Tag Archives: recession

By George P. Brockway, originally published January 13, 1992

1992-1-13 Mister Bush Meet Mister Hoover Title











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 Hoovers. 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.

1992-1-13 Mister Bush Meet Mister Hoover Herbert Hoover

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

By George P. Brockway, originally published October 7, 1991

1991-10-7  The Long and Short of Interest Rates Title

PEOPLE are beginning to growl that recovery from the recession is being delayed by the slow growth of the nation’s money supply, which seems in danger of falling through the bottom (or “lower parameter” if you want to be fancy) of the Federal Reserve Board’s target. The said target is to keep the annual rate of increase between 2.5 and 6.5 per cent.

Now, suppose that the Reserve agrees that the money supply is in danger of falling through its bottom. Resolved to their own selves to be true, they have to increase it. What do they do? The most obvious thing would be to coin some more coins and print some more paper money. But what would they do with it?

You may be sure that they wouldn’t send a packet of the stuff to each of us by Express Mail. Nor would they add to our savings accounts (although they firmly believe we ought to save more).

Instead, the Reserve would make it easier and more profitable for the banks to lend us money. We have some credit, represented by a plastic card that we show to a shoe clerk, who makes a copy of all the numbers, has us sign it, and hands us a pair of shoes. We have spent our credit like money, except we now are in debt to the bank that sent us the card.  Our credit has become money by becoming debt. Businesses create   money in the same way when they take down their line of credit extended by their friendly banker.

This pleasant arrangement expands the money supply, but it is limited in various ways – the chief one being the interest rate, the price banks charge us for the use of money. There are those whose doctrine requires them to pretend that the Federal Reserve Board has no control over interest rates, that they are made in the market, if not in heaven, by an invisible hand, and no mere mortal can do anything about them. More sophisticated observers recognize that the Reserve really and truly does determine short-term interest rates. When the Board sets the Federal Funds rate or the Discount rate, it is setting a rate at which banks can borrow (short term) from each other or from the System. When the Federal Open Market Committee buys or sells bonds, it raises or lowers the price of bonds and consequently is lowering or raising the interest rate. If the Board did not set at least short-term rates in these ways, it would be hard to ascribe any significance to its activities.

Indeed, the fact is that whenever the Reserve fears the money supply will fall through the lower parameter, it lowers the interest rate. It claims to control the money supply, yet all it can actually control is the interest rate.

If that is the case, why doesn’t the Board say so? I regret to have to tell you that it is possessed by doctrines that might have made sense in the days of mercantilism but have nothing to do with a modern capitalist economy.

In the days of mercantilism money was a commodity-gold, silver, sea shells, or some such. Trade was essentially barter. You swapped grain for silver, and then you swapped the silver for candles. At any given time (say, 1492) there was a certain amount of silver in circulation, and other commodities traded at more or less stable prices in terms of silver. Christopher Columbus (whether he discovered America or not) made a historical difference. The European supply of silver multiplied rapidly, while the supplies of other commodities, being agricultural products or custom made goods, expanded slowly, if at all. Some of the increasing supply of silver was swapped for the stagnant supplies of other commodities, whose prices rose.  Hence the notion that prices depend on the money supply.

Although the Federal Reserve Board seems not to have noticed, the modern economy is quite different from that of pre-Industrial Revolution days. As Karl Polyani rather sorrowfully pointed out, goods are now produced for the market, rather than on special order. While occasional shortages are far from impossible, industry is so organized that if a demand for an especially cute T-shirt suddenly develops, the supply can be replenished in a few hours or days. Since the supply of most commodities is now indefinite, if not infinite, the supply of money has no substantial effect on prices.

The way the interest rate is managed does, however, have an effect on prices. Here, again, is a historical change the Reserve has failed to notice. A frequently cited survey, published in the Harvard Business Review in 1939, reported that business people then paid little attention to the interest rate in making their plans. A few years later I was a business planner myself, and I assure you that’s the way it was. After all, the prime rate, held down by an “accord” between the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, was only 1.5 per cent. The accord was annulled in 1951, whereupon the Reserve embarked on its long and still-continuing hunt for the inflation snark, with the result hat today interest is one of the most prominent and most unpredictable costs of doing business.

