Re-examining the causes of the Great Depression .- the Joseph Stiglitz version

Joseph Stiglitz takes us back to the most discussed event of macroeconomics – Great Depression.

He says we are drawing wrong lessons from Great Depression. Our analysis of its causes and what should be done in this crisis are wrong. He says the lessons that financial crisis caused great depression and hence we should save banks at whatever cost is plain wrong.

The trauma we’re experiencing right now resembles the trauma we experienced 80 years ago, during the Great Depression, and it has been brought on by an analogous set of circumstances. Then, as now, we faced a breakdown of the banking system. But then, as now, the breakdown of the banking system was in part a consequence of deeper problems. Even if we correctly respond to the trauma—the failures of the financial sector—it will take a decade or more to achieve full recovery. Under the best of conditions, we will endure a Long Slump. If we respond incorrectly, as we have been, the Long Slump will last even longer, and the parallel with the Depression will take on a tragic new dimension.

Until now, the Depression was the last time in American history that unemployment exceeded 8 percent four years after the onset of recession. And never in the last 60 years has economic output been barely greater, four years after a recession, than it was before the recession started. The percentage of the civilian population at work has fallen by twice as much as in any post-World War II downturn. Not surprisingly, economists have begun to reflect on the similarities and differences between our Long Slump and the Great Depression. Extracting the right lessons is not easy.

Great Depression was a result of structural changes in US economy (from agri to mfg) and same is the case with current crisis (from mfg to services). It was problems in real economy which led to Great Depression and not banks or Fed tightening policy. It was rise in productivity

The problem today, as it was then, is something else. The problem today is the so-called real economy. It’s a problem rooted in the kinds of jobs we have, the kind we need, and the kind we’re losing, and rooted as well in the kind of workers we want and the kind we don’t know what to do with. The real economy has been in a state of wrenching transition for decades, and its dislocations have never been squarely faced. A crisis of the real economy lies behind the Long Slump, just as it lay behind the Great Depression.

For the past several years, Bruce Greenwald and I have been engaged in research on an alternative theory of the Depression—and an alternative analysis of what is ailing the economy today. This explanation sees the financial crisis of the 1930s as a consequence not so much of a financial implosion but of the economy’s underlying weakness. The breakdown of the banking system didn’t culminate until 1933, long after the Depression began and long after unemployment had started to soar. By 1931 unemployment was already around 16 percent, and it reached 23 percent in 1932. Shantytown “Hoovervilles” were springing up everywhere. The underlying cause was a structural change in the real economy: the widespread decline in agricultural prices and incomes, caused by what is ordinarily a “good thing”—greater productivity.

He points how rise in agri productivity made people relying on agri incomes worse-off:

At the beginning of the Depression, more than a fifth of all Americans worked on farms. Between 1929 and 1932, these people saw their incomes cut by somewhere between one-third and two-thirds, compounding problems that farmers had faced for years. Agriculture had been a victim of its own success. In 1900, it took a large portion of the U.S. population to produce enough food for the country as a whole. Then came a revolution in agriculture that would gain pace throughout the century—better seeds, better fertilizer, better farming practices, along with widespread mechanization. Today, 2 percent of Americans produce more food than we can consume.

What this transition meant, however, is that jobs and livelihoods on the farm were being destroyed. Because of accelerating productivity, output was increasing faster than demand, and prices fell sharply. It was this, more than anything else, that led to rapidly declining incomes. Farmers then (like workers now) borrowed heavily to sustain living standards and production. Because neither the farmers nor their bankers anticipated the steepness of the price declines, a credit crunch quickly ensued. Farmers simply couldn’t pay back what they owed. The financial sector was swept into the vortex of declining farm incomes.

The cities weren’t spared—far from it. As rural incomes fell, farmers had less and less money to buy goods produced in factories. Manufacturers had to lay off workers, which further diminished demand for agricultural produce, driving down prices even more. Before long, this vicious circle affected the entire national economy.

The value of assets (such as homes) often declines when incomes do. Farmers got trapped in their declining sector and in their depressed locales. Diminished income and wealth made migration to the cities more difficult; high urban unemployment made migration less attractive. Throughout the 1930s, in spite of the massive drop in farm income, there was little overall out-migration. Meanwhile, the farmers continued to produce, sometimes working even harder to make up for lower prices. Individually, that made sense; collectively, it didn’t, as any increased output kept forcing prices down.

