Posts tagged ‘great depression’

OMG, We Have Really Hit Bottom - Young People Forced to Work to Support Themselves

Back when he was blogging, TJIC had a nice little animated gif with people running around yelling "Oh Noz."

 [update:  sent to me by by the folks at finem respice]

I wish I had it for this chart and the accompanying text  (via Kevin Drum)

Many young adults have felt the impact of the recession and sluggish recovery in tangible ways. Fully half (49%) of those ages 18 to 34 say that because of economic conditions over the past few years, they have taken a job they didn’t really want just to pay the bills. More than a third (35%) say they have gone back to school because of the bad economy. And one-in-four (24%) say they have taken an unpaid job to gain work experience.

First, this study is great evidence of my "what is normal" fail.  There is no baseline.  OK, 24% moved back in with their parents.  How many did this in good times?  How much worse is this?

But the real eye-catcher to me is that somehow I am supposed to be shocked that people have to find a job to pay the bills.  Even a job that, gasp, they really didn't want.  I have a clue for you.  A lot of jobs 22-year-olds have to take are not that compelling.  Mine were not.  Despite what colleges seem to be telling them, the world does not offer up a lot of really cool jobs to inexperienced young adults.  Long before you are closing deals with CEO's, you are probably writing sales literature in some cubicle.

And by the way, I am struck by how wealthy our society is when I look at this chart.  Look at answers two and three.   In both cases, people are saying that in tough times, they chose to forego income and build their skills, even perhaps paying for the privilege.  What other time in history would people have this luxury?  How many countries today would have so many people with this luxury in hard times?  Even in the Great Depression in this country I don't think we saw the same phenomenon.  Obviously the economy sucks and it would be great for everyone for it to improve, but in most other times and even in many other countries in the world today, a significant bar in bad times would have been "I starved to death."

Silly Economic Plans

Via Kevin Drum, from Dylan Matthews

Second, the president should do more to help the American worker. He should establish a jobs program. Do the simple math: We are spending more than $110 billion annually in Afghanistan. Stop it. Or scale it back to the sort of covert operations and drone war that is warranted. Savings? Perhaps about $100 billion—per year. Use that money to create up to 5 million jobs at $20,000 each....Just as FDR did during the Great Depression, put these Americans to work in states, counties, schools, parks.

Even Drum considers this unrealistic, though for the wrong reasons (i.e. the evil Republicans in the House would never let us do it).  I have a series of thoughts on this

  1. FDR had low paying jobs programs in part because this was the only form of relief -- there was not welfare or food stamps or medicaid or unemployment or EITC or social security.  A $20,000 dig-a-hole-and-then-fill-it-in government make-work job would likely just displace about the same amount of other government transfer payments.  I can't see this doing squat.
  2. We are really going to kick-start the consumer market with $20,000 jobs?
  3. The Left needs to get its story straight on the stimulative effects of wars.  Democrats blame Bush for the current economy in large part because of his wars, and the author here implies that moving spending out of wars would be a net plus.  But Keynesians believe WWII ended the Great Depression and Krugman wrote just the other day that what we really need is a war with space aliens (I kid you not) to end the Great Recession.  So which is it?

By the way, I think wars are a total economic waste and drag on the nation.  Dedicating scarce resources to blowing stuff up is the worst possible use of capital.  However, diverting this into politically correct, politician-selected make-work projects is not really a lot better.

Regime Uncertainty

Kevin Drum doesn't buy the regime uncertainty argument as a partial explanation of the slow recovery.

Here's what's remarkable: Carter, a law professor at Yale, apparently never once bothered to ask this guy just what regulations he's talking about. Is he concerned with general stuff like the healthcare law? Or something highly specific to his industry? Or what?

Regardless, I've heard this kind of blowhard conversation too often to take it seriously. Sure, it's possible this guy manufactures canisters for nuclear waste or something, and there's a big regulatory change for nuclear waste storage that's been in the works for years and has been causing everyone in the industry heartburn for as long as they can remember. But the simple fact is that regulatory uncertainty is no greater today than it's ever been. Financialuncertainty is high, but the Obama adminstration just hasn't been overhauling regs that affect the cost of new workers any more than usual. The only substantial exception is the new healthcare law, and if you oppose it that's fine. But it was passed over a year ago and its effects are pretty easy to project.

