Originally published November 29, 1982
EVER SINCE the elevation of Paul Volcker to its chairmanship three years ago, I have been one of those nattering about the Federal Reserve Board and the interest rate. Our steady cry has been that the Fed’s policy of trying (vainly) to control the money supply would first send the interest rate through the roof and then bring on a depression. Well, they’ve done it, and they’re not altogether pleased with the result. So now they are pawing at the start of the other course and are straining to bring down the interest rate and bring on prosperity. You might expect me to be happy, but I’m not.
My considered opinion, in which I’m not alone, is that they’re too late. A moment’s reflection will convince you that this opinion has extraordinary implications. If you say that something is too late, you are saying that chronological time is a factor [see footnote]; and if you say that time is a factor, you are saying that you are dealing with history, not with science. So let’s face it: Economics is historical and ethical; it is not an exercise in algebra or analytic geometry. If economics were merely algebraic, and if a high interest rate depressed business (it does), then it would be a simple matter to lower the interest rate and stimulate business. In spite of what commentators say, though, there are no such tradeoffs.
It doesn’t work out that way in real life. It won’t work out that way in our life for at least two reasons: (1) Fourteen million of us (including those who have been out so long they’ve given up looking) are now unemployed, and (2) our industrial plant is running at less than 70 per cent of capacity.
Last month in this space I called attention to our World War II triumph of putting 15 million men and women in uniform and, at the same time, creating 7 million civilian jobs. But I remind you that it took an all-out effort. It took Mr. Win-the-War; Mr. New Deal had been unable, despite almost nine years of devoted endeavor by thousands of good men and women, to do more than make a dent in the mess created by the Harding – Coolidge – Hoover “prosperity.“ (The quotation marks call attention to the fact that at the height of that alleged prosperity almost 60 per cent of American families had annual incomes below the poverty level, then calculated at $2,000.)
I remind you, too, that President Hoover was not quite so feckless as his reputation allows. Not quite. To be sure, he did not believe in the dole. But he did come to believe in public works. Under the Federal Employment Stabilization Act of 1931, he drew up a six-year schedule of Federal projects to stimulate business. In a foretaste of the New Federalism, he urged the states and municipalities to expand their public works. And in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) he anticipated the sort of industrial stimulation now advocated by those Robert Lekachman calls Atari Democrats. In relation to the GNP as it was then, and as it is now, the RFC was bigger than anything recently proposed. Yet things got steadily worse.
The lesson of the experience is that although it is easy to throw people out of work, getting them jobs again is a massive problem. John Maynard Keynes painstakingly explained all this 45 years ago, but many so-called Keynesians have persisted in thinking quick solutions are possible.
The underutilization of existing industrial plant should, of course, have warned the supply-siders (are there any left?) that investment was not the immediate difficulty. Why should I invest in a new or expanded plant when I don’t have enough business to keep my present one occupied? The size of this stumbling block is indicated by the fact that, with nearly a third of the nation’s plant idle, the economy would have to increase by almost 50 per cent simply to do what it is currently capable of doing.
Two years ago interest rates were a manageable factor. If they had even been held down to the usurious rates they have now descended to, the situation, while serious, would not have become as serious as it is. Now it’s too late. The recent fall in rates certainly has had some effect on the statements of profitable firms, and it will no doubt save some marginal businesses from bankruptcy; but it is probable that most still-profitable firms have already, by draconian measures, so reduced their reliance on borrowed money that the effect of the lower rates will be minimal. (The main use for borrowed money today is in takeovers like the Bendix fiasco.)
Consider a company that, before the advent of Volcker’ s form of monetarism, had been accustomed to borrowing $10 million of short-term money. When the prime went to 20 per cent (and higher), its interest costs soared to an unacceptable 2 million. Management did what had to be done: raised prices, abandoned plans for expansion, cut production and inventory, reduced marketing expenses, cracked down on slow accounts, perhaps shifted from FIFO to LIFO accounting, dragged its feet on pay raises-and laid off or fired as many people as it had stomach for.
