Four Theories about the Great Depression

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More than most people, libertarians have beliefs about the Great Depression. Having spent several years studying the matter, I have some conclusions about four such beliefs: first, that what caused the depression was the Federal Reserve allowing a drop in the money supply; second, that what made it terrible was the passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which collapsed America’s foreign trade; third, that the New Deal really began under Herbert Hoover; and fourth, that what lengthened the Depression was fear of what the New Deal government would do.

In addressing these questions, I am relying heavily on my hometown newspapers — the Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Star — because newspapers are “the raw material of history.” They are not the only sources available, and they have their mistakes, omissions, and biases. But they are broader than politicians’ collected personal papers and broader, in a different sense, than the economists’ statistical tables. As sources for general research about a period, I like newspapers best. I know newspapers. I spent 37 years working for newspapers and magazines, about half that time on the business and financial pages.

The first of the four beliefs, associated with Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, is that the Federal Reserve was responsible for turning a recession into a depression — the deepest and longest in American history — by shrinking the money supply. It’s true that there was less money in people’s pockets, and that was a bad effect. But when economists talk about the Fed shrinking the money supply, they mean shrinking the money available to the banks — and during most of the Depression banks were loaded to the gunwales with money. With few willing and qualified borrowers, they simply parked depositors’ money in US Treasury bonds and local bonds and warrants (thereby helping to finance their local governments and the New Deal). Bankers talked about this on the business pages, and showed it in the year-end bank balance sheets presented in newspaper display ads. For those reasons I find it difficult to indict the Fed for starving the banking system of money.

Newspapers have their mistakes, omissions, and biases. But they are broader than politicians’ collected personal papers and broader, in a different sense, than the economists’ statistical tables.

A variant of this argument is that the Fed mistakenly turned a recession into a depression by raising interest rates.

Overall the Fed lowered interest rates in the depression. In the two years following the Crash of 1929, the Fed cut its rate on short-term loans to banks, going down from 6% to 1.5%. But to stop the outflow of the Treasury’s gold during the currency crisis of September 1931, the Fed temporarily raised the rate to 3.5%. This 2% bump is the “mistake” that the economists holler about. At the time the Fed did this, critics said it would retard recovery, and when recovery didn’t come, the critics pronounced themselves right. But at the time, the financial editor of the Seattle Times noted that the Fed’s supposedly stimulative 1.5% interest rate hadn’t done anything to stimulate recovery. (The Keynesians would later say the Fed was “pushing on a string.”) Investors weren’t holding back because of two percentage points. They were holding back because they were afraid to borrow at all.

I’m not a historian of the Fed, and am not claiming the Fed made no mistakes. But pinning the depression on the stinginess of the Fed to the banks doesn’t seem right. If it were true, the interest rates would have been higher. Also, there would have been furious complaints in the newspapers, even in Seattle. And I didn’t see it.

During most of the Depression banks were loaded to the gunwales with cash. With few willing and qualified borrowers, they simply parked depositors’ money.

The second belief is that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff caused the Depression by posting the highest taxes on imports in the 20th century. The figure usually cited is that the average tariff rate under Smoot-Hawley was 59% — a horrible rate. This, however, was the rate on dutiable goods, and excludes the many goods on the free list. The average rate on all goods was 19.8% — still bad, but something less than torture.

Free traders always reach for the Smoot-Hawley argument. I have heard it not only from libertarians but from supporters of the WTO, TPP, NAFTA, and the promoters of trade in my hometown. And politically, I am on free traders’ side. I agree that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, signed in June 1930 by Herbert Hoover, was bad medicine. And in this case, there was protest in the newspapers, with voices saying it was a terrible, self-defeating law, and predicting that other countries would retaliate. The newspapers ran stories when the other countries did retaliate.

Smoot-Hawley was also a contributing cause of the collapse in the international bond market in 1931, because it made it more difficult for America’s debtors — Britain, France, Germany, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and others — to earn the dollars to repay their debts. But this one bad law cannot bear all the blame for the subsequent implosion of America’s imports and exports.

I can think of four reasons why. First, the Depression was already on, so that by June 1930 imports and exports were already headed downward. Second, if you want to blame tariffs, put two-thirds of the blame on the tariffs in place before Smoot-Hawley was signed, which were an average of 13.5% on all goods. Third, in 1930 exports made up only about 5% of US output (versus 12.5% today), so that the shrinkage in trade, though dramatic in itself, was only two or three percentage points of the overall economy.

This one bad law cannot bear all the blame for the subsequent implosion of America’s imports and exports.