First, the costs of the health care law are NOT easy to project, and are made even harder when your company might or might not get waivers from certain provisions.    Second, he seems to forget cap and trade, first by law and then by executive fiat; the NLRB's new veto power over corporate relocations it exercised with Boeing; the absurdly turbulent tax/regulatory/permitting regime in the energy field, and particularly oil and gas.  How about trillion dollar stimulus projects, that until very recently Obama was still talking about replicating (and Krugman begs for to this day).  I could go on and on.  This is spoke just like a person who never had to run a business.

Further, I wrote this in the comments section:

I think you are both right and wrong.  I am sure the discussion about this is to some extent overblown.  But you are thinking about business and hiring much too narrowly.

You seem to have a mental model of business showing up at the door, and someone turning that business down because they don't want to hire an employee to serve it (or out of sheer petulance because Fox News told them to sit on their hands, lol).  You find it unlikely anyone would refuse the business, and so do I.

But I run a small to medium size business, and a lot of hiring decisions don't work that way.    I do have some situations that fit your model - I have a campground that is really busy this year, so we hired more people to serve the volume.   No problem.

But most of my hiring decisions are effectively investments.  I am going to create a new position, pay money to train that person, and pay their wage for a while in advance of demand.  Or I am going to open a new site or department or location and make a lot of investment, and the return on investment may be very sensitive to small changes in labor or regulatory costs.

For our business, with labor costs over 50% of costs, the issue is definitely labor costs.  Our pre-tax margins are in the 6-7% range.  So if labor costs are 60% of revenues, then a 10% change in labor costs might wipe out the margin entirely, and a much smaller change in costs might flip the investment from making sense to not making sense.

We run a seasonal business with part-time workers who are older and on Medicare.  Regulations about exactly how much we will have to pay under Obamacare have not been written, so we have no idea how much our employment costs will go up in 2014, so we sit and wait.  I have cancelled two planned campground construction projects in the last 6 months because we have no freaking idea if they will make money.

If I am having trouble with just this one law figuring out whether to make investments, what are, say, oil companies doing in evaluating investments when they have absolutely no idea what their taxes will be, whether they will be permitted or not to drill, or whether they will be subject to cap and trade?

One other thought, it strikes me that there is a lot of good scholarship that suggests that the Great Depression was extended by just this kind of regime uncertainty.  Now, of course, the proposed structural changes to the economy being proposed at the time were more radical than anything on the table today.  The National Industrial Recovery Act was essentially an experiment in Mussolini-style economic corporatism, until most of it was struck down by the Supreme Court.   Nothing so radical is being proposed (unless you work in health care).

Look, I know the Left has convinced itself that only consumer demand matters in an economy, but business investment has simply got to matter in a recovery.   If the returns on future investments are harder to predict, and therefore riskier, businesses are going to apply a higher hurdle rate to new investments, meaning they don't stop entirely, but do invest less.

One interesting may to confirm this some day would be to look back and see if larger corporations with political access invested more than smaller ones or ones with less access.  Did GE, who clearly can get whatever it wants right now from the government, invest more than a small company or even than Exxon, which is on the political outs?  If so, this in my mind would confirm the regime uncertainty hypothesis, because it means that the companies doing most of the investing were the ones confident that they could shape the mandates coming out of the government in their favor.

Beyond regime uncertainty, if you want to talk about Obama and the recovery, you have to mention that a trillion dollars was diverted from private hands to public hands.  Does anyone believe that taking a trillion dollars out of whatever investments private actors would have used the money for and diverting most of it to help maintain government payrolls is really the way to increase the strength and productivity of the economy?

This Argument Works for a Libertarian...

I think this kind of argument might work for a libertarian, but I am not sure it is a very strong argument for a liberal Democrat that wants to do more rather than less of what Congress and the GWB administration did over the last 8 years to worsen the recession.

Personally, though, I'd say Obama has been remarkably restrained about the whole thing, especially when it comes to our disastrous fiscal situation.  In a mere eight years, George Bush and the Republican Party managed to take a thriving economy and a federal surplus and turn it into a hair's breadth escape from Great Depression II and an endless fiscal sinkhole.  Rome may not have been built in a day, but it didn't take much longer than that for the modern Republican Party to bankrupt America.