Here, yet again, is a historical turning – one that has been missed by most mainstream economists but has been forcefully called to the attention of most businesspeople. If you have ever met a payroll, you know that your costs are an inescapable factor of the prices you charge. When your costs go up, so must your   prices, if you propose to stay in business. For 40 years now the Reserve has been idiotically trying to control inflation by inflating the cost of doing business.

In short, the price of money matters. Unhappily, it is widely believed – even by many who agree the Reserve can set short-term rates – that long-term rates are set by the “market” anticipating what the future will bring. Some say that the market anticipates the future rate of inflation; others that the market anticipates the short-term rates the Reserve will set in the future. In the former case, long-term lenders think of themselves as lending purchasing power and want to get their purchasing power back, with interest. In the latter case, long term borrowers guess that borrowing will be more expensive in the future than in the resent because the Reserve will, in its anti-inflation battle, allow (or force) short-term rates to rise.

It will be seen that the customary policies of the Federal Reserve Board work to reinforce both groups. Inflation, of course, is the Board’s panatrophy, and raising the interest rate is the Board’s panacea. What borrowers and lenders anticipate in, the long future is that the Board will continue to pursue the policies it is pursuing today. They may be wrong, just as prophets may be wrong about what the Board will do tomorrow morning. he point is that, regardless of the Federal Reserve Board’s intentions, its actions effectively control the long-term interest rate as well as the short-term rate.

THE SAME POINT may be reached from another direction. Keynes deplored the fact that most professional investors and speculators “are concerned, not with what an investment is really worth to a man who buys it ‘for keeps,’ but with what the market will value it at, under the influence of mass psychology, three months or a year hence.” In the 55 years that have passed since Keynes published this judgment, three months or a year has come to seem an unusually long time to hold an investment.

1991-10-7  The Long and Short of Interest Rates Nicholas Brady

The bond market is a place where people buy and sell bonds in which at least the seller did not intend to invest for keeps. Portfolio managers and professional traders treat long bonds and short bonds alike, and treat both as they treat stocks. They rank them according to their relative safety and relative liquidity and so on; and in that ranking it will happen that some long bonds are judged more liquid than any common stock. (After all, common stocks are “longer” than long bonds because they do not promise to return your money.) In all cases, long-term or short-term, the traders’ question is what the market will bear tomorrow, not what will happen over the next 30 years.

This being so, the long-term interest rate is not a separate problem. Even new bond issues are priced in relation to the current market, and that is priced in relation to short -term interest rates. Therefore, all interest rates respond to the activities of the Federal Reserve Board.

But may not international rates restrain those activities? In response to that question apologists for the present system will surely warn us about a flight from the dollar. We will be reminded that former Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker was tireless in arguing that interest rates had to rise to attract foreign money to finance our budget deficit. Rates had to stay high to keep the foreigners from pulling their money rugs  out from under us. Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady has a similar fear of flying.

Who are the foreigners whose money is so important to us? Everyone knows that mainly they’re the Japanese. That knowledge should give us furiously to think. For the money that lands on our shores takes off from theirs. The flights to the dollar are flights from the yen. Yet their economy has been outperforming ours for the past many years. Have they outperformed us because they sent their money to us? Hardly. But their domestic saving and their currency’s flight had the same cause. Both were the result of their comparatively low interest rates and correspondingly high production (not productivity, but production). It was their expansion of employment and plant and output that made them prosperous.

Don’t let anyone tell you that Japan’s interest rate was so low because Japan’s savings rate was so high. In the first place, you have to produce a lot before you have a lot to save. You can’t save what does not exist. In the second place, Japan’s recent hike in its interest rate was not caused by a fall in savings but by the cold -blooded and wrong-headed decision of its central bank. The increased interest rate will reduce economic activity, and reduced savings will follow as a consequence, not as a cause.

