Tax Cuts, Roaring Twenties, Farm Prices, Smoot-Hawley Tariff, Stock Market Crash, New Deal, Great Depression and the Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 20th, 2012

History 101

Tax Cuts and the Small Government Policies of Harding and Coolidge gave us the Roaring Twenties

Keynesians blame the long duration of the Great Depression (1929-1939) on the government clinging to the gold standard.  Even renowned monetarist economist Milton Friedman agrees.  Though that’s about the only agreement between Keynesians and Friedman.   Their arguments are that the US could have reduced the length and severity of the Great Depression if they had only abandoned the gold standard.  And adopted Keynesian policies.  Deficit spending.  Just like they did in the Seventies.  The decade where we had both high unemployment and high inflation.  Stagflation.  Something that’s not supposed to happen under Keynesian economics.  So when it did they blamed the oil shocks of the Seventies.  Not their orgy of spending.  Or their high taxes.  And they feel the same way about the Great Depression.

Funny.  How one price shock (oil) can devastate all businesses in the US economy.  So much so that it stalled job creation.  And caused high unemployment.  Despite the government printing and spending money to create jobs.  And to provide government benefits so recipients could use those benefits to stimulate economic activity.  All of that government spending failed to pull the country out of one bad recession.  Because of that one price shock on the cost of doing business.  Yet no one talks about the all out assault on business starting in the Hoover administration that continued and expanded through the Roosevelt administration.

Herbert Hoover may have been a Republican.  But he was no conservative.  He was a big government progressive.  And believed that the federal government should interfere into the free market.  To make things better.  Unlike Warren Harding.  And Calvin Coolidge.  Who believed in a small government, hands-off policy when it came to the economy.  They passed tax cuts.  Following the advice of their treasury secretary.  Andrew Mellon.  Which gave business confidence of what the future would hold.  So they invested.  Expanded production.  And created jobs.  It was these small government policies that gave us the Roaring Twenties.  An economic boom that electrified and modernized the world.  With real economic growth. 

If an Oil Shock can prevent Businesses from Responding to Keynesian Policies then so can FDR’s all out War on Business

The Roaring Twenties was a great time to live if you wanted a job.  And wanted to live in the modern era.  Electric power was spreading across the country.  People had electric appliances in their homes.  Radios.  They went to the movies.  Drove cars.  Flew in airplanes.  The Roaring Twenties was a giant leap forward in the standard of living.  Factories with electric power driving electric motors increased productivity.  And reduced air pollution as they replaced coal-fired steam boilers that up to then powered the Industrial Revolution.  This modernization even made it to the farm.  Farmers borrowed heavily to mechanize their farms.  Allowing them to grow more food than ever.  Bumper crops caused farm prices to fall.  Good for consumers.  But not those farmers who borrowed heavily.

Enter Herbert Hoover.  Who wanted to use the power of government to help the farmers.  By forcing Americans to pay higher food prices.  Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates.  Thinking that a boom in the stock market was from speculation and not the real economic growth of the Twenties.  So they contracted the money supply.  Cooling that real economic growth.  And making it very hard to borrow money.  Causing farmers to default on their loans.  Small rural banks that loaned to these farmers failed.  These bank failures spread to other banks.  Weakening the banking system.  Then came the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Passed in 1930.  But it was causing business uncertainty as early as 1928.  As the Smoot-Hawley Tariff was going to increase tariffs on just about everything by 30%.  Basically adding a 30% tax on the cost of doing business.  That the businesses would, of course, pass on to consumers.  By raising prices.  Because consumers weren’t getting a corresponding 30% pay hike they, of course, could not buy as much after the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Putting a big cramp in sales revenue.  Perhaps even starting an international trade war.  Further cramping sales.  Something investors no doubt took notice of.  Seeing that real economic growth would soon come to a screeching halt.  And when the bill moved through committees in the autumn of 1929 the die was cast.  Investors began the massive selloff on Wall Street.  The Stock Market Crash of 1929.  The so-called starting point of the Great Depression.  Then the Smoot-Hawley Tariff became law.  And the trade war began.  As anticipated.

Of course, the Keynesians ignore this lead up to the Great Depression.  This massive government intrusion into the free market.  And the next president would build on this intrusion into the free market.  Ignoring the success of the small-government and tax cuts of Harding and Coolidge.  As well as ignoring the big-government free-market-intrusion failures of Herbert Hoover.  The New Deal programs of FDR were going to explode government spending to heights never before seen in peace time.  Causing uncertainty like never seen before in the business community.  It was an all out assault on business.  Taxes and regulation that increased the cost of business.  And massive government spending for new benefits and make-work programs.  All paid for by the people who normally create jobs.  Which there wasn’t a lot of during the great Depression.  Thanks to programs like Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, Homeowners Loan Corporation, Tennessee Valley Authority, Agricultural Adjustment Act, National Industrial Recovery Act, Public Works Administration, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Glass–Steagall Act, Securities Act of 1933, Civil Works Administration, Indian Reorganization Act, Social Security Act, Works Progress Administration, National Labor Relations Act, Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, Surplus Commodities Program, Fair Labor Standards Act, Rural Electrification Administration, Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration, etc.  Oil shocks of the Seventies?  If an oil shock can prevent businesses from responding to Keynesian policies then an all out war on business in the Thirties could do the same.  And worse.  Far, far worse.  Which is why the Great Depression lasted 10 years.  Because the government turned what would have been a normal recession into a world-wide calamity.  By trying to interfere with market forces.

Only Real Economic Growth creates Jobs, not Government Programs

The unemployment rate in 1929 was 3.1%.  In 1933 it was 24.9%.  It stayed above 20% until 1936.  Where it fell as low as 14.3% in 1937.  It then went to 19.0%, 17.2% and 14.6% in the next three years.  These numbers stayed horrible throughout the Thirties because the government wouldn’t stop meddling.  Or spending money.  None of the New Deal programs had a significant effect on unemployment.  The New Deal failed to fix the economy the way the New Dealers said it would.  Despite the massive price tag.  So much for super smart government bureaucrats.

What finally pulled us out of the Great Depression?  Adolf Hitler’s conquering of France in 1940.  When American industry received great orders for real economic growth.  From foreign countries.  To build the war material they needed to fight Adolf Hitler.  And the New Deal programs be damned.  There was no time for any more of that nonsense.  So during World War II businesses had a little less uncertainty.  And a backlog of orders.  All the incentive they needed to ramp up American industry.  To make it hum like it once did under Harding and Coolidge.  And they won World War II.  For there was no way Adolf Hitler could match that economic output.  Which made all the difference on the battlefield.

Still there are those who want to blame the gold standard for the Great Depression.  And still support Keynesian policies to tax and spend.  Even today.  Even after 8 years of Ronald Reagan that proved the policies of Harding and Coolidge.  We’re right back to those failed policies of the past.  Massive government spending to stimulate economic activity.  To pull us out of the Great Recession.  And utterly failing.  Where the unemployment rate struggles to get below 9%.  The U-3 unemployment rate, that is.  The rate that doesn’t count everyone who wants full time work.  The rate that counts everyone, the U-6 unemployment rate, currently stands at 14.9%.  Which is above the lowest unemployment rate during the Great Depression.  Proving once again only real economic growth creates jobs.  Not government programs.  No matter how many trillions of dollars the government spends. 

So much for super smart government bureaucrats.

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