A Crisis of Understanding

Dr4024_thumb3Robert Shiller in Project Syndicate:

Few economists predicted the current economic crisis, and there is little agreement among them about its ultimate causes. So, not surprisingly, economists are not in a good position to forecast how quickly it will end, either.

Of course, we all know the proximate causes of an economic crisis: people are not spending, because their incomes have fallen, their jobs are insecure, or both. But we can take it a step further back: people’s income is lower and their jobs are insecure because they were not spending a short time ago – and so on, backwards in time, in a repeating feedback loop.

It is a vicious circle, but where and why did it start? Why did it worsen? What will reverse it? It is to these questions that economists have been unable to offer clear answers.

The state of economic knowledge was just as bad in the Great Depression that followed the 1929 stock market crash. Economists did not predict that event, either. In the 1920’s, some warned about an overpriced stock market, but they did not predict a decade-long depression affecting the entire economy.

Late in the Great Depression, in August 1938, an article by Ralph M. Blagden in The Christian Science Monitor reported an informal set of interviews with US “professors, banking experts, union leaders, and representatives of business associations and political factions,” all of whom were given the same question: “What causes recessions?” The multiplicity of answers seemed bewildering, and did not inspire confidence that anyone knew what was causing the deepest crisis of capitalism.

The causes given were “distributed widely among government, labor, industry, international politics and policies.” They included misguided government interference with markets, high income and capital gains taxes, mistaken monetary policy, pressures towards high wages, monopoly, overstocked inventories, uncertainty caused by the reorganization plan for the Supreme Court, rearmament in Europe and fear of war, government encouragement of labor disputes, a savings glut because of population shrinkage, the passing of the frontier, and easy credit before the depression.