The ‘Financial Recession’ Excuse
Why did the U.S. recover faster from the panic of 1907 than from the 2008 recession and the Great Depression?
By Phil Gramm and Mike Solon
Commerce Department data released last Friday show that four years after the recession began, real gross domestic product per person is down $1,112, while 5.8 million fewer Americans are working than when the recession started.
Never before in postwar America has either real per capita GDP or employment still been lower four years after a recession began. If in this “recovery” our economy had grown and generated jobs at the average rate achieved following the 10 previous postwar recessions, GDP per person would be $4,528 higher and 13.7 million more Americans would be working today.
Behind the startling statistics of lost income and jobs are the real and painful stories of American families falling further behind: record high poverty levels, record low teenage employment, record high long-term unemployment, shrinking birthrates, exploding welfare benefits, and a crippled middle class.
As the recovery faltered, President Obama first claimed the weakness of the recovery was due to the depth of the recession, saying that it was “going to take a while for us to get out of this. I think even I did not realize the magnitude . . . of the recession until fairly far into it.”
But, in fact, the 1981-82 recession was deeper and unemployment was higher. Moreover, the 1982 recovery was constrained by a contractionary monetary policy that pushed interest rates above 21%, a tough but necessary step to break inflation. It was also a recovery that required a painful restructuring of American businesses to become more competitive in the increasingly globalized economy. By way of comparison, our current recovery has benefited from the most expansionary monetary policy in U.S. history and a rapid return to profitability by corporate America.
Despite the significant disadvantages the economy faced in 1982, President Ronald Reagan’s policies ignited a recovery so powerful that if it were being repeated today, real per capita GDP would be $5,694 higher than it is now—an extra $22,776 for a family of four. Some 16.9 million more Americans would have jobs.
The most recent excuse for the failed recovery is that financial crises, by their very nature, result in slower, more difficult recoveries. Yet the 1981-82 recession was at least in part financially induced by inflation, record interest rates and the dislocations they generated. The high interest rates wreaked havoc on long-term lenders like S&Ls, whose net worth turned negative in mid-1982. But even if we ignore the financial roots of the 1981-82 recession, the financial crisis rationalization of the current, weak recovery does not stand up to scrutiny.
The largest economic crisis of the 20th century was the Great Depression, but the second most significant economic upheaval was the panic of 1907. It was from beginning to end a banking and financial crisis. With the failure of the Knickerbocker Trust Company, the stock market collapsed, loan supply vanished and a scramble for liquidity ensued. Banks defaulted on their obligations to redeem deposits in currency or gold.
Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, in their classic “A Monetary History of the United States,” found “much similarity in its early phases” between the Panic of 1907 and the Great Depression. So traumatic was the crisis that it gave rise to the National Monetary Commission and the recommendations that led to the creation of the Federal Reserve. The May panic triggered a massive recession that saw real gross national product shrink in the second half of 1907 and plummet by an extraordinary 8.2% in 1908. Yet the economy came roaring back and, in two short years, was 7% bigger than when the panic started.
It is certainly true that the economy languished in the Great Depression as it has over the past four years. But today’s malaise is similar to that of the Depression not because of the financial events that triggered the disease but because of the virtually identical and equally absurd policy prescriptions of the doctors.
Under President Franklin Roosevelt, federal spending jumped by 3.6% of GDP from 1932 to 1936, an unprecedented spending spree, as the New Deal was implemented. Under President Obama, spending exploded by 4.6% of GDP from 2008 to 2011. The federal debt by the end of 1938 was almost 150% above the 1929 level. Publicly held debt is projected to be double the 2008 level by the end of 2012. The regulatory burden mushroomed under Roosevelt, as it has under Mr. Obama.
Tax policy then and now was equally destructive. The top individual income tax rate rose from 24% to 63% and then to 79% during the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations. Corporate rates were increased by 36%. Under Mr. Obama, capital gains taxes are set to rise by one third, the top effective tax rate on dividends will more than triple, and the highest marginal tax rate will effectively rise by 21.4%.
Moreover, the Obama administration’s populist tirades against private business are hauntingly similar to the Roosevelt administration’s tirades. FDR’s demagoguery against “the privileged few” and “economic royalists” has evolved into Mr. Obama’s “the richest 1%” and America’s “millionaires and billionaires.”
Yet, in his signature style, Mr. Obama now claims our weak recovery is not because a Democratic Congress said yes to his policy prescriptions in 2009-10 but because a Republican House said no in 2011. The sad truth is this president sowed his policies and America is reaping the results.
Faced with the failed results of his own governing strategy of tax, spend and control, the president will have no choice but to follow an election strategy of blame, vilify and divide. But come Nov. 6, American voters need only ask themselves the question Reagan asked in 1980: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
Sadly, with their income reduced by thousands, the number of U.S. jobs down by millions, and the nation trillions deeper in debt, the answer will be a resounding “No.”
Mr. Gramm, a former U.S. senator from Texas, is the senior partner at U.S. Policy Metrics, where Mr. Solon, a former senior budget staffer in both houses of Congress, is also a partner.