Particularly hilarious is that Drum blames the cost of the useless but expensive stimulus bill on GWB.  Huh?  And blaming Republicans for Fannie and Freddie is a real joke.

As you might imagine, the deficit in his world is all from tax cuts and not above-inflation increases in spending.  The basic picture he shows is absurd - money is fungible, so any trillion dollars of the government spending could be blamed for the deficit - it just depends on what spending you consider incremental.  Stupid analysis.  Though it is interesting that at least two of the major drivers even by their slanted analysis - Bush tax cuts and Afghanistan - are policy issues Obama was presented with opportunities to reverse and chose not to.

Life of the Libertarian

From John Hasnas via Matt Welch:

Libertarians spend their lives accurately predicting the future effects of government policy. Their predictions are accurate because they are derived from Hayek's insights into the limitations of human knowledge, from the recognition that the people who comprise the government respond to incentives just like anyone else and are not magically transformed to selfless agents of the good merely by accepting government employment, from the awareness that for government to provide a benefit to some, it must first take it from others, and from the knowledge that politicians cannot repeal the laws of economics. For the same reason, their predictions are usually negative and utterly inconsistent with the utopian wishful-thinking that lies at the heart of virtually all contemporary political advocacy. And because no one likes to hear that he cannot have his cake and eat it too or be told that his good intentions cannot be translated into reality either by waving a magic wand or by passing legislation, these predictions are greeted not merely with disbelief, but with derision. [...]

If you'd like a taste of what it feels like to be a libertarian, try telling people that the incoming Obama Administration is advocating precisely those aspects of FDR's New Deal that prolonged the great depression for a decade; that propping up failed and failing ventures with government money in order to save jobs in the present merely shifts resources from relatively more to relatively less productive uses, impedes the corrective process, undermines the economic growth necessary for recovery, and increases unemployment in the long term; and that any "economic" stimulus package will inexorably be made to serve political rather than economic ends, and see what kind of reaction you get. And trust me, it won't feel any better five or ten years from now when everything you have just said has been proven true and Obama, like FDR, is nonetheless revered as the savior of the country.

Doomed to Repeat

Via Carpe Diem:

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.

The policies, which included both propping up wages and encouraging job-sharing, also accounted for more than two-thirds of the precipitous decline in hours worked in the manufacturing sector, which was much harder hit initially than the agricultural sector, according to Ohanian.

"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."

After the stock market 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. Reluctant to lower wages due to Hoover's entreaties, employers in the manufacturing sector responded by reducing the work week and laying off workers. By September 1931, the manufacturing sector was already hurting: Hours clocked by workers had fallen by 20% (see chart above) and employment by 35%.

Wow, its sure lucky we don't have a President today reacting to a recession with profoundly pro-labor policies. Otherwise we might be doing something stupid, like screwing secured creditors in favor of routing value to unions or protecting union health benefits at the cost of everyone else's health care.

Double Dip

A while back I worried that frequent, random, and unprecedentedly extensive Obama interventions in the economy and private commerce could well cause any economic recovery to stagnate as businesses sat on their wallets waiting for more clarity.   Though the ins and outs of the Great Depression are endlessly debated, there is good evidence that the Depression was extended by just this effect, in particular by the effects of the National Industrial Recovery Act, America's flirtation with Mussolini-style fascism.

Economist MaxedOutMama (who, to her credit, was sounding alarms last year long before most everyone else including me were) says that there is still a lot to be worried about and that businesses are indeed sitting on their wallets:

The rolling four-quarter change for GDP is now -2.5%. Far more frightening is the same figure for gross private domestic investment, which in Q1 was -23.6%, and has now been falling since fourth quarter 2006! Gross private domestic investment is the fundamental driver of this economy and just about every other economy, and at no time can one ever rack up a such a string of GPDI decreases in an economy without generating a pretty intense recession.

That is the first thing on which every realistic economist must stay concentrated. Talk about a credit crisis does not address the fundamental economic operator, and dumping a lot of stimulus money into the economy will not overcome a recession produced by collapsing GPDI unless it boosts domestic investment - which our stimulus package does not.

