The book is an object lesson in why most analysis of this period by Austrians is fundamentally unsound.
Let us review the problems with “Chapter 1: The Crisis,” in a number of points as follows:
(1) From the beginning, we find quite brazen, questionable statements.All in all, Chapter 1 of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal does not inspire much confidence in Murphy’s analysis, or his questionable Rothbardian school myth-making about the 1930s.
Murphy tells us that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal “failed to lift America out of the worst economic times in our history” (Murphy 2009: 5).
When Roosevelt was inaugurated and after he turned to moderately expansionary fiscal policy (Murphy’s [2009: 21] claim that Roosevelt engaged in “massive deficit spending” is not even true), both real US GDP and real per capita GDP grew and expanded at quite high rates historically, as we can see here:Year | GDP* | Growth RateNext, real per capita GDP:
1929 | $977,000
1930 | $892,800 | -8.61%
1931 | $834,900 | -6.48%
1932 | $725,800 | -13.06%
1933 | $716,400 | -1.29%
1934 | $794,400 | 10.88%
1935 | $865,000 | 8.88%
1936 | $977,900 | 13.05%
1937 | $1,028,000 | 5.12%
1938 | $992,600 | -3.44%
1939 | $1,072,800 | 8.07%
1940 | $1,166,900 | 8.77%
* Millions of 2005 dollars
http://www.measuringworth.com/datasets/usgdp/result.phpReal US Per Capita GDP 1870–2001So how exactly does Murphy explain the actual real output data? Murphy asserts that the “recovery was sluggish” (Murphy 2009: 12), but the GDP figures do not support him: the years of recovery under Roosevelt, when fiscal expansion occurred, saw some of the highest real GDP growth rates ever seen in American history, with rates of about 8% in three years, and one year with a 13% growth rate.
(in 1990 international Geary-Khamis dollars)
Year | GDP | Growth rate
1929 | 6899 | 5.02%
1930 | 6213 | -9.94%
1931 | 5691 | -8.40%
1932 | 4908 | -13.75%
1933 | 4777 | -2.66%
1934 | 5114 | 7.05%
1935 | 5467 | 6.90%
1936 | 6204 | 13.48%
1937 | 6430 | 3.64%
1938 | 6126 | -4.72%
1939 | 6561 | 7.10%
1940 | 7010 | 6.84%
(Maddison 2003: 88).
By 1936, real GDP had surpassed its 1929 level, and in 1937 real per capita GDP was close to reaching its 1929 level as well – until Roosevelt listened to advocates of fiscal austerity and the economy plunged back into recession.
Furthermore, Murphy has clearly never read M. R. Darby’s “Three-and-a-Half Million U.S. Employees Have Been Mislaid: Or, an Explanation of Unemployment, 1934–1941” (Journal of Political Economy 84.1 : 1–16). If he did, he would know that official unemployment statistics badly overestimate unemployment under Roosevelt, because of nothing more than ridiculous bias on the part of Lebergott, who compiled the figures. Lebergott failed to include employment provided by emergency and relief work in US federal government programs in his figures (Darby 1976).
When employment provided by relief work is included in the employment figures, unemployment under Roosevelt came down from 25% in 1933 to just under 10% by 1937, on the eve of his turn to austerity. This is a much better record on unemployment than the official statistics reveal. Before austerity hit the US economy in 1937, unemployment was no longer at double digit figures. The unemployment rate soared again when Roosevelt cut government spending from 1937, but the adjusted figures show it rising from under 10% to about 12.5% in 1938, and not to around 19% as in the old figures.
What is particularly amusing is that later in Chapter 1 Murphy contradicts himself on whether Roosevelt’s stimulus helped the economy: he asserts that “the economy seemed to respond to FDR’s bold measures, at least for a while” and it “looked as if the New Deal was working” (Murphy 2009: 12). Then by p. 21, Murphy backtracks, and claims that “massive deficit spending during the 1930s” went “hand-in-hand with chronic double-digit unemployment” – as if unemployment never fell at all under Roosevelt. Then we read that the 1930s was a “failed decade of deficit spending” (Murphy 2099: 24).
