In recent months, worshippers at the altar of Keynes have been hyperventilating over the possibility Congress will run a deficit of "only" $1.5 trillion in 2010. They have issued dire proclamations about a replay of the 1937-1938 Depression within the Great Depression. White House favorite and #1 Keynesian on the planet, Paul Krugman, declared that not borrowing an additional $100 billion to hand out to the unemployed for another 99 weeks would surely plunge the country into recession again:
Ghost of Keynes Past
Today's Keynesian economists have convinced boobus Americanus that the Great Depression was caused by the Federal Reserve being too tight with monetary policy and the Hoover administration not providing enough fiscal stimulus. Ben Bernanke and Barack Obama used this line of reasoning to ram through an $850 billion pork-laden stimulus package, as well as the purchase of $1.2 trillion of toxic mortgages by the Federal Reserve.
The only trouble is that this storyline is a complete sham.
The fact that colossal stimulus spending, zero interest rates, the purchase of over a trillion in toxic assets by the Fed, and the loosest monetary policy in history have done absolutely nothing to revitalize the economy, has proven that Keynesian policies have been a wretched failure. This is not a surprise to Austrian school economists.
Keynesian policies failed during the Great Depression, and they are failing today. An economic catastrophe caused by loose monetary policies, crushing levels of debt, and appalling lending practices cannot be solved by looser monetary policies, issuance of twice as much debt, and government commanding banks (or, in the case of Fannie and Freddie, "commandeering") to make more bad loans.
Ludwig von Mises described what happened in the 1920s and 1930s. His explanation accurately illustrates the situation in America today.
"There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought on by credit and fiat monetary expansion. The only question is whether the crisis should come sooner in the form of a recession or later as a final and total catastrophe of depression as the currency systems crumble."
The Roaring Twenties
They don't call the 1920s roaring because money wasn't flowing freely and consumers were practicing frugality. The newly created Federal Reserve expanded credit by setting below-market interest rates and low reserve requirements that favored the big Wall Street banks. The Federal Reserve increased the money supply by 60% during the period following the recession of 1921. By the latter part of the decade, "buying on margin" entered the American vocabulary as more and more Americans overextended themselves to speculate on the soaring stock market.
The 1920s marked the beginning of mass production and the emergence of consumerism in America, with automobiles a prominent symbol of the latter. In 1919, there were just 6.7 million cars on American roads. By 1929, the number had grown to more than 27 million cars, or nearly one car for every household. During this period banks offered the country's first home mortgages and manufacturers of everything from cars to irons allowed consumers to pay "on time." Installment credit soared during the 1920s. About 60% of all furniture and 75% of all radios were purchased on installment plans. Thrift and saving were replaced in the new consumer society by spending and borrowing.
Encouraging the spending, the three Republican administrations of the 1920s practiced laissez-faire economics, starting by cutting top tax rates from 77% to 25% by 1925. Non-intervention into business and banking became government policy. These policies led to overconfidence on the part of investors and a classic credit-induced speculative boom. Gambling in the markets by the wealthy increased. While the rich got richer, millions of Americans lived below the household poverty line of $2,000 per year. The days of wine and roses came to an abrupt end in October 1929, with the Great Stock Market Crash.
Between 1929 and 1932, the market fell 89% from its high. The Keynesian storyline is that Herbert Hoover's administration did nothing to try and revive the economy. It took Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal Keynesian policies to save the country. It's a nice story, but completely false. Between 1929 and 1933, when Roosevelt came to power, the Hoover administration increased real per-capita federal expenditures by 88%, not exactly austere.
Excessive Consumer Spending
When examining the BEA chart of GDP from 1929 to 1939, some fascinating similarities with today's economy leap out. In 1929, consumer expenditures accounted for 72.3% of GDP, confirming that the much-commented-upon American consumerism is not a modern development. In fact, consumer spending peaked at 81% of GDP in 1932 and remained above 70% during the entire depression.