The Federal Reserve Board’s money growth target is irrelevant. The Reserve should set the short-term interest rate at least as low as it did during the 1942-51 accord with the Treasury. The long-term rate conformed then, and it would do so today.

 The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published January 14, 1991

1991-1-14 Our Austerity Recession Title

FINANCIAL EXPERTS are saying that the present recession was caused by consumers failing to consume. The supply side supplied, but the demand side didn’t demand. I’ll go along with that; but I’m dismayed that the supply-siders seem to have learned nothing from the experience.

1991-1-14 Our Austerity Recession Phil Gramm

I have just finished a decennial purging of what I whimsically refer to as my files; they were crowding me off my desk, much as the Federal deficit is said to crowd entrepreneurs out of the credit market. As the clippings and offprints fluttered into my wastebasket, I was struck by the volume and vehemence of those complaining that we Americans consumed too much or didn’t save enough (take your pick).

For 20 or 30 years now, all the respectable bankers (once upon a time every banker was respectable), all the respectable journalists, all the respectable economists have been moaning about how we Americans have been on a consumption binge. (If you want the facts of the matter, ask the Economic Policy Institute, 1730 Rhode Island Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036, for a detailed refutation by Robert A. Blecker.)  Ronald Reagan’s Right-wing revolution was supposed to exalt the supply side over the demand side. There were tax cuts for the rich and tax increases for the poor, because the poor would only waste their money by buying things they needed or maybe wanted, while the rich would invest theirs in Wall Street and make capital gains. Austere elements of the far Left joined in the chorus (of course, for ostensibly different reasons). Consumerism got a bad press wherever you turned. Sometimes it seemed that Ralph Nader was more subversive than the Chamber of Commerce believed him to be.

Among the worthies represented in the clippings I threw out were at least four Nobel laureates, one former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, three former chairmen of the Council of Economic Advisers, six former Secretaries of the Treasury, one former Secretary of Commerce (who seems to have started a new anti-consumption committee every other week), a past chairman of the Committee for Economic  Development, nine officers or staffers of the Brookings Institution, almost everyone who has ever set foot inside the American Enterprise Institute, innumerable other professors and journalists and TV pundits, not to mention Presidents and Senators and Representatives and unsuccessful candidates for those offices. The idea has had its spokesmen in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (where it is known as austerity), as well as in Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Norway, Japan, and Kenya. It has not suffered from lack of publicity.

The present failure of consumers to consume is just what these doctors ordered. Some of the doctors-those who still believe in the efficacy of purging and bloodletting – are no doubt pleased with the resulting recession. A few are puzzled and silent. But most are as noisy as ever.

Many of the respectable economists, I shudder to say, were bashing consumption in the name of Keynes. They seem not to have noticed that he concluded Chapter 6 of The General Theory with these words: “the conception of the propensity to consume will, in what follows, take the place of the propensity or disposition to save.”

Classical economists had long held that consumption was a drag on investment. Back in 1803, Jean-Baptiste Say wrote in words that could be applauded today by Newt Gingrich, “It is the aim of good government to stimulate production, of bad government to encourage consumption.” The reasoning was simple. What is spent on consumption can’t be invested in production. Obviously. Keynes also agreed with the proposition-with one proviso: There has to be full employment. Not 4, 5 or 6 per cent unemployed, but really, truly, full employment. In that case, and in that case only, with the economy running flat out, nothing more can be produced; so whatever labor goes for one thing can’t at the same time go for something else. But with millions of men and women unemployed, it is always possible to increase production by giving them jobs.

What I don’t understand is how the notion that consumption is bad got started. If consumption is bad, then production must be, too. I’m used to writing jeremiads that nobody takes seriously (someday they’ll be sorry), but why should tens or hundreds of thousands of people be expected to band together to make automobiles if nobody is supposed to buy and drive them?

The consumption thing (to use a Presidential locution) is another of those fallacies of composition economists keep perpetrating. An individual who saves his money (even hiding it under the hearth) is more likely to die rich than someone who flings roses riotously with the throng. But if everyone in the land sits home, wasting not and wanting not, the economy runs down, and no one has anything to consume, or to save, either.

