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America's Great Depression: A Cautionary Tale

Yet another YouTube video shares an incredibly myopic perspective on the subject of economics: this time, we’re dealing with a revisionist review of the Great Depression. 

For the reader in search of a deep dive into the events surrounding the Great Depression, American economist Murray Rothbard elucidates this subject in vivid, uncompromising detail in his 1963 treatise America's Great Depression

Unfortunately, far too many academics, broadcasters, columnists and policymakers rely on convenient shorthand explanations of history for the more robust and comprehensive history-telling to even temporarily thwart the social-inertial currents of conventional wisdom, which inexorably propagate from fanciful fairytales and comic-book strips that have been indelibly etched into the collective memory of the masses. Of course, nearly every follower of politics can appreciate the power of bumper-sticker ideology: if it doesn't fit legibly on a 3"x11.5" sticker, then it probably won't stick at all.

This article serves to neatly and succinctly expand that bumper sticker to emphasize some of the misinformation surrounding one of the most eventful epochs in American history, and importantly to correct that record primarily by debunking the myth that government inaction was responsible for the Great Depression. 

Ironically, as with much of government speak, the very opposite is true. 

In short, the inflationary 1920s combined with artificially-low interest rates to generate frothy optimism in a market whose money supply was unabashedly manipulated by the government and the Federal Reserve, America's new central bank creation born out of the frenzied follies of 1913, the very same year of the shortsighted 16th and 17th Amendments. 

Indeed, the 1929 crash failed to independently cause the Great Depression, as the national unemployment rate didn't eclipse 10 percent until 1931 — 15.9 percent — and it didn't peak until 1933 — 24.9 percent. 

In fact, this nationwide economic unraveling didn't ensue until after the federal government had instituted tariffs, public works programs, price and wage controls, farm and energy subsidies, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the Emergency Relief and Construction Act, the Federal Home Loan Bank Act, increased marginal tax rates (from 25 percent to 63 percent), a 15-percent increase on corporate tax rates, a doubling of the estate tax, a two-cent check tax on all bank checks, a 58-percent government spending increase (between 1929 and 1932), an inflationary economic policy directed at stymying deflation, and a continued budget deficit despite the new Revenue Act. 

After inheriting a sizable budget surplus, President Hoover (1929 - 1933) quickly created a budget deficit, which reached $2.7 billion by the end of his term, the third-largest budget deficit the United States had ever experienced. 

In fact, Hoover even increased government spending as the economy shrank: spending rose from 3.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1930 to 8 percent of GDP in 1933. 

The subsequent New Deal programs would only exacerbate the damage of Hoover's term, leading to only further government expansion, regulation and spending that would continue to discourage and crowd out business investment, while preventing the overall economy from restructuring and accurately repricing labor and assets: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (1933), the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (1933), the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), the Emergency Banking Act (1933), the Federal Housing Administration (1934), the Social Security Administration (1935), the Farm Security Administration (1937), the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), and the Federal National Mortgage Association (1938), among others.

Executive Order 6102 is perhaps the most pernicious of Roosevelt's acts, prohibiting the Hoarding of gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates within the continental United States. This essentially eliminated the gold standard in the United States, leaving the US dollar susceptible to largely-unchecked debasement that would come to a head in 1971, with Nixon's unilateral cancellation of international convertibility of the United States dollar to gold.  

One insidious side-effect of the New Deal era has been its bearing on economic thought and the perception of government's role in managing the economy and emergencies. 

In 1887, President Grover Cleveland fought ardently in favor of liberty, issuing this statement following his veto of a mere $10,000 appropriation bill for the distribution of seed grain to farmers in certain counties of Texas that had suffered from drought: 

"I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution; and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadily resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people."

Less than a half-century later, Hoover and Roosevelt had embarked upon a new age of thinking, one positively antithetical to the precepts of liberty and personal sovereignty, connected inextricably to political profitability absent foresight, Constitutional consideration and philosophical cogency. 

Not only had the new administration instituted moral hazard by explicitly and implicitly setting the standard for political mobilization around national emergencies, but they had erroneously associated economic growth with spending and job creation, which are inherently the product of economic growth, not the driver of it.

