You can’t teach an old economist new models

While Thomas Sowell is generally right as to his theme of government intervention converting the crash of 1929 into the Great Depression, he is woefully incorrect with regards to the details of how and why it happened:

The widespread belief is that government intervention is the key to getting the country out of a serious economic downturn. The example often cited is Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s intervention after the stock-market crash of 1929 was followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s, with its massive and long-lasting unemployment.

This is more than just a question about history. Right here and right now, there is a widespread belief that the unregulated market is what got us into our present economic predicament, and that the government must “do something” to get the economy moving again. FDR’s intervention in the 1930s has often been cited by those who think this way.

What is on that one page in Out of Work that could change people’s minds? Just a simple table, giving unemployment rates for every month during the entire decade of the 1930s. Those who think that the stock-market crash in October 1929 is what caused the huge unemployment rates of the 1930s will have a hard time reconciling that belief with the data in that table.

Although the big stock-market crash occurred in October 1929, unemployment never reached double digits in any of the 12 months after that crash. Unemployment peaked at 9 percent, two months after the stock market crashed — and then began drifting generally downward over the next six months, falling to 6.3 percent by June 1930.

This was what happened in the market, before the federal government decided to “do something.” What the government decided to do in June 1930 — against the advice of literally a thousand economists, who took out newspaper ads warning against it — was impose higher tariffs, in order to save American jobs by reducing imported goods.

This was the first massive federal intervention to rescue the economy, under Pres. Herbert Hoover, who took pride in being the first president of the United States to intervene to try to get the economy out of an economic downturn. Within six months after this government intervention, unemployment shot up into double digits — and stayed in double digits in every month throughout the entire remainder of the 1930s, as the Roosevelt administration expanded federal intervention far beyond what Hoover had started.

While Thomas Sowell was among the economists I liked and respected most in college, I knew that he had lost his fastball when he wrote a column defending Michelle Malkin’s In Defense of Internment that contained some factual errors regarding Pearl Harbor. When I emailed him information demonstrating that both he and Malkin were factually incorrect and her conclusions were false, he basically hemmed and hawed and said that it really didn’t matter because he likes her work. After that, I pretty much ceased to pay attention to his columns. But a number of people have emailed me this column on the Great Depression, thinking that I would approve of it. And while the cited example of historical employment statistics is a really useful one that I wish I had included in RGD, I have already shown that Sowell’s contention here about the root cause of the unemployment to be false there.

For many years, it was supposed that the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 played a major role in the economic contraction of the Great Depression. As more economists are gradually coming to realize, this was unlikely the case for several reasons. First, the 15.5 percent annual decline in exports from 1929 to 1933 was less precipitous than the pre-tariff 18.3 percent decline from 1920 to 1922. Second,
because the amount of imports also fell, the net effect of the $328 million reduction in the balance of trade on the economy amounted to only 0.3 percent of 1929 GDP. Third, the balance of trade turned negative and by 1940 had increased to nearly ten times the size of the 1929 positive balance while the economy was growing.”

– The Return of the Great Depression, p. 192

Because Sowell subscribes to neo-classical economic theory, he has no idea why the Great Depression occurred and he still hasn’t recognized that we are in the Great Depression 2.0. His instincts are sound enough; he knows that government intervention can’t solve the problem but because his economic model doesn’t account for debt, he can’t figure out what the core problem is. So, like most free market-oriented mainstream economists, he casts about for something that the government did that fits his model and assumes that it must be the causal factor, even when the evidence clearly shows that it was, at most, a trivial factor.

The thing that is so patently absurd about the Smoot-Hawley tariff theory of the Great Depression is that America was not an import/export-based economy 80 years ago. The percentage of imports and exports as a percentage of GDP was so small that not even shutting them down completely could have caused such a massive contraction in the 1930s American economy. Debt was the problem then and debt is the problem now. The federal stimulus exacerbated the problem then, and the global stimulus is exacerbating the problem now. And given the relative size of historical debt+stimulus to present debt+stimulus, it should not be hard to understand why the Great Depression 2.0 will be worse than its historical predecessor.