Friday, December 23, 2011

Drive-by column shows aversion to homework

In his "Friday catch-all" column today, Tim features a cartoon from 1878 that the contributor says is "talking about stimulus funds and is accurate for our times today." Tim buys the line wholesale, since it fit so nicely with his own ideas about today's economic challenges. Had he done a little homework, he might have got a fresh perspective, as well as a warning that his line of thinking has failed repeatedly and spectacularly in the past.

     The cartoon was published near the end of what was known until 1932 as the Great Depression (now the Long Depression), a currency and banking crisis that raised unemployment in this country above 14%, beginning as the Panic of '73 and lasting into '79. In Europe, where it began with a currency pinch designed to raise interest rates, it lasted for 20 years and set the economic stage for WWI.
     Here it began with market manipulation: demonetization of silver in favor of gold. The opening of the West had led to large discoveries of silver, particularly in Nevada, destabilizing prices and leading to a crisis of confidence in it as currency. The panic spread to the markets through the previous decade's overbuilding of railroads, leading to a crash in railroad stocks and thousands of corporate bankruptcies, a stock bubble not unlike the housing bubble we've just experienced.
      As a result the Republicans, in power since the Civil War, were turned out nationwide starting with the elections of 1874. The cartoon seems to refer to the debate over the Bland-Allison Act of '78, which restored silver as legal domestic coinage and directed the government to buy silver, and the broad class of government actions considered inflationary, ringing out the ancestors of the alarms the deficit weenies are tying us to the tracks with today.
     There was no large-scale stimulus support for the economy of the kind we know today. That was invented during the 1930s and codified in the Keynesian Revolution. The depression ended here earlier than in Europe primarily because of another unforeseen event, the great wave of European immigration starting in '79.
     So the editor, trying to defend the neoclassical economic theory popular in the 19th century, uses an example from one of its great stumbles. If there's a lesson to be drawn from this cartoon, Tim, it's that the Right continues to employ long-discredited arguments and theories and turn a blind eye to their spectacular failures.

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