Words of wisdom about the global recession, from the greatest economist of our era

These are words that deserve attention as we begin a new year, entering into what looks like the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  The author is a foreigner, hence his stilted language.

Excerpt from “The Great Slump of 2009”

The world has been slow to realise that we are living this year in the shadow of one of the greatest economic catastrophes of modern history. But now that the man in the street has become aware of what is happening, he, not knowing the why and wherefore, is as full to-day of what may prove excessive fears as, previously, when the trouble was first coming on, he was lacking in what would have been a reasonable anxiety. He begins to doubt the future. Is he now awakening from a pleasant dream to face the darkness of facts? Or dropping off into a nightmare which will pass away?

He need not be doubtful. The other was not a dream. This is a nightmare, which will pass away with the morning. For the resources of Nature and men’s devices are just as fertile and productive as they were. The rate of our progress towards solving the material problems of life is not less rapid. We are as capable as before of affording for every one a high standard of life — high, I mean, compared with, say, twenty years ago–  and will soon learn to afford a standard higher still. We were not previously deceived. But to-day we have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand. The result is that our possibilities of wealth may run to waste for a time — perhaps for a long time.

… In this quandary individual producers base illusory hopes on courses of action which would benefit an individual producer or class of producers so long as they were alone in pursuing them, but which benefit no one if every one pursues them. For example, to restrict the output of a particular primary commodity raises its price, so long as the output of the industries which use this commodity is unrestricted; but if output is restricted all round, then the demand for the primary commodity falls off by just as much as the supply, and no one is further forward. Or again, if a particular producer or a particular country cuts wages, then, so long as others do not follow suit, that producer or that country is able to get more of what trade is going. But if wages are cut all round, the purchasing power of the community as a whole is reduced by the same amount as the reduction of costs; and, again, no one is further forward.

Thus neither the restriction of output nor the reduction of wages serves in itself to restore equilibrium.

… In our situation it is doubtful if the necessary adjustments can be made in time to prevent a series of bankruptcies, defaults, and repudiations which would shake the capitalist order to its foundations. Here would be a fertile soil for agitation, seditions, and revolution. It is so already in many quarters of the world. Yet, all the time, the resources of Nature and men’s devices would be just as fertile and productive as they were. The machine would merely have been jammed as the result of a muddle. But because we have engine trouble, we need not assume that we shall soon be back in horse-drawn wagons and that the of automobiles is over.

The author is John Maynard Keynes, from “The Great Slump of 1930 (not 2009), originally published in The Nation & Athenæum, issues of 20 December and 27 December 1930.


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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

Posts about solutions to the crisis on the FM site:

  1. A happy ending to the current economic recession, 12 February 2008 – The political actions which might end this downturn, and their long-term implications.
  2. Slow steps to nationalizing the US financial sector, 7 April 2008 — How this will change our society.
  3. Slowly a few voices are raised about the pending theft of taxpayer money, 21 September 2008
  4. How should we respond to the crisis?, 24 September 2008
  5. A solution to our financial crisis, 25 September 2008
  6. A quick guide to the “Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008″, 29 September 2008
  7. The Paulson Plan will buy assets cheap, just as all good cons offer easy money to the marks, 30 September 2008
  8. Prof Roubini prescribes first aid for America’s economy, 4 October 2008
  9. Effective treatment for this crisis will come with “The Master Settlement of 2009″, 5 October 2008
  10. Dr. Bush, stabilize the economy – stat!, 7 October 2008
  11. The new President will need new solutions for the economic crisis, 9 October 2008
  12. Results from the IMF meeting – just thin gruel, 12 October 2008
  13. The G-7 meeting was the last chance for action before the global recession, 12 October 2008
  14. A brief note about our financial system: Intermediation, disintermediation, and soon re-intermediation, 16 October 2008
  15. New recommendations to solve our financial crisis (and I admit that I was wrong), 23 October 2008
  16. A look ahead to the end of this financial crisis, 30 October 2008
  17. Expect little or nothing from meetings like the G20 – or the Obama Administration, 18 November 2008

14 thoughts on “Words of wisdom about the global recession, from the greatest economist of our era”