Finally, in September 1931, the British Commonwealth went off the gold standard. The British, Australian, and Canadian currencies were immediately devalued by 15 to 20%. Austria, Germany, Japan, and Sweden also went off gold, effectively devaluing their own currencies. The products of these fiat-money countries immediately dropped in price relative to the products of the United States. One example: Swedish wood pulp pushed US pulp out of world markets, so that almost all the pulp mills in Washington state shut down.

When Franklin Roosevelt came into office in March 1933, he ended the convertibility of the dollar into gold at the old rate of $20.67 an ounce. The reason for doing this was not a shortage of gold; the Treasury had stacks of it. The reason was to match the foreign devaluations and make American goods competitive again. And it did. Trade, the stock market, and the real economy jumped immediately when the dollar went off gold. From April to July 1933 there was a kind of boom, even though Smoot-Hawley was still in effect. (The boom ended because of the National Recovery Act and some other things, but that is another story.)

If you focus on principles, which libertarians like to do, you can lose sight of magnitudes and proportions that matter more.

The third belief, that Herbert Hoover was an interventionist and implemented a kind of proto-New Deal, is a thesis of Murray Rothbard in America’s Great Depression. Rothbard recounts that after the Crash of 1929, Hoover called leaders of industry to the White House and made them promise not to cut wages. The theory at the time was that this would maintain “purchasing power” and thereby prevent a depression. That was a precedent for the New Deal. It was noted at the time by business columnist Merryle Rukeyser (father of Louis Rukeyser, host of PBS-TV’s “Wall Street Week” from 1970 to 2002). Merryle Rukeyser wrote in December 1929 of the Hoover meetings, “The old-fashioned idea of leaving such matters to the individualism of business leaders — known as the doctrine of laissez faire among economists — has been formally laid to rest and buried.”

So Rothbard had a point: in principle, Hoover was an interventionist. But if you focus on principles, which libertarians like to do, you can lose sight of magnitudes and proportions that matter more. The larger fact is that the Hoover and Roosevelt regimes were hugely different in what the federal government undertook to do, what constitutional precedents they set, how many people they employed, how much money they spent, and how much they affected the world we still live in.

The fourth belief, that the New Deal prolonged the depression by frightening investors, is the thesis of libertarian historian Robert Higgs in his essay, “Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed After the War.” (Reprinted in Depression, War and Cold War, Independent Institute, 2006.) Higgs argues that the Depression lasted for more than ten years because of “a pervasive uncertainty among investors about the security of their property rights in their capital and its prospective returns” during the later New Deal of 1935–1940.

I can’t comment on much past the beginning of 1935, because that’s where I am in my reading. But I can verify that “regime uncertainty” was real, and that I saw evidence of it beginning in mid-1933, when the initial Roosevelt boom faltered.

At first Forbes advised his business readers to swallow it and said he was loyally swallowing it himself.

In the newspapers I read, the best barometer of this is B.C. Forbes’ business-page column. Forbes — the founder of the eponymous magazine — was very much a pro-capitalist guy. (The magazine calls itself a “capitalist tool.”) Forbes once wrote that his job as a newspaper columnist was to explain the economy to ordinary readers by interviewing industrialists and bankers. Much of the time Forbes was a transmission belt of their doings, thoughts, and feelings along with his own.

It was predictable that Forbes would not like the New Deal. At first he advised his business readers to swallow it and said he was loyally swallowing it himself. But he quickly began choking on the two principal “recovery” programs, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The NRA’s boss, Gen. Hugh Johnson, was a loud, imperious man who had been President Wilson’s boss of military conscription during World War I. During the early New Deal, Johnson helped to popularize two expressions: to chisel, meaning to lower one’s price below the government minimum, and to crack down, meaning to punish. In July 1933, Johnson went right to work, cracking down on the chiselers in American industry.

General Johnson was the closest that peacetime American business ever had to a military dictator. In August 1933, Forbes called him “a Vesuvius, in epochal, thundering eruption . . . Not even Teddy Roosevelt in his most explosive days matched General Johnson’s Titanic energy and action — or his wielding of the big stick.”

And: “Mussolini has nothing on him in readiness to undertake multitudinous tasks and to swing the Big Stick.” (This was when Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, was popular with many Americans.)

General Johnson was the closest that peacetime American business ever had to a military dictator.

In the fall of 1934, when Gen. Johnson was replaced by labor attorney Donald Richberg, Forbes wrote: “Reason is expected to replace ranting swashbucklerism.” Forbes loved to publicize good omens, but during these years he was repeatedly disappointed.