So none of the measures proposed by FDR really worked till came WWII which solved the problem. It moved the economy from agri to industrial:

The Agriculture Adjustment Act, F.D.R.’s farm program, which was designed to raise prices by cutting back on production, may have eased the situation somewhat, at the margins. But it was not until government spending soared in preparation for global war that America started to emerge from the Depression. It is important to grasp this simple truth: it was government spending—a Keynesian stimulus, not any correction of monetary policy or any revival of the banking system—that brought about recovery. The long-run prospects for the economy would, of course, have been even better if more of the money had been spent on investments in education, technology, and infrastructure rather than munitions, but even so, the strong public spending more than offset the weaknesses in private spending.

Government spending unintentionally solved the economy’s underlying problem: it completed a necessary structural transformation, moving America, and especially the South, decisively from agriculture to manufacturing. Americans tend to be allergic to terms like “industrial policy,” but that’s what war spending was—a policy that permanently changed the nature of the economy. Massive job creation in the urban sector—in manufacturing—succeeded in moving people out of farming. The supply of food and the demand for it came into balance again: farm prices started to rise. The new migrants to the cities got training in urban life and factory skills, and after the war the G.I. Bill ensured that returning veterans would be equipped to thrive in a modern industrial society. Meanwhile, the vast pool of labor trapped on farms had all but disappeared. The process had been long and very painful, but the source of economic distress was gone.

The same thing is happening now. There is a need to move people to services. For services you need strong education but it has been weakening thanks to austerity:

Of four major service sectors—finance, real estate, health, and education—the first two were bloated before the current crisis set in. The other two, health and education, have traditionally received heavy government support. But government austerity at every level—that is, the slashing of budgets in the face of recession—has hit education especially hard, just as it has decimated the government sector as a whole. Nearly 700,000 state- and local-government jobs have disappeared during the past four years, mirroring what happened in the Depression. As in 1937, deficit hawks today call for balanced budgets and more and more cutbacks. Instead of pushing forward a structural transition that is inevitable—instead of investing in the right kinds of human capital, technology, and infrastructure, which will eventually pull us where we need to be—the government is holding back. Current strategies can have only one outcome: they will ensure that the Long Slump will be longer and deeper than it ever needed to be.

 So two lessons:
  • Private sector unlikely to restore economy. Govt expenditure is what is needed in areas which help US economy move towards services. Things like education and infra to be priority.
  • We need to fix the financial system by not pouring money but stopping them from speculating and casino activities. They should be in the business of lending which they are not doing..
Well this blog has a few visitors who will hate this Keynesian perspective to getting out of 2007 recession and also this alternative history of great depression. But this issue of rising productivity leading to unemployed people who then retort to credit and debt is interesting. Rajan pointed to rising inequality leading to people taking more credit and Stigilitz points to rising productivity. Interestingly he shows even Great Depression a cause of rising productivity. Most researchers say jobs have not risen as productivity has risen which means fewer jobs are needed to do the work…
Confusions in plenty. But that is what economics is all about which leads to more and more research. I want to read the paper by Stiglitz on this for more clarity..



5 Responses to “Re-examining the causes of the Great Depression .- the Joseph Stiglitz version”

  1. sachin asher Says:

    If Keynesian approach is correct (which I think is) and government expenditure is so important, isn’t the Eurozone doomed?

    Aren’t the PIIGS (with constantly falling government expenditure and with no control over their own currency) trapped in a viscous cycle of shrinking expenditure, shrinking taxes and shrinking economies?

  2. PB Says:

    Yes, Sachin. It’s a deflationary spiral one way or the other. Either they can go the austerity route and have years of slow to no growth or they can write down their debt, which will lead a short but sharp downswing. Either way it’s bad news for Europe.

  3. Tirath Muchhala Says:

    Nice post. Thanks.

  4. Are Americans Bayesians? « Mostly Economics Says:

    […] recently pointed out that this inability of US to transition to services is what has led to the current […]

  5. Allergies Says:

    I know this web site presents quality depending articles or reviews and
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