Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Stimulus: A History of Folly


Not only was the stimulative effect of Great Depression fiscal policy non-existent, but follow-on efforts during the ten subsequent recessions proved equally ineffective. As a result of that hard-won experience, the consensus until recently among economists was that attempts at stimulus through emergency fiscal policies—as opposed to monetary policies and the automatic effects of increases in unemployment assistance and decreases in tax payments—were useless at best. Typical was the statement of Martin Eichenbaum of Northwestern University in the American Economic Review in 1997: "There is now widespread agreement that countercyclical discretionary fiscal policy is neither desirable nor politically feasible." Martin Feldstein, then president of the National Bureau of Economic Research, agreed. Fiscal stimulus, he said in 2002, "has not contributed to economic stability and may have actually been destabilizing."

The truth is that we have learned almost nothing about the use of fiscal stimulus since the Great Depression, and it is a fatal conceit to assume that we can hurriedly construct a fiscal policy that will produce the prescribed results today. Economists seem to admit this fact by advocating what they prefer anyway, for political or ideological reasons.

In fact, stimulus may be precisely the wrong metaphor. Rather than getting jazzed up, we need to be calmed down and to take the time to learn from the Great Depression, a time when government did too much, not too little. Amity Shlaes makes the argument in The Forgotten Man, her book about the Great Depression, that the constant experimenting and meddling of the New Deal froze investors and business operators in fear: "Businesses decided to wait Roosevelt out, hold on to their cash, and invest in future years."

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