By George P. Brockway, originally published January 13, 1992
Mister Herbert Hoover
Says that now’s the time to buy;
So let’s have another cup o’ coffee
And let’s have another piece o’pie
THE ABOVE text for today’s lesson was composed (words and music) by that universal philosopher of the American way of life, Irving Berlin. The song was the high point (or perhaps more accurately, the sardonic point) of Face the Music, a Broadway hit of 1932- just 15 presidential terms ago.
It all came back to me as I gazed in wonder at the TV coverage of President Bush‘s Thanksgiving demonstration of the propensity to consume, during which he showed how to buy four pair of sweat socks for $8.00. I suppose the President’s handlers meant the sweat socks worn by some working stiffs inside metal-toed boots and by all preppies while jogging or playing racquet ball-to remind us that the President is a regular guy as well as a consumer doing his part to get the economy going again. But it reminded those who didn’t laugh at the spectacle that Mr. George Bush’s economic policies have a lot in common with Mr. Herbert Hoover‘s. That is to say, he has practically no policies at all.
Not only are President Hoover’s and President Bush’s policies similar, but so are their depressions (and ours). For what we are now mired in is something quite different from the half dozen or so recessions we have gone through since World War II.
Economists persist in calling our present experience a recession, and they are puzzled by its failure to perform like the others. Even the fact that business is bad puzzles them, because the “indicators” they take seriously have not been ominous. Their biggest worry has been that inventories might get out of hand. “The current downturn is expected to be short and shallow,” wrote the Council of Economic Advisers a year ago.
“Most firms have kept inventories low relative to sales, reducing the need for a sharp cut in production to work off excess inventories. Such inventory corrections accounted for much of the decline in output in earlier postwar recessions.”
The smallest mom-and-pop novelty store today boasts a computer at the cash register that scans bar codes, not simply to generate sales slips but also to indicate when and how much to reorder. At the other end of the spectrum, most manufacturers have long since learned how to order “just in time.“ Inventories have been lean and clean for several years now; yet the downturn came, and it refuses to go away.
S. Jay Levy and David A. Levy, respectively chairman and vice chairman of the Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, have a simple yet comprehensive explanation: This downturn is not a recession at all, it is a depression. To be sure, it is a new sort of depression. They call it a “contained depression.“ Because Mr. Bush’s depression is “contained,” it is not likely to be so deep as Mr. Hoover’s, but it may well last as long, or even longer.
To the Levy’s, a depression is not, as it is in ordinary speech, merely a very severe recession. They agree with the majority of other economists that a recession is essentially an inventory glut, which comes about in a quasi-natural fashion in the modern economy. In the ancient and medieval worlds, most nonagricultural goods were made to order. If you wanted a pair of boots, you didn’t go to a store
And buy them off a shelf, the way Oliver North picked up revolutions. You went to a cordwainer, who would run up a pair to fit your last. In such a system there might be a glut of agricultural produce (though there seldom was), but manufactured goods were never oversupplied.
In addition, of course, few economies of scale were available; production was slow, expensive and weak. In the modern world, where most production is for sale, not for use, economies of scale are everywhere, and output is exponentially increased, as Adam Smith showed with the manufacture of pins.
But time is necessarily introduced between the start of production of goods for sale and the purchase and use of those goods by the eventual consumer. In that time, many things can go wrong (and some can go surprisingly well), because the future is unknowable.
Among the things that can go wrong is an inventory glut. This starts slowly, as optimistic producers expand output to take advantage of economies of scale. Stepped-up orders gradually push manufacturers to capacity, heighten competition for time on the machines, and result in ever larger orders (see “What Happened to Jimmy Carter,” NL, November 27, 1989, for the way this “defensive buying” works). The increases in plant utilization naturally require increases in employment. Newly employed workers have new money to spend and encourage greater production.