In March 1934, Forbes quoted an anonymous industrialist (probably Charles Schwab of Bethlehem Steel, whom he named elsewhere in the column): “No, don’t quote me as saying anything that would sound like criticism of the administration or any branch of it. It’s too dangerous. I don’t want to be cracked down on at this time when Washington has unlimited power to do what it likes.”

Later in the same month Forbes wrote, “The fear today is not of the law but of bureaucrats. Few employers regard themselves as in a position to stand up against dictation as Henry Ford has done.” (Ford had refused to accept the NRA’s “voluntary” price and production controls, and was not allowed to display the Blue Eagle and its motto “We Do Our Part.”)

One of Forbes’ October 1934 columns was an open letter to Franklin Roosevelt, titled in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer “Mr. President, All Employers Aren’t Crooks.”

Forbes loved to publicize good omens, but during these years he was repeatedly disappointed.

Forbes is not the only wellspring of business angst. Here is Merryle Rukeyser, a man more sympathetic to the New Deal than Forbes, in September 1934: “Business men are in a timid mood because of lack of assurance as to their tax liability and as to the attitude of the powers that be toward business profits.”

A doubter might argue that a handful of newspaper columns aren’t enough to prove Higgs’ thesis. I suppose so; but how would you prove it? It is about a state of mind — “confidence” — and how do you demonstrate that except by considering what people say and do? In fact, investors talked and acted as if they lacked confidence; statistics show a shortage of long-term investment. And in fact, there were statements by Roosevelt and by Hugh Johnson, Harold Ickes, Henry Wallace, Rexford Tugwell, and other New Dealers that might very well cause investors to lack confidence. And it was not only the New Dealers, but also their opponents on the left: Dr. Francis Townsend, who wanted every American over 60 to have $200 a month of government money (about $3000 in today’s terms); Upton Sinclair, the Democratic nominee for governor who wanted to set up a socialist economy in California; Father Coughlin, a radio priest who ranted against the rich; and Sen. Huey Long, the “Kingfish” of Louisiana who called his program “Share the Wealth,” and who was stopped only by an assassin’s bullet. This was a different time — and newspapers give you a flavor of it.

Of the four beliefs about the Depression I mentioned at the beginning, I think Robert Higgs’ “regime uncertainty” is most clearly verified. (Read his essay!) The crucial fact about the Depression of the 1930s is not that America got out of it; it always gets out. It’s that the getting out took more than ten years, which was longer any other depression in US history, and that Canada, Britain, Germany, and most other countries got out sooner, and that it took a worldwide war and the eclipse of the New Dealers for America to get all the way out.

Investors talked and acted as if they lacked confidence; statistics show a shortage of long-term investment.

But I don’t think the depression of the 1930s — the onset of it, the depth of it, the duration of it — was caused by any single thing. The commercial world is more complicated than that. I think the Austrian theory of overinvestment, or “mal-investment,” explains much of the setup of the crash, because in the late 1920s and into 1930 there were a lot of bad investments in real estate, commercial buildings, holding companies, and junky stocks. The Crash in 1929 shrank people’s assets and, more important, their confidence — for years. The Dow Jones Industrials went down almost 90%. The reparations owed by Germany to Britain and France, the sovereign debts owed to the United States by Germany, Britain, and France, as well as to Brazil and other South American republics, all had something to do with it, because in 1931 this grand edifice of debt went down in a heap. The bond market was so thoroughly wrecked that counties, cities, school districts, and corporations were locked out of long-term borrowing for several years. Smoot-Hawley and the whole movement toward economic nationalism had a bad effect. The gold standard deepened the Depression because it imposed a discipline on government finances — heavy spending cuts — at a time when they were painful, and when some countries freed themselves of that discipline it shifted the pain to the other ones. Finally, the anti-capitalist political currents and the ad hoc, experimental, extralegal character of the New Deal frightened investors, whose long-term commitments were needed for economic recovery.

That’s the best I can do. I’m still reading old newspapers.




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Comments

Fred Mora

I am curious to know if you read The Forgotten Man" by Amity Shlaes? The book depicts the FDR administration as constantly harassing and threatening businesses large and small, which certainly did not encourage investment. What is your take on it?

Bruce Ramsey

Yes, I read the book. Here was my take on it in the Seattle Times:

https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/books/new-deal-or-no-new-deal-a-new-history-of-the-great-depression/

paul thiel

With each libertarianish/free marketish article that I read about the Great Depression, I get a better understanding of the causes and developments of the Great Depression. Mr. Ramsey's article is a fine addition to my understanding. I hope we will see another installment after Mr. Ramsey has read up on the period through the collapse of 1937 and the beginning of the buildup toward World War II.

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