In fact, I would argue that government actions over the last 6 months, from executive compensation controls to Waxman-Markey to health care "reform" all do just the opposite -- suppress investment by increasing uncertainty.

By the way, the inflation I have been promising for a while has obviously not occured yet.    The Fed says they have it under control.

The Federal Reserve signaled Wednesday that the weak economy likely will keep prices in check despite growing concerns that the trillions it's pumping into the financial system will ignite inflation.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues held a key bank lending rate at a record low of between zero and 0.25 percent. And they pledged again to keep it there for "an extended period" to help brace the economy.

Inflation is this massive rock that takes a while to start moving.  The Fed has pushed the rock right to the top of the mountain but says not to worry, if it starts accelerating down the hill they will be able to stop it.   Don't believe it.

Sizing the Bailout

From here and here:

cumbarchartbailout

I haven't checked these numbers, and they are supposed to be all in real dollars, but YMMV.

So we are going to spend 33% of GDP to avoid a recesion, when the worst recession in history (the Great Depression) had a peak-to-trough GDP loss of about 20%.

Update: This chart is obviously based on a lower estimate.  But it does give one pause when considering the "bailout all due to US laissez faire."

sovereign_2

Depression Doubt

MaxedOutMamma (an economist somewhere but she seems to only drop tantalizing clues as to where she plies her trade) is concerned:

I was troubled by how many people seemed to feel the economy wasn't in deep trouble.   Profound skepticism and the belief that this is all media/political highjinks seem almost to be the consensus.

I guess you may have to put me in the majority.  I certainly don't doubt that we are headed for a recession.  And it would not surprise me if this is the worst recession that most 20-something Obama voters have experienced, though that is not saying much.  But I am not sure we are even facing the Seventies in this one and we certainly are not facing the 1930s.

Here is the problem that we more casual consumers of economic news must struggle with -- the media has fairly accurately predicted 20 of the last 3 economic downturns.  Everywhere you turn, you see analogies to the Great Depression, a period of time where unemployment topped 25%.  Given the media's track record and the nearly breathless panic about the looming economic disaster, any sane person has to put a divide-by-X filter on economic news.  It is certainly possible that I and other are using too large of an X as a correction factor, but is that my fault, or the fault of the purveyors of information who can't tell any story straight.

By the way, for us Polyannas, here are several interesting posts from Mark Perry

Don't Panic

The best way to mobilize people is to make them panic.  That is why so many institutions have incentives to may you panic over the environment, or global warming, or the threat of terrorism, or the economy.  In most cases (Naomi Klein's hypothesis not-withstanding) these folks want you to get so worried you will give up something, either money or freedom or both.

Some kind of recession at this point is unavoidable, I guess.  But in fact, we really haven't seen what I would call a real recession since the early 1980's.  We've had a really long run, and now its time to cut back on that spending and board up the financial windows for a little while.  The economy has to de-leverage itself some, and that is going to slow things down for a while.  People keep talking about the Great Depression, and I don't see it.  I don't even think its going to be the 1970's.

The most visible symbol of financial problems seems to be the falling stock market.  But all those companies in those indexes are the same ones that were there a month ago, and are still healthy and making money.  The fall in the markets does not represent and change in the current health of industrial America.  The lower prices reflect a changing expectation about those company's future prospects, but the folks driving the market are just guessing, and really, their guesses aren't really any better than yours or mine.  Similar expectations drove oil up to $145 and now back down under $80.  Wall Streeters work really hard to portray themselves as smarter than you or I, but they are not.  I went to school with them.  I know these guys.  They aren't smarter, and they aren't any less susceptible to panic.  In fact, because they are often highly leveraged and are worried about making payments on that new Jaguar they just bought for their mistress, they tend to be more easily stampeded.

In October of 1987, the stock market fell 22.6% in one day.  If you date the current financial issues to about September 22, when the market closed around 11,000, then the market has fallen over these tumultuous weeks by 22.0% at last night's close -- dramatic, but still not as bad as the one day drop in '87. 

Shadegg on the Bailout

I missed this excellent interview with my local Congressman, John Shadegg, whom I don't always agree with but is still way better than 99% of Congress:

 

David Freddeso: Is a bailout necessary to save the economy at
this point from complete collapse "” from a major failure of multiple
institutions at the same time?