  1. As true in ’30 for the US as it is today for asia.
    People persist in ignoring the different roles played by today’s actors.
    The US had no external debt problem in ’30, no trade deficit, budget def, dirth of manufacturing capicity-w/ no domestic capital savings to build one-todaywe have no untapped potential public sector expansion, suburbnan infrastructure expansion, no surplus of cheap nat resources, no untapped well of domestic demand, no guarantee of buyers for us bonds, no luxury of a stable currency, no confidence in public institutions-no stomach for hardship, sacrifice, or war, no war to buoy our industries and gain us the spoils of a foreign empire.
    Finally, we simply lack the civic quality of our parents’ parents and the quantity (babyboom) that enabled our postwar growth.
    We had the ability to expand our pop., our empire, our debt, our export dominance, and our tech/infrastructure-hence, we could afford the blunders and ineptness of a roosevelt, of our economists, and the catastrophe of a world war.
    We can’t today, and hopefully won’t try. The chinese might. Hopefully for our sake we dont become the 21st centuries GB, or worse, its germany-a resource poor nation dependent on imports with a weak econ, and a proneness to attacking small nations to maintain its power/relevance.

  2. I’ve been doing some thinking on the Keynesian solution to our current mess and am currently thinking that we need a very large but short-term stimulus package, in the neighborhood of $2 trillion over 2 years.

    To use (perhaps improperly) a human model, the Japanese essentially installed a pacemaker in their economy (which dribbles a steady stream of electricity to the heart) when they needed to install a defibrillator (which hits the heart with a single instant massive jolt).

    The problem with my theory is that inflation is a natural result of such a massive infusion of cash so we’d need to keep the stimulus package very focused and very short-term to avoid turning into the Weimar Republic (which is far better than Zimbabwe) and then immediately start fighting the inflation after-effects.

    Additional smaller jolts might be necessary to re-energize particular portions of the economy but we’d want to use them as little as possible to keep the patient (the American economy) from getting addicted to them.

    I’m also concerned that there isn’t enough time to properly set up the package to ensure that it will do the most good and that political necessities could blunt the package to the point where it does more harm than good.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Amazing how wew repeat the experience of the 1930’s, with — as in your comment — constant concern about inflation while the economy burns around us.

    Inflation results from excess monetary expansion only when the economy returns to full employment (more or less). Then the Fed will have to (somehow) extract much of the liquidity they’ve generated, without destroying the recovery. No doubt daily prayer meetings will be needed.

    “keep the stimulus package very focused and very short-term ”

    Probably not. As I have explained in my 88 posts about this downturn, the deleveraging process (reducing debt, increasing our savings rate) is inherently a long and painful process. In this post Richard Koo describes Japan’s experience, and why a long period of fiscal stimulus might be needed to support the US economy during this process.

    All this talk about short-term programs just burns more time while the economy slows. We missed the opportunity for a short-term fiscal stimulus in November, which could have slowed the downturn until long-term programs could be passed in early 2009. As it is we’ll fiddle with “focused short-term” programs until they are proven inadequate. And only then (late 2009?) will Washington design adequate long-term stimulus programs — which will take effect in late 2010.

  3. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. Most of us are out of denial, and anger. As Americans, we know bargaining is a waste of time. The quote above is directed toward ameliorating depression, which characterized the national mood then, and I suspect will again soon. It may take decades before we accept the demographic fact that too few young Americans are expected to support too many old Americans in high style. We want them to save more, and pay down our debts while doing that as well?

  4. FM: “Inflation results from excess monetary expansion only when the economy returns to full employment (more or less).”

    Yeah, ‘no inflation’ — the stock market and real estate crash represent such a vast implosion that the monetary expansion is only a bit pee on the inferno.

    Pluto (comment #2): To use (perhaps improperly) a human model, the Japanese essentially installed a pacemaker in their economy.

    Here’s my take. If we fund big government construction projects, then that’s what we get, an economy of people working on giant government construction projects, and in Japan’s case, many of dubious value. If, as we have done, we fund banks with big bailouts, then that’s what we get. Glass towers of guys watching their numbers from their luxurious jets nad gold-plated executive mansions. These things do create a bit of the multiplier effect, but beyond that they won’t build the next set of companies because the government money economy creates a weird ecosystem of creatures that can’t live outside of the fish tank.

