The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

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Warren Harding and the Forgotten Depression of 1920
Thomas E. Woods, Jr. (from IR 44:2, Fall 2009) - 10/20/09

One of the most perverse treatments of the subject comes at the hands of two historians of the Harding presidency, who urge that without government confiscation of much of the income of the wealthiest Americans, the American economy will never be stable:

The tax cuts, along with the emphasis on repayment of the national debt and reduced federal expenditures, combined to favor the rich. Many economists came to agree that one of the chief causes of the Great Depression of 1929 was the unequal distribution of wealth, which appeared to accelerate during the 1920s, and which was a result of the return to normalcy. Five percent of the population had more than 33 percent of the nation’s wealth by 1929. This group failed to use its wealth responsibly. . . . Instead, they fueled unhealthy speculation on the stock market as well as uneven economic growth.8

If this absurd attempt at a theory were correct, the world would be in a constant state of depression. There was nothing at all unusual about the pattern of American wealth in the 1920s. Far greater disparities have existed in countless times and places without any resulting disruption. In fact, the Great Depression actually came in the midst of a dramatic upward trend in the share of national income devoted to wages and salaries in the United States—and a downward trend in the share going to interest, dividends, and entrepreneurial income. 9 We do not in fact need the violent expropriation of any American in order to achieve prosperity, thank goodness.

It is not enough, however, to demonstrate that prosperity happened to follow upon the absence of fiscal or monetary stimulus. We need to understand why this outcome is to be expected—in other words, why the restoration of prosperity in the absence of the remedies urged upon us in more recent times was not an inconsequential curiosity or the result of mere happenstance.

First, we need to consider why the market economy is afflicted by the boom-bust cycle in the first place. The British economist Lionel Robbins asked in his 1934 book The Great Depression why there should be a sudden “cluster of error” among entrepreneurs. Given that the market, via the profit-and-loss system, weeds out the least competent entrepreneurs, why should the relatively more skilled ones that the market has rewarded with profits and control over additional resources suddenly commit grave errors—and all in the same direction? Could something outside the market economy, rather than anything that inheres in it, account for this phenomenon?

Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek both pointed to artificial credit expansion, normally at the hands of a government-established central bank, as the non-market culprit. (Hayek won the Nobel Prize in 1974 for his work on what is known as Austrian business cycle theory.) When the central bank expands the money supply—for instance, when it buys government securities—it creates the money to do so out of thin air. This money either goes directly to commercial banks or, if the securities were purchased from an investment bank, very quickly makes its way to the commercial banks when the investment banks deposit the Fed’s checks. In the same way that the price of any good tends to decline with an increase in supply, the influx of new money leads to lower interest rates, since the banks have experienced an increase in loanable funds.

The lower interest rates stimulate investment in long-term projects, which are more interest-rate sensitive than shorter-term ones. (Compare the monthly interest paid on a thirty-year mortgage with the interest paid on a two-year mortgage—a tiny drop in interest rates will have a substantial impact on the former but a negligible impact on the latter.) Additional investment in, say, research and development (R&D), which can take many years to bear fruit, will suddenly seem profitable, whereas it would not have been profitable without the lower financing costs brought about by the lower interest rates.

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