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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hoover's "Pro-Labor Stance" Did Not Help to Cause the Great Depression

In a new paper, Lee Ohanion claims that Herbert Hoover's call for "business leaders to be gentle to their workers" helped to cause the Great Depression. Brad DeLong explains why this claim does not hold up to closer scrutiny:

Herbert Hoover: A Working Class Hero Is Something to Be, by Brad DeLong: Oh Noes! Andrew Leonard reads Lee Ohanian:
Herbert Hoover: The working man's hero - How the World Works - Salon.com: I did not need a cup of coffee to wake up this morning -- I just checked my e-mail, and saw the subject header: "Hoover's pro-labor stance helped cause Great Depression, UCLA economist says."
Without reading the message, I knew instantly who the economist must be -- Lee Ohanian.... Last we saw of Ohanian... he was arguing that FDR's New Deal policies extended the Great Depression and resulted in "less work than average" for American workers. Which might be true, if you don't count anyone who got a job through "the Works Progress Administration (WPA) or Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), or any other of Roosevelt's popular New Deal workfare programs." Makes sense -- if you don't count Roosevelt's pro-labor programs, he doesn't end up very pro-labor!
So now we have "What -- or Who -- Started the Great Depression?," a 68-page paper Ohanian has been working on for four years that is sure to become a never-to-be-extinguished talking point for New Deal haters, union-busters, and opponents of all kinds of government intervention in the economy. Here are some key points, taken from the press release pushed out by UCLA.
Pro-labor policies pushed by President Herbert Hoover after the stock market crash of 1929 accounted for close to two-thirds of the drop in the nation's gross domestic product over the two years that followed, causing what might otherwise have been a bad recession to slip into the Great Depression, a UCLA economist concludes in a new study. "These findings suggest that the recession was three times worse -- at a minimum -- than it would otherwise have been, because of Hoover," said Lee E. Ohanian, a UCLA professor of economics.
According to Ohanian, these pro-labor policies including pressure for job-sharing and propping up wages handcuffed industry's ability to respond flexibly to the post-crash economic contraction.
After the crash, Hoover met with major leaders of industry and cut a deal with them to either maintain or raise wages and institute job-sharing to keep workers employed, at least to some degree, Ohanian found. In response, General Motors, Ford, U.S. Steel, Dupont, International Harvester and many other large firms fell in line, even publicly underscoring their compliance with Hoover's program. "By keeping industrial wages too high, Hoover sharply depressed employment beyond where it otherwise would have been, and that act drove down the overall gross national product," Ohanian said. "His policy was the single most important event in precipitating the Great Depression."
Hoover as the pro-labor liberal! Never mind that Hoover spent decades after his spectacularly failed presidency bemoaning the country's New Deal turn to Bolshevism. And never mind that the definitive conservative economic treatment of the Great Depression, Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz's "A Monetary History of the United States," pinpoints monetary policy mistakes by the Federal Reserve as the crucial catalyst that turned a stock market crash and recession into a Depression. Never mind the now-fading cultural memory of the United States, which somehow remembers Hoover as being bad for labor, and Roosevelt being good. All that pales against the necessity of making a key political point relevant to today's financial crisis.

There is a germ of information buried in the pile: Hoover did urge business leaders to be gentle to their workers because, he assured them, the Great Depression would soon be over.

But Hoover's interventions do not appear to have had much effect. If you take the degree of government-sponsored union power and wage rigidity in post-WWII Europe to be 100, then FDR's New Deal counts as a 30 and Herbert Hoover's "can't we all just get along?" White House meetings count as a five. If Hoover's inviting businessmen to the White House could push the unemployment rate up from 4% to 23%, simple extrapolation would then suggest that Roosevelt's labor-market policies ought to have pushed unemployment up to 118%--and unemployment in post-WWII Europe ought to have averaged 384%.