    The bailout economy might have already paralyzed investment because no on knows quite what the rules are for a bailout economy. It’s money that comes in the system, but it’s not money you work towards.

    My thinking is, forget fixing the wider economy. Let’s just make sure that otherwise viable businesses don’t go down the drain this next year, 2009. Save the houses that have already been built. Stop the fire before it burns everything down.

    Beyond that, if we want to build the next set of companies, maybe put the money in universities and maybe lower or free tuition, maybe fund some small enterprises with grants. The next big thing is always some weird thing no one quite thought of, seems to me. Google or Apple, etc.

    FM: “the deleveraging process (reducing debt, increasing our savings rate) is inherently a long and painful process.”

    Here’s the maddening aspect of this. The dollar is not a real thing, it’s just a token and it only exists because of American laws. Congress could pass a law and zap out a huge pile of debt. Beijing and Tokyo might not be so happy to be sitting on a pile of scrap paper, so there would be consequences. But if we are really getting creative here there are interesting and, yes, dangerous options.

    The question for me is, what’s the fastest way to make that debt go away without killing the idea of loaning to the USA for now and into the future. Nobody wants the depression, even the debt holders. The worthless debt needs to die now, maybe, and somehow the rest needs to be turned into equity of some kind? I don’t know.

    There was a story of a Japanese guy who was in charge of some of their debt quoted as stating a need for ‘investing in US infrastructure’, or ‘Marshall plan for the USA’ which I take to mean coming here and buying stuff. The monetary expansion has already spooked these guys a little bit.

  5. I see that my suggestion further explanation than I originally thought, after reading it, I see that it was pretty sparse to begin with. First, I’m beginning to think that $2 trillion probably isn’t enough, lets go with a spending package of $6 trillion.

    The goal of this massive explosion of money is two-fold:
    1) Get the economy going again through public works projects that will eventually return more than they cost. We don’t want 1,000 Bridge to Nowhere’s, that solution is worse than the disease. Fabius has documented this at length so I don’t need to discuss it greater detail.

    2) To spark massive inflation, at least 20-25% annually. Keep pouring money into the economy until deflation is overwhelmed, no matter how much is required. This has several short-term benefits:

    a) It ends the housing crisis by effectively reducing the amount that families owe on their house as a percentage of their income (assuming the income keeps up with inflation). Let’s say that a family has a house payment of $2,500 per month and a take-home income of $5,000 per month. If we have 20-25% inflation for two years, the family’s income ratchets up to $7,500 per month while their house payment stays static.

    b) It keeps a lot of companies from going bankrupt when they can’t refinance their short-term debt because the credit market is frozen. They get loans from the government at essentially zero interest.

    c) It cracks open the credit market because interest rates not controlled by the Fed will soar and who wouldn’t like to earn 30% interest on high quality corporate bonds?

    d) With all that money floating around the unemployment rate would likely go down.

    e) The value of the US dollar against other currencies would drop like a rock (at least for a while) and would spark a manufacturing renaissance in this country.

    The only problem with my suggestion is that it do incredible damage to the country in the long-run. So when we open the faucet of public cash, we also put out a warning that this is temporary and people should prepare for it to stop.

    Is this plan workable? I think its the best idea I’ve seen so far but I fear the law of unintended consequence more than I can express. Hopefully it will spark better ideas from other people.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Most of this is what I proposed in September as A solution to our financial crisis. Most of this is now consensus thinking, being planned right now by the Obama team. The debate is about the speed with which this gets implemented — slowly and incrementally is the preferred approach, wrongly IMO — and how we do it. The latter is a large discussion for another day. It’s important because the “devil is in the details”.

  6. Read this article here: “Gala Issue: Biggest Sea Change of Our Lifetime!“, Martin Weiss, 22 December 2008

    The point is that the first $700B evaporated into a collapse of $7T of value. But for 2009 if all this continues how much more value is going to drop out of the system? Is it another $7T? Will it be more? Who knows!


