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Archive for August 6th, 2020

We did not get good policy during the economic crisis of the 1930s. Indeed, it’s quite likely that bad decisions by Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt deepened and lengthened the Great Depression.

Likewise, George Bush and Barack Obama had the wrong responses (the TARP bailout and the faux stimulus) to the economic downturn of 2008-09.

But people in government don’t always make mistakes. If we go back nearly 100 years ago, we find that Warren Harding oversaw a very rapid recovery from the deep recession that occurred at the end of Woodrow Wilson’s disastrous presidency.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Robert Murphy has a very helpful tutorial on what happened.

…the U.S. experience during the 1920–1921 depression—one that the reader has probably never heard of—is almost a laboratory experiment …the government and Fed did the exact opposite of what the experts now recommend. We have just about the closest thing to a controlled experiment in macroeconomics that one could desire. To repeat, it’s not that the government boosted the budget at a slower rate, or that the Fed provided a tad less liquidity. On the contrary, the government slashed its budget tremendously… If the Keynesians are right about the Great Depression, then the depression of 1920–1921 should have been far worse. …the 1920–1921 depression was painful. The unemployment rate peaked at 11.7 percent in 1921. But it had dropped to 6.7 percent by the following year and was down to 2.4 percent by 1923. …the 1920–1921 depression “purged the rottenness out of the system” and provided a solid framework for sustainable growth. …The free market works. Even in the face of massive shocks requiring large structural adjustments, the best thing the government can do is cut its own budget and return more resources to the private sector.

Writing for National Review, David Harsanyi points out that there are many reasons why Warren Harding should be celebrated over Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson was one of the most despicable characters in 20th-century American politics: a national embarrassment. The Virginian didn’t merely hold racist “views;” he re-segregated the federal civil service. He didn’t merely involve the United States in a disastrous war in Europe after promising not to do so; he threw political opponents and anti-war activists into prison. Wilson, the first president to show open contempt for the Constitution and the Founding, was a vainglorious man unworthy of honor. Fortunately, we have the perfect replacement for Wilson: Warren Harding, the most underappreciated president in American history… Harding, unlike Wilson — and most of today’s political class, for that matter — didn’t believe politics should play an outsized role in the everyday lives of citizens. …Where Wilson had expanded the federal government in historic ways, creating massive new agencies such as the War Industries Board, Harding’s shortened term did not include any big new bureaucracies… Wilson left the country in a terrible recession; Harding turned it around, becoming the last president to end a downturn by cutting taxes, and slashing spending and regulations. Harding cut spending from $6.3 billion in 1920 to $3.3 billion by 1923.

Walter Block, in an article for the Mises Institute, explains that what happened almost 100 years ago can provide a good road map if President Trump wishes to restore prosperity today (especially when compared to the disastrous policies of Hoover and Roosevelt).

…let us look back a bit at some economic history regarding recessions and depressions… The depression in 1921 was short lived—maybe not a V, but at least a very narrow U. …Happily, during the 1921 depression, the government of President Warren G. Harding did not intervene…and the entire episode was over not in a matter of weeks (the V) or years (a fattish U), but months (a narrow U). The Great Depression, which stretched from 1929–41 (a morbidly obese U) stemmed from identical causes. …But Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt “fixed” this by propping up heavy industries whose extent was overblown by the previous artificially lowered interest rates, in an early “too big to fail” paroxysm. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff added insult to injury, and put the kibosh on any early recovery. …I now predict the sharpest of Vs, but if and only if, all other things being equal, the Trump administration cleaves to market principles. …So, Mr. President, embrace the free enterprise system, attain a V, a very narrow and sharp one, and the prognostication for November will be significantly boosted.

Professor Block’s analysis is very sound…except for the part where he speculates that Trump will do the right thing and copy Harding.

Given Trump’s awful track record on spending, it would be more accurate to speculate that I’ll be playing in the outfield for the Yankees when they win this year’s World Series.

Suffice to say, though, that it would be great to find another Warren Harding. Here’s a chart based on OMB data showing that he actually cut spending (and we’re looking at genuine spending cuts, not the make-believe spending cuts that happen in DC when politicians boost the budget by less than previously planned).

According to fans of Keynesian economics, these spending cuts should have tanked the economy, but instead we got a boom.

P.S. By the way, something similar happened after World War II.

P.P.S. Back in 2012, I shared some insightful analysis from Thomas Sowell about Harding’s economic policy.

P.P.P.S. Harding also lowered tax rates.

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