It simply does not appear as if Hoover's exhortations had much effects. Average wages in manufacturing stood at $0.55 in 1930, at $0.51 in 1931--an 8% cut--and $0.44 in 1932--a 20% cut. Coal miners' hourly wages went from $0.66 in 1930 to $0.63 in 1931 to $0.50 in 1932--a 25% cut. Skilled male manufacturing workers' wages went from $0.66 an hour in 1930 to $0.63 in 1931 and $0.56 in 1932. You had the same 20% cut in nominal wages over 1930-1932 as you had over 1920-22 (but a 50% decline in industrial production in the 1930 and only a 30% decline in industrial production in the 1920s). The argument would have to be that if not for Hoover, firms would have cut wages much, much faster than they in fact did.

In 1996 Ben Bernanke and Kevin Carey, in their "Nominal Wage Stickiness and Aggregate Supply in the Great Depression," plotted real wages and industrial production levels in 1932 relative to 1929 for 22 countries:
Ip.and.w.in.depression

Four countries--Australia, Argentina, Hungary, and New Zealand--have low relative real wage levels in 1929 not because employers have cut wages but because they are small open economies and had already undergone massive currency devaluation by 1932: wages were more or less where they were in 1929 but the domestic price level was much higher because the currency was worth less. the rest of the countries were still on or not yet far off the gold standard. Some--Germany and the U.S.--had relatively low real wages and were doing horribly. Some--Norway and Japan--had relatively low real wages and were doing well. And some--Belgium, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland--had relatively high real wages and were doing middling. The scatterplot strongly suggest that Hoover's interventions (a) were too feeble to make the U.S. a more-than-average country in the downward rigidity of its nominal wages, and (b) that at least as of the end of Hoover's term, how deep the Great Depression was in your country had very little to do with whether your internal nominal wages level had fallen far or not.

As Eric Rauchway points out, to blame the Great Contraction of 1929-1932 on government interference in the labor market creates a very strong presumption that thereafter the Great Depression should have gotten much worse rather than eased--for the interferences in the 1930s, starting with the NIRA, were much larger deviations from laissez-faire:
[H]ere's the thing: if you want to say, "I'll take 'Causes of the Great Depression', Alex," you have to be prepared with an explanation for (a) why things got so bad under Hoover and (b) why they then got better under Roosevelt.
Monetarist models explain this: the gold standard was deflationary, and going off the gold standard helped countries out of the Great Depression. Hoover didn't go off the gold standard. FDR did. Things got better.
Keynesian models explain this: Hoover didn't do enough to stimulate demand. Roosevelt did more (though still not quite enough).
Ohanian's model doesn't explain this.

And I would like to raise a further caution. Ohanian is working in a framework in which nominal demand--the total dollar flow of spending--is constant. In such a framework lower wages lead businesses to cut their prices and so the same flow of demand buys more goods, and that induces firms to hire more people and produce more. Jacob Viner, Milton Friedman's teacher, strongly cautioned against this line of argument in 1933 because a decline in wages was part of an "unbalanced deflation." Wages fell, but debt principal and interest payments did not.

In Viner's view, and in mine, if wages had fallen faster and further, goods prices and real estate prices would have fallen further and faster, more banks would have gone into bankruptcy, the bank failures would have shrunk the money supply even more, the velocity of money would have fallen even further, and the Great Depression would have been even worse.

Larry Summers and I wrote a paper about this back in the 1980s.

Milton Friedman's teacher Jacob Viner always argued that it was "unbalanced deflation" -- i.e., declines in asset prices and wages and incomes while debts remained the same -- that was the cause of the Great Depression. So did monetarist school founder Irving Fisher.

Ask yourself: if everybody's salary in America were to be cut right now by 25 percent -- but everyone's mortgage payment, everyone's credit card balance and interest payment, and every corporation's debt interest payments remained the same--would we see a recovery or another chain of financial bankruptcies that would push the economy down further?

    Posted by on Saturday, August 29, 2009 at 11:39 AM in Economics | Permalink  Comments (25)

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