    With conventional fiscal stimulus, a $7T spending program means the USG prints $7T in bonds and sell those. Who can buy $7T in bonds? Or do you want the $7T to come into existence by printing money? That’s what people assume is going to happen. Graphic.

    I found a website saying that all individual income tax receipts for the entire USA is about $1.2T. Total receipts about $2.6T. So figure on a $7T fiscal policy by the USG might increase the size of the US Government by about 3x or so? Is that possible? We are through the looking glass here.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Calm down; your post reeks of hysteria. The US will not “spend” $7T next year on goods and services. That’s absurd. Also, the US has experienced many recessions — and quite a few depressions (and one Great Depression) — in addition to 3 major wars. We will surrvive this as well, however small or large — short or long — it may be.

    More important, why does anyone pay attention to Weiss? If I recall correctly, he just rides the current fear de joure — fanning terror as he goes. Two examples:

    (a) Fears of widespread collapse of insurance companies following the Executive Life bust in 1991. See “The Bad Boy of Insurance Ratings“, New York Times, 5 January 1992 — “On the other hand, there does seem to be an element of truth to the charge leveled by many industry executives that Weiss Research is so negative in general that the agency is bound to predict failure correctly some of the time.”

    (b) Y2k — one of the more interesting frauds of modern history.

    From “Y2Ka-ching!“, John Whalen, Salon, 3 June 1999:

    Martin Weiss, chairman of Weiss Ratings Inc., put it this way: “The poor progress made by so many of America’s largest companies comes as quite a shock, implying potentially serious disruptions in the operations and profits of at least some of these companies.”

    From “Confidently preparing for Y2K“, Gregory Potts, The Journal Record, 30 March 1999:

    Martin Weiss, publisher of Weiss Reports, wants to use people’s Y2K concerns to attract subscribers to his Y2K Options Hotline fax/e-mail newsletter with “secret” information limited to the first 1,000 subscribers. The cost for a one-year subscription: $5,000. In a promotion for the newsletter, Weiss writes: “The Y2K crisis can do a lot more than make you rich. It is one of the few events in history with the potential to make you filthy, stinking obnoxiously rich.”

    Basically, the Weiss investment theory holds that a Y2K-related market crash will enable investors to buy dirt-cheap investments and cash in on a major stock rebound, which will far eclipse the market crash and rebound seen in 1987.

    “The guy is bogus,” comments Beverage. “He’s gonna get sued. His behavior borders on irresponsible if not criminal. He’s doing nothing but trying to scare people into buying his services. “The sky isn’t falling,” he adds, “and it isn’t going to fall.”

    Best of all, see this copy of “a full-page ad which appeared in Investors Business Daily featuring Martin Weiss, President of Weiss Research, and self-proclaimed America’s #1 financial watchdog. His long copy, full-page ad tells you how you can, if you act quickly, avoid being devastated by the coming Y2K crisis.”

    As most of you know, after massive expenditures of effort and money Japanese, EU, and US firms suffered almost no damage from Y2K. The rest of the world — doing almost nothing — had similar results.

  7. Pluto (comment #5}: “Is this plan workable? I think its the best idea I’ve seen so far but I fear the law of unintended consequence more than I can express.”

    My concern is that is just won’t be sustainable. What happens is vast resources get reallocated to government jobs, and then there’s no way to keep the party going other than printing and printing more money since the taxes will never match up to that kind of outlay. Eventually like Madoff’s scheme, this pyramid too will tumble down, the currency becomes worthless, and everyone is trained for some strange government job that has little practical use for the real economy. You’ll see.
    Fabius Maximus replies: From much of the writing here (and elsewhere), one would think the US had never before experienced a downturn. A reasonably sound economy — as is ours (this is not Zimbabwe) — recovers on its own. Government action mitigates the suffering and damage inflicted — and might even aid the recovery. Let’s not panic like some paleolithic tribespeople watching a solar eclipse, wondering if the sun will return.

    The US has experienced many recessions — and quite a few depressions (and one Great depression) — in addition to 3 major wars. We will survive this as well, no matter how small or large — short or long — it may be.

