economy-wide goods market by inducing households to keep spending neither more nor less than their whole current income given preferences with respect to inter-temporal consumption decision-making. The fact that such nonsense continues to reign supreme in economic discourse is utterly disheartening.

  2. In reply to many questions on Facebook, rather than here, I would like to point out that I basically was discussing the mainstream views on the Depression cited by Free Exchange in the post. The only reference to an heterodox author was to Galbraith, since his Great Crash was directly discredited in their piece. Besides Keynes, that moved from a theoretical position in which the monetary rate of interest was out of whack with the natural one to his lack of effective demand position, and hence provided the theoretical basis for an alternative argument about the Depression, I would suggest that there were a bunch of under-consumptionist institutionalists that were relevant too. Foster and Catchings, that had some influence on Marriner Eccles, come to mind. Eccles himself was relevant, as was Currie, his advisor. But there are many others, like Leon Keyserling, Alan Sweezy (Paul's brother), etc.


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