The consumption thing is vastly more threatening because the government is doing its best to participate. Look at what Gramm-Rudman-Hollings has done to us. As a result of the budget deal of a couple of months ago, the Federal government is committed to spending 30 or 40 billion dollars less next year than it had planned (conservatively) to spend, and the cuts will be greater in succeeding years. A considerable part of the “savings” will be at the expense of the states and municipalities, all of which are already short of funds because of the recession, and all of which are traumatized by childish and self-defeating taxpayers’ strikes. In order to balance their budgets, the states will have to cut down on their services – and that is simply another way of saying they will have to fire people. School class sizes will rise, and bridges will fall.

Taken as a whole, the government part of the consumption thing means that, one way or another, at least a million people will lose their jobs. Some of the affected will no doubt be those dreadful goldbricking bureaucrats we keep hearing about, but most will be employees of private business – a.k.a. free enterprise – for the government is the private economy’s greatest single market for goods and services. The billions of dollars the private economy will lose because of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings will make the recession both deeper and harder to climb out of.

FACED WITH this dismal prospect, a rational Congress would repeal Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, a rational President would sign the repealer, and together they would embark on a massive public works program. Everyone knows there is plenty to be done and plenty of people to do it. But everyone knows nothing of the sort will happen because of the deficit.

1991-1-14 Our Austerity Recession Warren RudmanSuppose our reaction to Pearl Harbor had been similar. In 1941 the Federal government was running a deficit equal to 4.3 percent of GNP. It jumped to 14.4 per cent in 1942 and to 31.1 per cent in 1943. Thereafter it fell, but remained above 7. 5 percent as late as 1946, and averaged 18 per cent over the six war-time years.

In contrast, consider the current deficit and its steadily rising estimates. Last February the Economic Report of the President presented figures predicting a deficit of 1.1 per cent of GNP, while according to the latest estimate of the Congressional Budget Office, the deficit will be at least 5.4 per cent of GNP.

Had we taken deficits in this range as cause for inaction in 1941, we would have run up the white flag no later than December 11, when Germany declared war on us. And we would have  spent the succeeding 39 years studying Japanese and German industrial management from the ground up.

It is no answer to say that there was a war on. Indeed there was, and we came out of it with total Federal indebtedness equal to 127.3 per cent of GNP – more than double today’s comparable figure. Yet when the War was over we set about rehabilitating Europe and ultimately did so with the Marshall Plan, at a cost to us, in 1990 dollars, in excess of $250 billion (see “Don’t Cash Your Peace Dividend,” NL, March 19, 1990).

Did we ruin ourselves by this profligacy? Hardly. It was not until 1975 – almost 30 years later – that the unemployment rate became as high as it is today. Aside from the flash inflation caused by precipitate lifting of price controls (over Harry Truman’s veto), it was not until 1974 that the Consumer Price Index rose at its present rate. Furthermore, after-tax profits as a percentage of GNP were higher than today’s in every postwar year except three Nixon-Ford years (1974, 1975and 1976) before Jimmy Carter appointed Paul A. Volcker chairman of the Federal Reserve Board in 1979.

Since then our mirror has cracked from side to side, and the curse of inaction has come upon us. That is what the record of unemployment, of inflation and of after-tax profits shows. It won’t do to point a finger at OPEC (see What Happened to Jimmy Carter,” NL, November 27, 1989). Some blame falls upon us for what we did because of OPEC that is, nothing much (and as I write we threaten to go to war in its defense). But the major blame falls upon us for casually and stupidly embracing the fallacy that a nation can save itself into a healthful economy.

If we could disabuse ourselves of this fallacy, the current recession would not last long, and the subsequent prosperity would show up the alleged prosperity of the past decade for the pallid fraud that it was. Unfortunately, those who urged the fallacy upon us continue to push it; we continue to follow them; and as a result the recession will be deeper and longer than necessary.