  8. FM: “The US will not “spend” $7T next year on goods and services. That’s absurd.”

    Yes, it’s absurd. That’s the whole point. Someone asked whether a $6T fiscal stimulus package is workable, and my understanding of how a $6T fiscal stimulus program works is that the US government sells $6T in bonds, and then they hire people and buy stuff.

    Are we talking about something else here?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Nobody of any consequence is proposing a $6T stimulus program. US GDP is only $14T, a $6T program is not even possible in any normal sense. Why not talk about a $1000T program?

  9. >Why not talk about a $1000T program?

    Well, nobody asked about a $1000T program. Someone asked about a $6T and then you chime in “Most of this is now consensus thinking, being planned right now by the Obama team.” I reflexively sniff a little Keynesian blood in the water. Sorry.

    On the Weiss issue, it just looked like he’d conveniently done the math adding up all the numbers for the decline in wealth. Maybe $7T of wealth hasn’t been lost in the economy? Given the events, it seemed plausible to me, but I haven’t checked it I confess, and I can’t resist that number as an entertaining context for stimulus proposals.

    My view is that fiscal stimulus has some value. It has political value of giving people the impression that something is being done. It can also move around the wealth a bit and help out some of the most desperate states, but that it’s a sideshow, and the real recovery is about preserving and building productive business.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I was not clear, for which I apologize. Many trillions of dollars — tens, perhaps — will be spent by the government over the next few years before this cycle ends. But nothing that as yet that seems impossible for the government to fund. For more on this see “A certain casualty of the recession: the US Government’s solvency“, 25 November 2008.

    As for wealth destruction, most esimates of world losses are very roughly $25T: $16T in equities, $4T in bonds, $4T in US and UK homes (roughly $12T in the US: $4T in home equity, $6T in equities, $2T in bonds) — plus home equity in other nations (e.g., Australia, Spain), commercial real estate (unknown, but rapidly increasing), and other asset classes (business equipment, commodities, etc).

    The wealth effect will by itself produce a global recession, irrespective of other things things depressing the global economy.

  10. Robert J Samuelson has a better-than-Stiglitz review of prior economic conventional wisdom that is is wrong. link

    No prescriptions.

    Mine: give all taxpayers a loan (adj. rate) at the Fed rate (now ~1%) equal to their taxes paid last year, if they wish.
    Do the same with all companies, replacing taxes with ‘tax loans’, so that there is a lot more current cash to pay off debts, pay wages, and invest. Small minimum payments.

    When the crisis passes, the Fed raising the rate will increase the desire to return the cash to the gov’t, and thus automatically reduce the otherwise expected inflation.

  11. (1) Fabius Maximus replies: “Most of this is what I proposed in September as A solution to our financial crisis.”

    Agreed, I see a lot of good ideas reading this blog. My primary goals in posting my thoughts were (a) to put the pieces of the solution together in an optimal way and (b) to quantify how big the stimulus package should be.

    (2) “Most of this is now consensus thinking, being planned right now by the Obama team.”

    Here I’m not quite sure we’re in agreement. You and I agree on the overall strategy but I suspect the Obama team is at least 1-2 steps behind, particularly on the size of the bailout package.

    (3) Fabius Maximus replies: “Nobody of any consequence is proposing a $6T stimulus program.”

    I agree that I am not a person of any particular consequence but I am proposing a $6T stimulus package spread over 2 years (probably should say 3 years because it would take a while to set it up). I arrived at the amount by deciding that a temporary doubling of the US government’s budget was both doable and likely to accomplish the goal.

    I agree the number is extremely large but so is the goal; completely wiping out the threat of deflation and restarting the economy fairly quickly using the same mechanism that started the mess, the housing and credit markets.

    As you’ve stated many times, this is a major crisis and in such times, moderation is frequently a vice rather than a virtue. When you’re in falling half a parachute is better than no parachute, but probably not by a large enough margin to avoid dying when you hit the ground.

    Although the Obama team has a better understanding of the severity of the situation than the Bush team, I’m very concerned that while they still are still optimistic enough to think that $850 billion is enough. It is most certainly NOT enough and would likely lead us to a Japan-like situation of incrementally feeding insufficient stimulus until the stimulus becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

    As I’ve said before, I recognize the weaknesses of my own suggestions (the unintended consequences of my suggestions would likely start several other tidal waves and lead to new problems) so I’m hoping some bright person can figure out how to get where I’m going in a more efficient way.

