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Robert Reich: The Mini Depression and the Maximum-Strength Remedy

November 9, 2008

Robert Reich

This is not the Great Depression of the 1930s, but nor is it turning out to be merely a bad recession of the kind we’ve experienced periodically over the last half century. Call it a Mini Depression. The employment report last Friday shows job losses accelerating, along with the number of Americans working part time who’d rather be and need to be working full time. Retail sales have fallen off a cliff. Stock prices continue to drop. General Motors is on the brink of bankruptcy. The rate of home foreclosures is mounting.

When Barack Obama takes office in January, he will inherit a mess. (Because I’m an informal economic adviser, I should remind anyone who reads this blog that it reflects only my thoughts and therefore should not be attributed to him or to anyone else advising him.) What to do?

First, understand that the main problem right now is not the supply of credit.

First, understand that the main problem right now is not the supply of credit. Yes, Wall Street is paralyzed at the moment because the bursting of the housing and other asset bubbles means that lenders are fearful that creditors won’t repay loans. But even if credit were flowing, those loans wouldn’t save jobs. Businesses want to borrow now only to remain solvent and keep their creditors at bay. If they fail to do so, and creditors push them into reorganization under bankruptcy, they’ll cut their payrolls, to be sure. But they’re already cutting their payrolls. It’s far from clear they’d cut more jobs under bankruptcy reorganization than they’re already cutting under pressure to avoid bankruptcy and remain solvent.

This means bailing out Wall Street or the auto industry or the insurance industry or the housing industry may at most help satisfy creditors for a time and put off the day of reckoning, but industry bailouts won’t reverse the downward cycle of job losses.

The real problem is on the demand side of the economy.

Consumers won’t or can’t borrow because they’re at the end of their ropes. Their incomes are dropping (one of the most sobering statistics in Friday’s jobs report was the continued erosion of real median earnings), they’re deeply in debt, and they’re afraid of losing their jobs.

Introductory economic courses explain that aggregate demand is made up of four things, expressed as C+I+G+exports. C is consumers. Consumers are cutting back on everything other than necessities. Because their spending accounts for 70 percent of the nation’s economic activity and is the flywheel for the rest of the economy, the precipitous drop in consumer spending is causing the rest of the economy to shut down.

I is investment. Absent consumer spending, businesses are not going to invest.

Exports won’t help much because the of the rest of the world is sliding into deep recession, too. (And as foreigners — as well as Americans — put their savings in dollars for safe keeping, the value of the dollar will likely continue to rise relative to other currencies. That, in turn, makes everything we might sell to the rest of the world more expensive.)

Government is the spender of last resort. Government spending lifted America out of the Great Depression. It may be the only instrument we have for lifting America out of the Mini Depression.

That leaves G, which, of course, is government. Government is the spender of last resort. Government spending lifted America out of the Great Depression. It may be the only instrument we have for lifting America out of the Mini Depression. Even Fed Chair Ben Bernanke is now calling for a sizable government stimulus. He knows that monetary policy won’t work if there’s inadequate demand.

So the crucial questions become (1) how much will the government have to spend to get the economy back on track? and (2) what sort of spending will have the biggest impact on jobs and incomes?

The answer to the first question is “a lot.” Given the magnitude of the mess and the amount of underutilized capacity in the economy– people who are or will soon be unemployed, those who are underemployed, factories shuttered, offices empty, trucks and containers idled — government may have to spend $600 or $700 billion next year to reverse the downward cycle we’re in.

The answer to the second question is mostly “infrastructure” — repairing roads and bridges, levees and ports; investing in light rail, electrical grids, new sources of energy, more energy conservation. Even conservative economists like Harvard’s Martin Feldstein are calling for government to stimulate the economy through infrastructure spending. Infrastructure projects like these pack a double-whammy: they create lots of jobs, and they make the economy work better in the future. (Important qualification: To do this correctly and avoid pork, the federal government will need to have a capital budget that lists infrastructure projects in order of priority of public need.)

Government should also spend on health care and child care. These expenditures are also double whammies: they, too, create lots of jobs, and they fulfill vital public needs.

Expect two sorts of arguments against this. The first will come from fiscal hawks who claim that the government is already spending way too much. Even without a new stimulus package, next year’s budget deficit could run over a trillion dollars, given the amounts to be spent bailing out Wall Street and perhaps the auto industry, and providing extended unemployment insurance and other measures to help those in direct need. The hawks will argue that the nation can’t afford giant deficits, especially when baby boomers are only a few years away from retiring and claiming Social Security and Medicare.

They’re wrong. Government spending that puts people back to work and invests in the future productivity of the nation is exactly what the economy needs right now. Deficit numbers themselves have no significance. The pertinent issue is how much underutilized capacity exists in the economy. When there’s lots of idle capacity, deficit spending is entirely appropriate, as John Maynard Keynes taught us. Moving the economy to fuller capacity will of itself shrink future deficits.

The second argument will come from conservative supply-siders who will call for income-tax cuts rather than spending increases. They’ll claim that individuals with more money in their pockets will get the economy moving again more readily than can government. They’re wrong, for three reasons. First, income-tax cuts go mainly to upper-income people who tend to save rather than spend. Most Americans pay more in payroll taxes than in income taxes. Second, even if a rebate could be fashioned, people tend to use those extra dollars to pay off their debts rather than buy new goods and services, as we witnessed a few months ago when the government sent out rebate checks. Third, even when individuals purchase goods and services, those purchases tend not to generate as many American jobs as government spending on the same total scale because much of what consumers buy comes from abroad.

Fiscal hawks and conservative supply siders notwithstanding, a major stimulus is in order. Government is the spender of last resort, and the nation is coming close to its last resort.

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism, which is now out in paperback). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry appeared on his blog.

Copyright 2008 Robert B. Reich

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