At this point, manufacturers are likely to seize the opportunity to raise prices, thus depressing demand. Banks will see inflation and raise the interest rate, thus intensifying the inflation, further depressing demand, and perhaps throwing he cycle into reverse. Even without inflation an inventory glut will develop, for our irrational income distribution and usurious interest rates guarantee that workers cannot earn enough to buy what they produce.
Manufacturers participate in the buildup in self-defense as well as in search of profit. Those that don’t participate find themselves squeezed out by their more aggressive competitors. In any case, the buildup is necessarily blind and eventually overleaps itself, whereupon it recedes by stumbling down the up staircase.
According to the Levy’s, a depression, like a recession, is cyclical, and proceeds in a similar manner. It is a capital goods glut, however, rather than an inventory glut. Since capital goods typically are expensive and take a long time to produce, more money is tied up in them, and the tie up lasts longer. The Levy’s argue that what we have now is a depression. Factories, warehouses, office buildings, stores, motels, apartment buildings – all are overbuilt. The banks and insurance companies and pension funds that financed the construction are in trouble – unless they have already failed.
NOW, FASHIONABLE commentators say our problem is that we no longer compete successfully in the world market, partly because our interest rates are too high (they still are), and partly because, all of a sudden, our educational system has fallen apart. Michael Boskin, chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, testified the other day that we spend more on elementary and secondary education than any other industrialized country, except maybe Switzerland, and that our kids still perform toward the bottom. That sounds enough like the state of our medical services to be true; but if true, it is clear that we will not be able to correct the situation in the present century. In the unlikely case that Mr. Bush’s scheme of making schools compete for students were to be immediately successful, it would take 12 years for the full effects to be realized and then there would still be the problem of the colleges and graduate schools.
I’m not opposed to doing something about education (though I am opposed to Mr. Bush’s scheme), but it won’t make us internationally competitive overnight. As I have said before (“The Productivity Scam,” NL, May 28, 1984), I don’t take seriously the underlying notion of productivity. More to the point, the United States of America is not the only nation that is smothered in overcapacity. Every industrialized and partially industrialized country in the world is, too. Plants everywhere are standing idle because plants everywhere are capable of choking us to death with steel, automobiles, TVs, cameras, toaster ovens, and sweat socks. Indeed, they are already choking us with them.
This worldwide overcapacity means that there is no quick solution to our depression. Nevertheless, our depression will, as the Levy’s put it, be contained. In the United States, banks fail and will fail, but there will be no runs on them, as there were in the Great Depression, because the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation exists. Businesses as remarkable as Pan Am will fail, but there will be no panic selling of assets, because big government will, budget agreement or no, prevent a free fall.
In Mr. Hoover’s day, the government accounted for less than 3 per cent of GNP; in Mr. Bush’s, it accounts for almost 25 per cent. Mr. Bush thinks his 25 per cent too much (as Mr. Hoover thought his 3 per cent), but it is our true safety net. With that high percentage of GNP assured, plus its multiplier effect on the rest of the economy, we will not drop to the lowest depths.
On the other hand, we may be truly depressed for years or decades to come. The glut of capital goods that caused the Great Depression was not absorbed until World War II. There is no reason to expect our present glut to be more tractable. The American oversupply is probably greater now than it was then, and the worldwide oversupply is certainly greater.
Yet I detect a glimmer of hope. Today the richest 1percent of American families have as much income as the poorest 40 per cent. That’s outrageous. But in 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, the richest 0.1 per cent had as much as the bottom 41 percent. We are, in a manner of speaking, 10 times better off now. The way to put the oversupply of capital goods to use is to draw the bottom two-fifths of us into full participation in the economy. That will not be easy, especially since we have, for the past 15 years, been going hell-bent in the opposite direction. The tentative appeals to “fairness” that the Congressional Democrats made in the budget debate are only a faint promise of a beginning, as are some proposals now coming before the Joint Committee on Taxation. Yet all are opposed by Mr. Bush and his men.
In another column I’ll try to suggest some specific things to do about our predicament. In the meantime, be sure you have plenty of sweat socks.
The New Leader