Monday, December 12, 2011

Stiglitz on the Great Recession

Here is a bit from an article in Vanity Fair by Nobel prizing-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz looking at the similarity between now and the 1930s. It is dismal reading:
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.


The argument has been made that the Fed caused the Depression by tightening money, and if only the Fed back then had increased the money supply—in other words, had done what the Fed has done today—a full-blown Depression would likely have been averted. In economics, it’s difficult to test hypotheses with controlled experiments of the kind the hard sciences can conduct. But the inability of the monetary expansion to counteract this current recession should forever lay to rest the idea that monetary policy was the prime culprit in the 1930s. 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.

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.

Given the magnitude of the decline in farm income, it’s no wonder that the New Deal itself could not bring the country out of crisis. The programs were too small, and many were soon abandoned. By 1937, F.D.R., giving way to the deficit hawks, had cut back on stimulus efforts—a disastrous error. Meanwhile, hard-pressed states and localities were being forced to let employees go, just as they are now. The banking crisis undoubtedly compounded all these problems, and extended and deepened the downturn. But any analysis of financial disruption has to begin with what started off the chain reaction.


The parallels between the story of the origin of the Great Depression and that of our Long Slump are strong. Back then we were moving from agriculture to manufacturing. Today we are moving from manufacturing to a service economy. The decline in manufacturing jobs has been dramatic—from about a third of the workforce 60 years ago to less than a tenth of it today. The pace has quickened markedly during the past decade. There are two reasons for the decline. One is greater productivity—the same dynamic that revolutionized agriculture and forced a majority of American farmers to look for work elsewhere. The other is globalization, which has sent millions of jobs overseas, to low-wage countries or those that have been investing more in infrastructure or technology. (As Greenwald has pointed out, most of the job loss in the 1990s was related to productivity increases, not to globalization.) Whatever the specific cause, the inevitable result is precisely the same as it was 80 years ago: a decline in income and jobs. The millions of jobless former factory workers once employed in cities such as Youngstown and Birmingham and Gary and Detroit are the modern-day equivalent of the Depression’s doomed farmers.


Can we actually bring ourselves to do this, in the absence of mobilization for global war? Maybe not. The good news (in a sense) is that the United States has under-invested in infrastructure, technology, and education for decades, so the return on additional investment is high, while the cost of capital is at an unprecedented low. If we borrow today to finance high-return investments, our debt-to-G.D.P. ratio—the usual measure of debt sustainability—will be markedly improved. If we simultaneously increased taxes—for instance, on the top 1 percent of all households, measured by income—our debt sustainability would be improved even more.

The private sector by itself won’t, and can’t, undertake structural transformation of the magnitude needed—even if the Fed were to keep interest rates at zero for years to come. The only way it will happen is through a government stimulus designed not to preserve the old economy but to focus instead on creating a new one. We have to transition out of manufacturing and into services that people want—into productive activities that increase living standards, not those that increase risk and inequality. To that end, there are many high-return investments we can make. Education is a crucial one—a highly educated population is a fundamental driver of economic growth. Support is needed for basic research. Government investment in earlier decades—for instance, to develop the Internet and biotechnology—helped fuel economic growth. Without investment in basic research, what will fuel the next spurt of innovation?


Americans in general are coming to understand what has happened. Protesters around the country, galvanized by the Occupy Wall Street movement, already know.
Shocking that greater productivity can cause an economic disaster. It should mean more goodies for everyone. But if you can't organize economic life in a way that everybody gets a fair share and decent opportunity, you are asking for a broken system that collapses around you. The Republicans and Democrats fail to address the fundamental problems of the current situation. Obama, the great hope of 2008, has been a complete bust, a flailing, useless, clueless fool who self-satisfiedly claimed he had done a "just right" stimulus as the economy flat-lined.

These are historic times and they require radical solutions under a leader of vision. Sadly the US has the oddly impassive Obama and the clearly incompetent and clueless Republican presidential candidates as the possible leaders after 2012. This says only one thing: the future will be incredibly bleak. There is a desperate need for a visionary leader with an understanding of economics and instead the US is stuck with buffoons and timid pretenders.

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