Shadegg: I think that's the most difficult question that
could be posed under these circumstances, and it's the question that I
have struggled all week to find the answer to. I have talked to a lot
of smart people who know Wall Street, know banking, know the economy
quite well, and you hear different opinions. Some will tell you that it
is absolutely essential. Quite frankly, I'm skeptical about that.

But I think that in some ways the question doesn't matter any more.
Because Secretary Paulson chose to raise the matter in the way he did "”
that is, to go public in a very high-profile way, not just with his
concern, but with a kind of Chicken-Little, the-sky-is-falling kind of
demand "” it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That is to say, once the secretary of the Treasury announces to the
world that there is a pending financial collapse, perhaps as great as
the Great Depression, and Congress must act "” he has sent a signal that
essentially tells world markets that Congress must act. I will tell you
that has been one of the most frustrating things about this since the
very beginning...

I can't tell you how many members of Congress were stunned at that
news, and were stunned that none of their local bankers were calling
them. And then they called their local bankers, as I called my local
bankers, and my local bankers said, "I think things are just fine." I
talked to one banker who said, "Gosh, we've got money, and we're
liquid, and we're making a profit. And we're in the market selling
loans, and we've got competitors trying to sell loans against us."

So, at that point, there's a disconnect. Secretary Paulson is
claiming that this is a catastrophe of generational proportions that
could go worldwide. And none of what we were hearing back home matches
that. And I'm not speaking just for myself, but also for many of my
colleagues who were making similar calls. They weren't being called by
their bankers, or by any of the businesses back home saying, "I can't
borrow any money".... If, in fact, Paulson had struck a chord with the
American banking community, wouldn't you think that after he announced
on Friday that there was a crisis of liquidity that threatens the
entire nation's financial solvency and Americans' jobs from coast to
coast, that my community bankers in Arizona wouldn't have been picking
up the phone by Monday morning, if not over the weekend, to say that "I
share the Secretary's concerns"?

 

Keeping Some Perspective

If past presidential elections are any guide, by the time this one is over, it will have been said that this economy is the worst economy since the Great Depression.  W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm of the Dallas Fed write a fabulous article in the American putting current US economic conditions in historic context:

When a presidential election year collides
with iffy economic times, the public's view of the U.S. economy turns
gloomy. Perspective shrinks in favor of short-term assessments that
focus on such unpleasant realities as falling job counts, sluggish GDP
growth, uncertain incomes, rising oil and food prices, subprime
mortgage woes, and wobbly financial markets.

Taken together, it's enough to shake our
faith in American progress. The best path to reviving that faith lies
in gaining some perspective"” getting out of the short-term rut, casting
off the blinders that focus us on what will turn out to be mere
footnotes in a longer-term march of progress. Once we do that, we see
the U.S. economy, a $14 trillion behemoth, is doing quite
well, thank you very much.

I can't really excerpt the article and do it justice, but suffice it to say that you won't see much of this in any Obama speeches this year.  Here are two charts from the article I particularly liked:

Fig_7_less_work_more_leisurefinal

Of course, the rejoinder will be, but what about the poor?  Well...

Figure_2_now_even_the_poor_have_mor

Go read it all in advance of the campaign season.

Oops, Our Bad. Sorry.

I thought this was pretty funny, via TJIC.  The Fed apologizes for the Great Depression:

Ben Shalom Bernanke (born December 13, 1953)"¦ is an American
macroeconomist who is the current Chairman of the Board of Governors of
the United States Federal Reserve ("the Fed")"¦

On Milton Friedman's Ninetieth Birthday, Nov. 8, 2002 he
stated: "Let me end my talk by abusing slightly my status as an
official representative of the Federal Reserve. I would like to say to
Milton and Rose: Regarding the Great Depression. You're right, we did
it. We're very sorry. But thanks to you, we won't do it again.""¦

The quote is from Wikipedia, so I take it with a huge grain of salt.  Anyone have a link to another source, because the quote is pretty funny.  Good to see the government take responsibility for the economic messes it creates, even if 75 years late.  Of course, 75 years after the Hawley-Smoot tariffs helped throw a recession into the Great Depression, Congress is about to launch us down the same protectionist path, so don't give the feds too much credit.