Paul Krugman: Keynes was right and Friedman wrong about the Great Depression, then and now





... Let’s not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression.

So will we “act swiftly and boldly” enough to stop that from happening? We’ll soon find out.

We weren’t supposed to find ourselves in this situation. For many years most economists believed that preventing another Great Depression would be easy. In 2003, Robert Lucas of the University of Chicago, in his presidential address to the American Economic Association, declared that the “central problem of depression-prevention has been solved, for all practical purposes, and has in fact been solved for many decades.”

Milton Friedman, in particular, persuaded many economists that the Federal Reserve could have stopped the Depression in its tracks simply by providing banks with more liquidity, which would have prevented a sharp fall in the money supply. Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, famously apologized to Friedman on his institution’s behalf: “You’re right. We did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”

It turns out, however, that preventing depressions isn’t that easy after all. Under Mr. Bernanke’s leadership, the Fed has been supplying liquidity like an engine crew trying to put out a five-alarm fire, and the money supply has been rising rapidly. Yet credit remains scarce, and the economy is still in free fall.

Friedman’s claim that monetary policy could have prevented the Great Depression was an attempt to refute the analysis of John Maynard Keynes, who argued that monetary policy is ineffective under depression conditions and that fiscal policy — large-scale deficit spending by the government — is needed to fight mass unemployment. The failure of monetary policy in the current crisis shows that Keynes had it right the first time. And Keynesian thinking lies behind Mr. Obama’s plans to rescue the economy.

But these plans may turn out to be a hard sell....

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John Allan Wilson - 1/10/2009

Somebody has their hair on fire.

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