    Another part of my solution (which is also part of the conventional wisdom) is that now is an excellent time for the government to revamp Social Security and Medicare to be more sustainable. And I’m not suggesting something simple like raising the retirement age to 72. I’m talking about tossing the old system (which was very much in tune with the old post-WWII order) in exchange for something that will better meet our anticipated future needs.
    Fabius Maximus replies: In #3 I was replying to comment #8 by Mataga, which discussed spending $6T in one year. As for the rest, this is consensus thinking in the sense of agreement on the method, but not on the amount to be spent in 2009 (due to different opinions on the severity of the downturn) and afterwards (due to different opinions on its duration).

    By “people of consequence”, I meant folks like public officials and major economists.

  12. Two Thousand and Nine will be the year when the markets and the media finally realise that large government intervention schemes are worse than the problems they are designed to solve. Just as FDR and government intervention created the Great Depression so the incompetent US Treasury and Fed will likely push the global economy into a protracted recession that would have been considerably shorter if liquidation had been allowed to plot its own course.

  13. “As for wealth destruction, most estimates of world losses are very roughly $25T:”

    This should be a humbling statistic. There is no quantity of stimulus that will be big enough. I do believe conventional monetarism-think is that stabilizing the money supply should help however it’s done. If the Fed buys USG bonds directly and prints the cash, that is monetary stimulus. If the USG ‘drops it from a plane’ or they have it go out through government programs, both should stimulate consumption. There’s a pretty big hole here to fill, so some of this is in order.

    Anyway, I’m not one of the ‘money supply is all that matters’ people. My point is that at the end people need jobs that will create actual wealth — jobs that can live on after the government tap ends. If a large number of people are in wealth draining occupations and feel entitled to these jobs, what happens when the next financial disaster happens is that we can only keep them going via even greater monetary expansion, and then we have an economy that can never recover.

    It’s a tricky balance, because the immediate problem is that people are insecure in their jobs, so we want to make them more confident so they’ll spend, but we don’t want this money to create a class. Maybe the most obvious target is construction business. Construction jobs are already transient and if done right, the stimulus projects might also be transient, and these companies might later do non-government work if we don’t overspend for these projects.

    My take on Japan was that Japan recovered in spite of all these monstrous construction projects, and that growth came from several very solid companies there. The economic growth numbers were largely faked by all this spending. Building ugly cement cubes shows up on the books economic growth, but if those ugly cement cubes had to stand the test of a real market, they wouldn’t be worth near the money that’s spent on them. This is an illusion and not real growth.

    The Iraq re-reconstruction is an omen in my mind how these things can go wrong. I don’t know. Maybe we’re best not fretting too much if this money is spent sensibly, and just be happy if it doesn’t all get looted by a few oligarchs.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I recommend reading these two articles.

    Debt – the core problem of this financial crisis, which also explains how we got in this mess — About debt deflation.

    Plan B’ for the Global Financial Crisis“, Richard C. Koo (Chief Economist of the Nomura Research Institute, Tokyo), presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 22 October 2008 — He explains what we can learn from Japan’s experience.This page provides links to the PDF of his presentation, a PDF of his slides, and the video.

  14. Hey, Kuu is an interesting guy, and hearing a Chinese guy talk about Japan’s experience as ‘we’ is interesting sign of the times. He really moved up in the Japanese banking world.

    I guess my main concern here is that he seems a bit banking-centric. The idea that it doesn’t matter what the government spends on as long as it spends. Maybe from the banking perspective if people are borrowing to build weapons or they are borrowing to build hospitals, it’s all good, but to the rest of us it matters a lot what exactly the government decides to stimulate.

    This stimulation is going to create a group of people whose income depends on this money, and when the money does stop coming, they’ll have to find something else to do. If there are a lot of these people, we’re talking $6T worth, that will trigger another round of unemployment in the future. Imagine something like how the old USSR employees became obsolete — that’s the other side of this coin.

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