 The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published October 1, 1990

1990-10-1 What Color is Your Recession Title

EVERYBODY SEEMS to have a theory about the when or what or how of a recession. The official or customary theory (I’m not sure what office decrees the custom) is that you have a recession if you have two back-to-back quarters of falling real GNP. Some journalists, apparently trying to avoid monotony, say you need to have six months of falling real GNP-which is a little bit harder to do. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan has a different approach. A business downturn has to feed on itself for him to call it a recession.

1990-10-1 What Color is Your Recession Greenspan

Before Greenspan will sit up and pay attention, inventories have to rise, causing orders for more goods to fall, causing workers who might make more goods to be fired, causing stores that might have sold goods to those ex-workers to lose business, causing them to cancel orders from their suppliers, causing more factory closings, and so on and on and on. The trouble with this is that if such a self-cannibalistic process should get started, Greenspan is not likely to be able to do much about it. The Federal Reserve Board was not conspicuously effective when it realized (some months after the event) that the Great Depression was upon us. Anyway, Milton Friedman, the monetary guru, says it takes two years for monetary policies to take effect.

In short, most economists feel they have done their job if they just say No to recession. But whether what we are now going through is a recession or not, it seems like one to honest proprietors of S&Ls (there used to be many), to automobile dealers, to building contractors, to all the earnest Willy Lomans desperately trying to meet their Christmas-line quotas, and to all their regular customers trying desperately to emulate the Japanese and place their orders “just in time.”

My poet friend has what she calls the Taxicab Theory. As late as the middle of August, she says, you could not get a cab in New York even if there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It took a half hour or more to sweat out the line at the Vanderbilt Avenue side of Grand Central. Now, she points out, you can get a cab anywhere, rain or shine, night or day. She concludes that if people don’t have money for taxis, we are in a recession. “If you don’t believe me,” she says, “you can ask the cabbies. They’ll tell you.”

No doubt there are other recession theories. What difference do the different theories make?  Suppose all those who are saying we’re in a recession, whatever their degree of technical sophistication, are right. So what? To be able to refer to “The Recession of1990-91” will no doubt be convenient for future historians, but how does it butter our parsnips today?

The answer, of course, is that if somehow someone could convince the Federal Reserve Board that we are in a recession, they might bring themselves to do something about it. And (this is what Samuel Johnson would call the triumph of hope over experience) they might even do the right thing. That’s why Chairman

Greenspan’s definition of a recession is so ominous. If, as he says, a recession is a disaster feeding on itself, there is not much that the monetary authorities can do; and if we are not in a recession, there is no need to do anything. His formulation is an ideal excuse for inaction.

Rather, it is an excuse for no change of action, for what former Chairman Paul A. Volcker liked to call “staying the course.” He was probably brought up (like me) on Iron Men and Wooden Ships and Howard Pyle’s Book of the American Spirit; so he couldn’t help it if others of our generation had visions of him as David Farragut standing in the rigging, shouting, “Damn the torpedoes! Captain Drayton, go ahead!” or as Ulysses S. Grant, lounging on a rough bench during the Wilderness campaign, calmly proposing to “fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”

The “two quarters” approach to recession is only slightly less lethargic than Greenspan’s. According to this view, the last recession ended in 1982. It follows that we have had prosperity ever since-in fact, we are told, the longest sustained prosperity in our history. Thus the definition of recession is also important because when you say what you mean by recession, you ipso facto reveal what you mean by prosperity. The meaning of bad times implies the meaning of good times. How good are the good times we have been enjoying from the end of 1982 to the present? Let me count the ways. The national debt has increased from $1.137 trillion in 1982 to $3.319 trillion today. The annual trade deficit has gone from $7 billion in 1982 to $136.5 billion today (with two higher years in between). The nation’s atomic plants have so deteriorated that it will cost $200 billion to repair them. Likewise, at a similar cost, the interstate highway system. The United States of America, the world’s largest creditor nation at the start of the period, is now the world’s largest debtor nation.

