WASHINGTON — We live in the shadow of the Great Depression. Americans' gloom does not reflect just 8.1 percent unemployment or the loss of $13 trillion worth of housing and stock market value since mid 2007. There is also an amorphous anxiety that we are falling into a deep economic ravine from which escape will be difficult. These worries may prove ill-founded. But until they do, they promote pessimism and the hoarding of cash, by consumers and companies alike, that further weaken the economy.
Our only frame of reference for this sort of breakdown is the Great Depression. Superficially, the comparison seems absurd. We are a long way from the 1930s, as Christina Romer, head of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, noted recently in a useful talk. Unemployment peaked at 25 percent in 1933. At its low point, the economy (gross domestic product) was down 25 percent from its 1929 high. So far, U.S. GDP has dropped only about 2 percent.
What's more, the Depression changed our thinking and institutions. The human misery of economic turmoil has diminished. "American workers (in the 1930s) had painfully few of the social safety nets that today help families," Romer said. Until 1935, there was no federal unemployment insurance. At last count, there were 32 million food stamp recipients and 49 million on Medicaid. These programs didn't exist in the 1930s.
Government also responds more quickly to slumps. Despite many New Deal programs, "fiscal policy" — in effect, deficit spending — was used only modestly in the 1930s, Romer argued. Some of Franklin Roosevelt's extra spending was offset by a tax increase enacted in Herbert Hoover's last year. The federal deficit went from 4.5 percent of GDP in 1933 to 5.9 percent in 1934, not a huge increase.
Contrast that with the present. In fiscal 2009, the budget deficit is projected at 12.3 percent of GDP, up from 3.2 percent in 2008. Some of the increase reflects "automatic stabilizers" (in downturns, government spending increases and taxes decrease); the rest stems from the massive "stimulus program." On top of this, the Federal Reserve has cut its overnight interest rate to about zero and is lending directly in markets where private investors have retreated, including housing.
Government's aggressive actions should reinforce some of the economy's normal mechanisms for recovery. As pent-up demand builds, so will the pressure for more spending. The repayment of loans, lowering debt burdens, sets the stage for more spending. Ditto for the runoff of surplus inventories.
So, are Depression analogies far-fetched, needlessly alarmist? Probably — but not inevitably. Even some Depression scholars, who once dismissed the possibility of a repetition, are less confident.
"Unfortunately, the similarities (between then and now) are growing more striking every day," says economic historian Barry Eichengreen of the University of California at Berkeley. "I never thought I'd say that in my lifetime." Argues economist Gary Richardson of UC Irvine: "This is the first business downturn since the 1930s that looks like the 1930s."
One parallel is that it's worldwide. In the 1930s, the gold standard transmitted the crisis from country to country. Governments raised interest rates to protect their gold reserves. Credit tightened, production and trade suffered, unemployment rose. Now, global investors and banks transmit the crisis. If they suffer losses in one country, they may sell stocks and bonds in other markets to raise cash. Or as they "deleverage" — reduce their own borrowings — they may curtail lending and investing in many countries.
The consequences are the same. In the fourth quarter of 2008, global industrial production fell at a 20 percent annual rate from the third quarter, says the World Bank. International trade may "register its largest decline in 80 years." Developing countries need to borrow at least $270 billion; if they can't, their economies will slow and that will hurt the advanced countries that export to them.
Just as in the 1930s, there's a global implosion of credit. What's also reminiscent of the Depression are quarrels over who's to blame and what should be done. The Obama administration wants bigger stimulus packages from Europe and Japan. Europeans have rebuffed the proposal. The United States has also proposed greater lending by the International Monetary Fund to relieve stresses on poorer countries. Disputes could fuel protectionism and economic nationalism.
What these confusing crosscurrents produce is defensiveness. No one knows how this epic struggle will end — whether the forces pushing down the global economy will prevail over those trying to pull it up. Boom psychology gives way to bust psychology: The vague fear that something bad, call it a "depression" or whatever, is happening causes consumers and business managers to protect themselves by conserving their cash and slashing their spending. They hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
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