The political activities of the 1930s follow from what historians label the "3 Rs": relief for the unemployed and the poor, recovery of the economy back to normal levels, and reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression. 

Roosevelt proclaimed these acts, "bold, persistent experimentation." While bold and persistent, the experiment has proved a catastrophic failure, only the experimenters have long departed the laboratory, leaving still others to conduct their own before seeing the originals to conclusion. 

As Mark Twain famously wrote in his 1894 novel Pudd'nhead Wilson, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." In the case of the Roosevelt administration, their faith was the belief in their understanding of events and in the power of government to solve problems. Oddly enough, it was precisely government that was responsible for the problem in the first place, and its aggrandizement would only turn a run-of-the-mill recession into a historic depression outdone only by the epic mischaracterization of its causes, the long-run implications of ad hoc regulations, and the myopia accompanying that long-feared depression today in the making.

Throughout the middle years of the 1930s, not to be outdone by his predecessor, Roosevelt would hastily increase government spending by 79 percent, from $4.598 billion in 1933 to $8.228 billion in 1936. Roosevelt would ultimately run a budget deficit every year of his administration. 

The end of World War II would eventually signal the end of the Depression, only by ushering in a fresh wave of opportunity for industry and laborers exploring ways to materially enhance the standard of living by retooling for real economic gain from wartime rationing and global destruction. 

After the war, defense spending would quickly decline from greater than 41 percent of GDP to approximately 7 percent of GDP, while total government spending would shed roughly 65 percent of its annual intra-war spending. 

In fact, defense spending would decline so significantly from WWII levels that the next five years would collectively witness a total defense expenditure 21 percent lower than the defense cost of 1946 alone. 

Likewise, it would take six full years, 1947 through 1952, for the United States to even match its single-year defense outlay of 1945. 

Thus, it was precisely this environment of relatively low government spending which enabled the prosperity of the 1950s, which experienced an average of 4.24 percent real GDP growth over the decade, compared to 1.34 percent average growth from the 1930s. 

Oddly, average GDP growth across the 1930s nearly mirrors that of the latest 10-year period: between 2007 and 2017, average GDP growth has averaged a measly 1.67 percent. 

What do these two periods have in common? 

For starters, they both witnessed unprecedented increases in government spending and regulation, regular budget deficits, rising national debt, a myriad of moral hazards via bail-outs, and they both followed from reckless expansion of the money supply, artificially-suppressed interest rates, and extreme imbalances between bank deposits and reserves. In fact, between 1914 and 1931, total net deposits of member banks increased from $7.5 billion to $32 billion, more than 300 percent in less than two decades. 

During that period, the Federal Reserve issued note and deposit liabilities against their gold reserves at a rate of 35-percent backing, and commercial bank deposits could operate from a mere 10-percent backing. This means that the actual gold held against total commercial despots could decline to as low as 3.5 percent. The fraud would eventually unravel in 1971, when Nixon would “temporarily” close the gold window, thirty-eight years after Roosevelt closed it domestically. 

Today, the United States operates through a free-floating fiat currency with no tangible backing; however, the Federal Reserve does hold assets and liabilities denominated in Federal Reserve Notes (FRN), the lifeless carcass of the departed dollar. 

A glimpse into the balance sheet of today’s Federal Reserve shows that they, too, are operating beyond the bounds of solvency: with a negative net worth and nearly $4 trillion of undeployable U.S. Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities, anemic dollar and GDP performance, artificially-low interest rates, high rates of monetary inflation, stagnating real estate prices, a skyrocketing national debt, record levels of household debt, widening fiscal and current account deficits, the Trump tariffs (à la Smoot-Hawley of 1930), an overvalued stock market, a record-high DJIA-to-GDP ratio, a relatively-low 3.9-percent official (U3) unemployment rate (à la 1929's 3.14-percent rate), talk of 70-percent marginal tax rates — à la 1932's 63-percent rate  and a ready palm on the printing press, the future may not be prepared to repeat the past, but it certainly appears tuned to resonate with it.


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