James K. Galbraith: Don't kid yourself, it's a depression

[James K. Galbraith’s new book is The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too. He holds the Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Chair in Government/Business Relations at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, and is senior scholar with the Levy Economics Institute.]

... he chance of a return to normal depends, in turn, on the banking strategy. To Obama’s economists a "normal" economy is led and guided by private banks. When domestic credit booms are under way, they tend to generate high employment and low inflation; this makes the public budget look good, and spares the president and Congress many hard decisions. For this reason the new team instinctively seeks to return the bankers to their normal position at the top of the economic hill. Secretary Geithner told CNBC, "We have a financial system that is run by private shareholders, managed by private institutions, and we’d like to do our best to preserve that system."

But, is this a realistic hope? Is it even a possibility? The normal mechanics of a credit cycle do involve interludes when asset values crash and credit relations collapse. In 1981, Paul Volcker’s campaign against inflation caused such a crash. But, though they came close, the big banks did not fail then. (I learned recently from William Isaac, Ronald Reagan’s chair of the FDIC, that the government had contingency plans to nationalize the large banks in 1982, had Mexico, Argentina, or Brazil defaulted outright on their debts.) When monetary policy relaxed and the delayed tax cuts of 1981 kicked in, there was both pent-up demand for credit and the capacity to supply it. The final result was that the economy recovered quickly. Again in 1994, after a long period of credit crunch, banks and households were strong enough, even without a stimulus, to support a vast renewal of lending which propelled the economy forward for six years.

The Bush-era disasters guarantee that these happy patterns will not be repeated. For the first time since the 1930s, millions of American households are financially ruined. Families that two years ago enjoyed wealth in stocks and in their homes now have neither. Their 401(k)s have fallen by half, their mortgages are a burden, and their homes are an albatross. For many the best strategy is to mail the keys to the bank. This practically assures that excess supply and collapsed prices in housing will continue for years. Apart from cash—protected by deposit insurance and now desperately being conserved—the American middle class finds today that its major source of wealth is the implicit value of Social Security and Medicare—illiquid and intangible but real and inalienable in a way that home and equity values are not. And so it will remain, as long as future benefits are not cut.

In addition, some of the biggest banks are bust, almost for certain. Having abandoned prudent risk management in a climate of regulatory negligence and complicity under Bush, these banks participated gleefully in a poisonous game of abusive mortgage originations followed by rounds of pass-the-bad-penny-to-the-greater-fool. But they could not pass them all. And when in August 2007 the music stopped, banks discovered that the markets for their toxic-mortgage-backed securities had collapsed, and found themselves insolvent. Only a dogged political refusal to admit this has since kept the banks from being taken into receivership by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation—something the FDIC has the power to do, and has done as recently as last year with IndyMac in California....

In short, if we are in a true collapse of finance, our models will not serve. It is then appropriate to reach back, past the postwar years, to the experience of the Great Depression. And this can only be done by qualitative and historical analysis. Our modern numerical models just don’t capture the key feature of that crisis—which is, precisely, the collapse of the financial system.

If the banking system is crippled, then to be effective the public sector must do much, much more. How much more? By how much can spending be raised in a real depression? And does this remedy work? Recent months have seen much debate over the economic effects of the New Deal, and much repetition of the commonplace that the effort was too small to end the Great Depression, something achieved, it is said, only by World War II. A new paper by the economist Marshall Auerback has usefully corrected this record. Auerback plainly illustrates by how much Roosevelt’s ambition exceeded anything yet seen in this crisis:

"[Roosevelt’s] government hired about 60 per cent of the unemployed in public works and conservation projects that planted a billion trees, saved the whooping crane, modernized rural America, and built such diverse projects as the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh, the Montana state capitol, much of the Chicago lakefront, New York’s Lincoln Tunnel and Triborough Bridge complex, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Yorktown. It also built or renovated 2,500 hospitals, 45,000 schools, 13,000 parks and playgrounds, 7,800 bridges, 700,000 miles of roads, and a thousand airfields. And it employed 50,000 teachers, rebuilt the country’s entire rural school system, and hired 3,000 writers, musicians, sculptors and painters, including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock."

In other words, Roosevelt employed Americans on a vast scale, bringing the unemployment rates down to levels that were tolerable, even before the war—from 25 percent in 1933 to below 10 percent in 1936, if you count those employed by the government as employed, which they surely were. In 1937, Roosevelt tried to balance the budget, the economy relapsed again, and in 1938 the New Deal was relaunched. This again brought unemployment down to about 10 percent, still before the war.

The New Deal rebuilt America physically, providing a foundation (the TVA’s power plants, for example) from which the mobilization of World War II could be launched. But it also saved the country politically and morally, providing jobs, hope, and confidence that in the end democracy was worth preserving. There were many, in the 1930s, who did not think so.

What did not recover, under Roosevelt, was the private banking system. Borrowing and lending—mortgages and home construction—contributed far less to the growth of output in the 1930s and ’40s than they had in the 1920s or would come to do after the war. If they had savings at all, people stayed in Treasuries, and despite huge deficits interest rates for federal debt remained near zero. The liquidity trap wasn’t overcome until the war ended.

It was the war, and only the war, that restored (or, more accurately, created for the first time) the financial wealth of the American middle class. During the 1930s public spending was large, but the incomes earned were spent. And while that spending increased consumption, it did not jumpstart a cycle of investment and growth, because the idle factories left over from the 1920s were quite sufficient to meet the demand for new output. Only after 1940 did total demand outstrip the economy’s capacity to produce civilian private goods—in part because private incomes soared, in part because the government ordered the production of some products, like cars, to halt.

All that extra demand would normally have driven up prices. But the federal government prevented this with price controls. (Disclosure: this writer’s father, John Kenneth Galbraith, ran the controls during the first year of the war.) And so, with nowhere else for their extra dollars to go, the public bought and held government bonds. These provided claims to postwar purchasing power. After the war, the existence of those claims could, and did, establish creditworthiness for millions, making possible the revival of private banking, and on the broadly based, middle-class foundation that so distinguished the 1950s from the 1920s. But the relaunching of private finance took twenty years, and the war besides.

A brief reflection on this history and present circumstances drives a plain conclusion: the full restoration of private credit will take a long time. It will follow, not precede, the restoration of sound private household finances. There is no way the project of resurrecting the economy by stuffing the banks with cash will work. Effective policy can only work the other way around....

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Lorraine Paul - 3/21/2009

Rather than pour money into propping up companies like AIG, our government has agreed with Galbraith and put bonuses into Australian households. Mainly the poorest and hardest hit.

The UK is also appearing to do the same.

I was pleased to see that this method of 'bailout' was also being proposed by Jon Stewart and the economist whom he was interviewing the other night.

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