At this point, we come to the crux that destroys Murphy’s analysis. At pp. 13–14, Murphy notes that the economy returned to depression in 1938 (the “depression within the Depression”), but never asks why that happened. The major failing of Murphy’s chapter is his unwillingness to explain why America returned to depression in 1938. If he had bothered to do so, he would have found strong evidence that contradicts his Austrian interpretation of the Great Depression.
The answer is that the economy plunged back into depression because in 1937 and 1938 Roosevelt turned to budget balancing. The result was that the federal deficit was virtually eliminated by fiscal year 1938 by the raising of taxes (which contracted private spending power) and the reduction in overall federal spending. In June 1936, the Revenue Act passed Congress and caused a significant increase in income tax rates, as well as the tax on undistributed profits. The main effect of the tax on undistributed profits was to adversely affect the cost of investment for small and medium-sized firms. There is a reasonable case to be made that this tax increased business uncertainty about profitability of investment. Furthermore, the collection of the Social Security tax began in January 1937, another tax measure contracting private spending power.
When fiscal expansion occurred, the economic data show a significant recovery from depression in the 1930s – if not to full employment – but, if anything, they would strongly suggest that the US economy in 1937 was on the road to full employment, if not for the disastrous austerity and fiscal contraction induced by deficit hawks of that era.
Roosevelt was to blame because he listened to them and became a deficit hawk himself. But this lesson is lost on Murphy.
Furthermore, if fiscal expansion clearly promoted recovery, then it follows that more radical fiscal expansion would have led to a faster and better recovery.
Another dismal failing of many Austrian discussions of the Great Depression is the contemptible unwillingness to look at what happened outside the US.
As I have shown here, we have clear evidence that fiscal expansion and stimulus lead to strong and relatively rapid recoveries from depression in New Zealand, Germany and Japan:“Keynesian Stimulus in New Zealand: 1936–1938,” September 23, 2011.(2) On p. 9, Murphy discusses margin trading and its role in the stock market bubble of the 1920s, but totally fails to prove his point: in fact, he does nothing but reinforce the old conclusion that unregulated margin trading had a major role in financial market instability. Murphy’s attempt to pin the blame mainly on the Federal Reserve’s cheap money policy ignores the fact that financial market regulation was precisely what was needed to put curbs on speculative lending.
“Takahashi Korekiyo and Fiscal Stimulus in Japan in the 1930s,” August 27, 2011.
“Fiscal Stimulus in Germany 1933–1936,” September 3, 2011.
(3) On p. 11, Murphy notes business opposition to Roosevelt’s New Deal, but ignores the important point that American business was divided in its view of Roosevelt: some opposed him and some supported him. Intense business opposition was restricted to certain sectors:“While encouraging the growth of big labor and ministering to the needs of the elderly and the poor, the New Deal also provided substantial benefits to American capitalists. Business opposition to Roosevelt was intense, but it was narrowly based in labor-intensive corporations in textiles, automobiles, and steel, which had the most to lose from collective bargaining. The New Deal found many business allies among firms in the growing service industries of banking, insurance, and stock brokerage where government regulations promised to reduce cutthroat competition and to weed out marginal operators. Because of its aggressive policies to expand American exports and investment opportunities abroad, the New Deal also drew support from high-technology firms and from the large oil companies who were eager to penetrate the British monopoly in the Middle East. Sophisticated businessmen discovered that they could live comfortably in a world of government regulation. The ‘socialistic’ Tennessee Valley Authority lowered the profits of a few utility companies, but cheap electric power for the rural South translated into larger consumer markets for the manufacturers of generators, refrigerators, and other appliances.” (Levy et al. 1986: 447-448).(4) On p. 15, Murphy repeats the myth that Hayek predicted the Great Depression. But that simply isn’t true, as I have shown here:“Lionel Robbins and the Myth of Hayek’s Prediction of the Great Depression,” February 5, 2012.(5) At p. 18, Murphy briefly discusses Milton Friedman, in order to dismiss the latter’s monetarist views on the cause of the Great Depression. Friedman argued that the depth of the depression was caused by the inaction of the Federal Reserve when it allowed the money supply to collapse from 1929 to 1933.
