Archive for September 9th, 2010

Is 2010 Really 1938?

Getting an Economic Consensus

There are no perfect historical parallels. Nothing is ever precisely like it was in another time. At best, history can help illuminate the present and should, if we’re paying attention, help us avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. Take 1938, for example.

But, alas we are Americans. We can’t get agreement on how to crown a national college football champion, how can we possibly get consensus on what to do with the economy?

President Obama went to Cleveland this week to roll out a plan for more stimulus spending on infrastructure and small buisness tax cuts as a way to get people back to work. He was greeted by reactions ranging from ridicule to yawning. Meanwhile, House Speaker-in-Waiting John Boehner, developing economic policy while he measures the drapes, started dropping hints about what a Republican Congress would do with spending (cut it, including unspent stimulus dollars), the economy (grow it) and taxes (leave the Bush cuts in place). All the while leaving room for a few well placed subpoenas.

These two versions of economic policy couldn’t be more at odds. It does sound a good deal like 1937 and 1938.

As Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats faced the mid-terms in his sixth year in office, the Great Depression was in its eighth year. Wall Street was restive. Labor unions were sitting down on the job. Democrats were frantic and the president’s counselors were divided. Should FDR double down on spending and fiscal policy aimed at reducing unemployment or should the administration send a message to the markets and business that it was determined to get a ballooning budget under control?

Confronted with what historian David Kennedy has described as, “repeated budget deficits, escalating regulatory burdens, threats of higher taxes, mounting labor costs, and, most important, persistent anxiety about what further provocations to business the New Deal had in store,” business confidence was sapped. “Capital,” Kennedy said, “was hibernating.” Sounds familiar, eh?

At a pivotal Cabinet meeting late in 1937, FDR fumed about his advisers constantly telling him about the sorry state of the economy, but “nobody suggests what I should do.” His economic and political advisers eventually won the debate. The president’s Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, a balanced budget advocate, put it succinctly.

“What business wants to know is: Are we headed toward state Socialism or are we going to continue on a capitalistic basis?”

FDR’s chief political lieutenant, Jim Farley, chimed in. “That’s what they want to know,” that the administration would reduce spending and balance the budget to reassure business and the markets.

“All right, Jim; I will turn on the old record,” Roosevelt responded. A new fiscal policy aimed at reducing spending and balancing the budget was ordered.

The New York Times’ Paul Krugman argues that FDR’s decision brought on the “Roosevelt Recession” of 1938, caused unemployment to top out at 20% and contributed to stunning Democratic losses – six Senate seats and 71 seats in the House – in the 1938 mid-terms. What’s more, Krugman asserts – and he’s critical of Obama from the left for being too timid with his stimulus efforts – the public in the late 1930′s took exactly the wrong lesson from FDR’s shift in policy. Americans became convinced that stimulus spending and job creation efforts hadn’t worked and wouldn’t work. That debate, check the morning paper, still rages.

I keep thinking there must be some middle ground somewhere in the current debate, but I’ve been wrong before. Couldn’t we get something approaching national consensus around two or three major issues?

One, Wall Street and investment banking excesses must be brought under control. Does anyone really think that what happened in the run up to the financial collapse shouldn’t be avoided in the future if at all possible? Regulating greed and excess is not a partisan issue.

Two, spending on well-conceived public works (OK, infrastructure) is both a good long-term investment and good short-term job stabilizer and, one hopes, job creator. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said recently that the stimulus has – big surprise – increased the deficit and reduced unemployment.

And, three, the deficit needs to come down, but maybe in a planned, systematic way. Maybe the timing on the expiration of those Bush-era tax cuts is really not very conducive to getting capital out of hibernation. Perhaps a compromise is in order?

Someone, the president or John Boehner or the ghost of Henry Morgenthau needs to find a way to knit all the pieces together into a 2010 whole cloth of economic growth, job creation and fiscal sanity. Not holding your breath? I understand.

There is a poem entitled “Nineteen-Thirty-Eight” by Andrea Hollander Budy. It’s about a young woman who lies about not graduating from high school in 1938:

yanked out
when her father lost his job.

Now it was her turn
to make herself useful, he told her.

Nineteen-Thirty-Eight was not a particularly good year and not one to repeat. That much history tells us very clearly.