The Harding recovery of 1921

From The Mises Institute: “The Forgotten Depression of 1920” by Tom Woods. At the height of the GFC in 2009 as public sector spending to cure the recession was moving into high gear, he wrote:

Little, if any, public mention is ever made of the depression of 1920–1921. And no wonder — that historical experience deflates the ambitions of those who promise us political solutions to the real imbalances at the heart of economic busts.

So what did Harding do, and how did it all work out?

The conventional wisdom holds that in the absence of government countercyclical policy, whether fiscal or monetary (or both), we cannot expect economic recovery — at least, not without an intolerably long delay. Yet the very opposite policies were followed during the depression of 1920–1921, and recovery was in fact not long in coming.

The economic situation in 1920 was grim. By that year unemployment had jumped from 4 percent to nearly 12 percent, and GNP declined 17 percent. No wonder, then, that Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover — falsely characterized as a supporter of laissez-faire economics — urged President Harding to consider an array of interventions to turn the economy around. Hoover was ignored.

Instead of “fiscal stimulus,” Harding cut the government’s budget nearly in half between 1920 and 1922. The rest of Harding’s approach was equally laissez-faire. Tax rates were slashed for all income groups. The national debt was reduced by one-third.

According to economist Benjamin Anderson quoted by Wood, a name you will not know, but an active anti-Keynesian from the 1940s:

“In 1920–21,” writes Anderson, “we took our losses, we readjusted our financial structure, we endured our depression, and in August 1921 we started up again.… The rally in business production and employment that started in August 1921 was soundly based on a drastic cleaning up of credit weakness, a drastic reduction in the costs of production, and on the free play of private enterprise. It was not based on governmental policy designed to make business good.”

Harding had done what he said he would do. More from Tom Woods:

In his 1920 speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination, Harding declared,

We will attempt intelligent and courageous deflation, and strike at government borrowing which enlarges the evil, and we will attack high cost of government with every energy and facility which attend Republican capacity. We promise that relief which will attend the halting of waste and extravagance, and the renewal of the practice of public economy, not alone because it will relieve tax burdens but because it will be an example to stimulate thrift and economy in private life.

Let us call to all the people for thrift and economy, for denial and sacrifice if need be, for a nationwide drive against extravagance and luxury, to a recommittal to simplicity of living, to that prudent and normal plan of life which is the health of the republic. There hasn’t been a recovery from the waste and abnormalities of war since the story of mankind was first written, except through work and saving, through industry and denial, while needless spending and heedless extravagance have marked every decay in the history of nations.

Wood goes on:

Many modern economists who have studied the depression of 1920–1921 have been unable to explain how the recovery could have been so swift and sweeping even though the federal government and the Federal Reserve refrained from employing any of the macroeconomic tools — public works spending, government deficits, and inflationary monetary policy — that conventional wisdom now recommends as the solution to economic slowdowns. The Keynesian economist Robert A. Gordon admitted that “government policy to moderate the depression and speed recovery was minimal. The Federal Reserve authorities were largely passive.… Despite the absence of a stimulative government policy, however, recovery was not long delayed.”

Australia, by the way, did the same with the same result in the 1930s. Who remembers? Unless it’s true in theory it can never have been true in practice.

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