To be sure, we have been staying the course in order to conquer inflation. So what has happened? The Consumer Index has risen 34.7 per cent. Perhaps you are politically inclined and want to compare these eight Reagan-Bush years with the eight Kennedy-Johnson years. During the latter (which included the Vietnam War), the CPI went up only 22.7 per cent.

The foregoing is not the worst that can be said of our allegedly prosperous era. The worst is what was done to people directly.

In the years since 1982, the number of our unemployed fellow citizens has never fallen below 6.5 million and has generally been much higher. The number of those too discouraged or demoralized to look for work has hovered around 1 million. The number of those working part time has not fallen below 35 million. The number of men, women and children living in poverty has not fallen below 31.5 million. The number of the homeless can only be guessed at. Our infant mortality rate has become the worst of any industrialized nation. We have the most expensive and the least satisfactory medical care system. And the gap between the rich and the poor has steadily widened, reaching its widest in the figures just released by the Census Bureau.

I submit that the economy sketchily described above is not prosperous. Nor is it “fundamentally sound,” although that meaningless phrase will be trotted out if anything more goes wrong. Certainly the current state of affairs is not so wonderful that it justifies “staying the course.” Every sane citizen must want America to do better. Therefore the customary definition of recession and the Greenspan definition are both mischievously misleading.

We want to be alerted to any weakness in our society, and we want especially to be alerted to faltering in our striving to build and maintain a fair and free economy. We don’t have an economy simply to put chickens in our pots and automobiles in our garages. Communism in the Western world has collapsed because its objectives narrowed to just such trivia. When capitalism judges itself on the basis of its GNP, it risks succumbing to the same fate.

We have economics so that we all can be free and responsible providers of our own sustenance, thinkers of our own thoughts, and definers of our own relationships with our fellows. By “all” I mean all. We have come a long way, and obviously we have a long way to go.

HOW CAN WE measure our progress more precisely? We now have two statistical series that will serve at least for the time being. The first gives us the number and percentage of families living in poverty.

To no one’s surprise, the proper way of determining poverty is in dispute. On one side are those who say that the reported numbers of the poor are too high because the definition of poverty is limited to cash income only and excludes the value of public housing, food stamps, Medicaid, and so on.

On the other side are those who say that the reported numbers are too low because the definition of poverty is based on an estimate of the cost of necessary food, which is assumed to be one-third of the minimum budget. It is argued the estimate of the cost of necessary food is too low, and that other essential expenditures come to more than double the cost of food.

We may eventually reach that happy day when we have reduced the number of poor to the point where it is vital to settle this dispute. In the meantime our performance is so disgraceful that almost any definition of poverty will serve to mark our progress (or lack thereof) from year to year. Whether the number is 31 million or 16 million or 40 million, it is shameful and should spur decent people to action.

The other relevant statistical series shows the share of the national income that goes to the different quintiles or deciles of the population. Again there are disputes over details, and again the trend is a good-enough measure for now. Surprisingly, many people (among them Friedrich Engels) have fretted that perfect equality is either impossible or bad or both, but they really need not worry.

The two statistical series-the number or percentage of fellow citizens living in poverty, and the distribution of the national income-are both socially revealing and economically crucial. A free economy not only produces goods, it consumes them. If significant numbers of the citizens are unable-for whatever reason-to produce goods, the economy is weakened. If significant numbers are unable-for whatever reason-to consume what is or might be produced, the economy is weakened. The supply side must be balanced by the demand side, or the whole thing grinds to a halt.

The grinding to a halt is very like Greenspan’s self-cannibalism. It is not quite so bloodthirsty, but it is no less deadly. Real GNP may be increasing from quarter to quarter, yet increasing numbers of men, women and children are excluded. It may take decades or centuries, but the resulting stagnation and rot could destroy the society (see The Evils of Economic Man,” NL, July 9- 23).

We are not fated to destroy ourselves. To avoid destruction, however, we must first understand what can go wrong what is going wrong. The current popular tests of recession hinder-they do not help-our understanding.

 The New Leader

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