Sunday, November 30, 2008

Shlaes and Krugman debate Great Depression

It looks like a debate between two economists has heated up over the effectiveness of the New Deal during the Great Depression. Paul Krugman has accused Amity Shlaes of referencing "misleading data" in her book The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.

Amity Shlaes responds to Krugman's accusation and discussion the Great Depression and President-Elect Obama's economic policies in a column titled The Krugman Recipe for Depression: Massive government spending is no solution to unemployment
.....Mr. Krugman has mentioned me by name. He recently said that I am the one "whose misleading statistics have been widely disseminated on the right."

Mr. Krugman is a new Nobel Laureate, teaches at Princeton University and writes a column for a nationally prominent newspaper. So what he says is believed to be objective by many people, even when it isn't. But the larger reason we should care about the 1930s employment record is that the cure Roosevelt offered, the New Deal, is on everyone else's mind as well. In a recent "60 Minutes" interview, President-elect Barack Obama said, "keep in mind that 1932, 1933, the unemployment rate was 25%, inching up to 30%."

The New Deal is Mr. Obama's context for the giant infrastructure plan his new team is developing. If he proposes FDR-style recovery programs, then it is useful to establish whether those original programs actually brought recovery. The answer is, they didn't. New Deal spending provided jobs but did not get the country back to where it was before.

This reality shows most clearly in the data -- everyone's data. During the Depression the federal government did not survey unemployment routinely as it does today. But a young economist named Stanley Lebergott helped the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington compile systematic unemployment data for that key period. He counted up what he called "regular work" such as a job as a school teacher or a job in the private sector. He intentionally did not include temporary jobs in emergency programs -- because to count a short-term, make-work project as a real job was to mask the anxiety of one who really didn't have regular work with long-term prospects.

The result is what we today call the Lebergott/Bureau of Labor Statistics series. They show one man in four was unemployed when Roosevelt took office. They show joblessness overall always above the 14% line from 1931 to 1940. Six years into the New Deal and its programs to create jobs or help organized labor, two in 10 men were unemployed. Mr. Lebergott went on to become one of America's premier economic historians at Wesleyan University. His data are what I cite. So do others, including our president-elect in the "60 Minutes" interview.
The column is worth reading in its entirety because debates such as this once between Krugman and Shlaes are certain to reappear often in the coming months, as debate over Obama's "New, New Deal" begin.

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