As a result, the company reduced its need for short-term money from $10 million to $2 million, and in the meantime the prime (partly because other companies drastically reduced their borrowing as well) went from more than 20 per cent to less than 12 per cent. Thus the firm’s interest costs fell from $2 million to $240,000 – and it survived. A further fall in interest rates from 12 per cent to 10 per cent reduces the firm’s costs merely another $40,000, a welcome development but nothing to get excited about – certainly not in the way Wall Street has been excited.
Our little scenario has applications right across the economy; and if you try to put yourself in the shoes of the managers of a company that has been through it, you will understand that they feel pretty smug about surviving and are not at all eager to put themselves in jeopardy again, at least not right away, not with the present people in charge of the banking system. The scenario also explains what must otherwise seem a case of levitation: why so many British companies are improving their earnings in the face of the ravaging of their economy. Since Messrs. Volcker, Ronald Reagan and Donald Regan have learned their lessons at the knee of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, we can expect similar occurrences here.
KEYNES laid all this out in The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. The great message of that great book was that full employment is the only rational meaning of prosperity, and that it doesn’t just happen. The economists under whom Keynes had studied thought that a recession would lead to lower wages, which would make hiring people more profitable to entrepreneurs, which would bring about full employment again. Insofar as Volcker, Reagan and Regan think about people at all, they still think that that’s how it works. But it didn’t work that way in the Great Depression, and it doesn’t work that way now.
As Keynes showed, “the economic system in which we live … seems capable of remaining in a chronic condition of sub-normal activity for a considerable period without any marked tendency either towards recovery or towards complete collapse.” It is, in short, perfectly possible for the economy to crawl indefinitely with (to choose some figures at random) more than 10 per cent of the labor force unemployed and more than 30 per cent of the industrial capacity unused. It is possible, too, that the modest proposals the Atari Democrats have advanced might in time knock as much as a third out of those figures and achieve a modest jog-trot at the lower level. That would be better, but it’s not great, and it is probably the best that can be done by indirect methods in the foreseeable future.
By indirect methods I mean schemes to diddle the taxes in order to promote savings or investment or international trade or sunrise industries or the like. I especially mean schemes to control inflation by keeping the economy cool. By direct methods I would mean those designed to do something for people. I don’t mind if you call me a populist. I hold that our greatest national sins are the unconscionable spreads we allow in incomes and in wealth. We have deliberately’ first under Richard Nixon and at present under Reagan, increased those spreads by the maxitax on earned income, the maxitax on unearned income, the reduction of the capital gains tax, and the emasculation of gift and inheritance taxes. And we now have before us the disgraceful spectacle of a private committee of so-called investment bankers (who make their fortunes arranging wasteful takeovers) spending heavy dollars to propagandize a cut in Social Security benefits and an increase in Social Security taxes.
Until we reverse these trends, the rich will stay as rich as they are, while the poor will grow poorer. If that is not bad enough on its face, no stimulation of the economy could come from consumption. The rich are already consuming as much as they want, and the poor are consuming as much as they can afford. We have surely seen that supply-side stimulation was, as David Stockman admitted, a Trojan Horse to make the rich richer. Even if the motives had been as pure as the driven snow (whose are?), the supply-side ploy was, as a bush-league politician said, voodoo economics.
Simply reversing the errors of the years from Nixon through Reagan, however, will not bring prosperity. Algebraic tradeoffs will at most keep things from getting worse. Nor will the job be done by the tentative public works programs that are being timidly proposed. No, to put 14 million of our fellow citizens to work will require perhaps $100 billion. If we don’t spend $l00 billion to pay our fellow citizens for doing useful work, we’ll have to spend upwards of $30 billion to maintain them in miserable inactivity. Can we find the $70 billion extra we need to do the job? Well, it’s proportionately much less than we accomplished in World War II. So the question is not Can we? but Will we?
The New Leader