“Hayek and the Stock Market Crash of 1929: So Much for His Predictive Powers,” December 28, 2011.
But Murphy fails to mention that a somewhat similar view can also be found amongst certain Austrian economists: Hayek came to believe that an unnecessary and disastrous “secondary deflation” could affect an economy in recession:“Hayek on Secondary Deflation,” January 24, 2011Hayek even expressed agreement with Milton Friedman later in life:
“Hayek on Monetary Stabilisation in a Secondary Deflation,” August 6, 2011.“There is no doubt, and in this I agree with Milton Friedman, that once the Crash had occurred, the Federal Reserve System pursued a silly deflationary policy. I am not only against inflation but I am also against deflation! So, once again, a badly programmed monetary policy prolonged the depression” (Pizano 2009: 13).Hayek and Ludwig Lachmann even endorsed limited Keynesian stimulus during a depression, but one would never know that from Murphy’s book. Murphy appears to represent one extreme subset of the Austrian school: the Rothbardians.
By p. 24, Murphy acknowledges that the US money supply did indeed “shrink by a third from 1929 to 1933.” But then we read that “there was nothing unprecedented about the speed of the collapse in the money supply .. of the 1930s” (Murphy 2009: 24). Yet Murphy provides no empirical data to support this claim. Can Murphy really point to a period when money supply in America collapsed with this speed and depth, and when there was no recession or depression?
(6) At 23, Murphy badly misrepresents American economic history. He asserts that:“America’s free market economy had always rebounded from its previous depressions – usually within two years and at most within five years” (Murphy 2009: 23).On p. 25, we read that before the creation of the Federal Reserve “somehow depressions always managed to sort themselves out fairly quickly.” First, even if it were true that the US economy, before 1914, always recovered within five years of a recession, a five year period can hardly be considered short.
Secondly, the statement is not even true. America had two periods of severe economic malaise in the late 19th century, which lasted more than five years: the 1873–1879 period and 1893–1899 era. In the 1870s, America had a seven year period of economic crisis: a recession (from 1873–1875) and then rising unemployment until 1878, which remained high until 1879.
In the 1890s, America had a double dip recession (the first from 1893–1894 and second in 1896) and then high unemployment up until 1899 – another seven year period of economic malaise.
The interested reader can find more on these periods here:“US Unemployment in the 1890s,” January 24, 2012.Since we do not really have decent estimates for early and mid 19th century GDP and unemployment, we cannot say whether there were periods as bad as the 1870s/1890s in those times.
“Rothbard on the US Economy in the 1870s: A Critique,” September 24, 2012.
(7) A final, latent failing of this first chapter and the book in general is the unwillingness to clearly differentiate Keynesian economics from the New Deal: the two were not the same. Conflation of modern Keynesian policies and the New Deal is simply misleading.
The New Deal did indeed have some deleterious aspects, and they were opposed and criticised by Keynes himself, as I have pointed out here:
Darby, M. R. 1976. “Three-and-a-Half Million U.S. Employees Have Been Mislaid: Or, an Explanation of Unemployment, 1934–1941,” Journal of Political Economy 84.1: 1–16.
Levy, L. W. et al. (eds). Encyclopedia of the American Constitution (vol. 1). Macmillan, New York.
Maddison, Angus. 2003. The World Economy: Historical Statistics. OECD Publishing, Paris.
Murphy, Robert. 2009. The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal. Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, DC.
Pizano, D. 2009. Conversations with Great Economists. Jorge Pinto Books Inc., New York.