James Grant Explains ‘The Forgotten Depression’

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Mr. Grant confronts the subjectivity of economic measurement head-on in his book in an enlightening discussion of whether the 1921 depression was, in fact, a depression at all.

The Forgotten Depression: 1921 — The Crash That Cured Itself, by James Grant, Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Joseph Calandro Jr. writes: To better understand the current economic environment, financial analyst, historian, journalist, and value investor James forgottendepressionGrant, who is informed by both Austrian economics and the value investing theory of the late Benjamin Graham, analyzes the Depression of 1920–1921 in his latest work, The Forgotten Depression: 1921 — The Crash That Cured Itself.

[Order James Grant’s book “The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself from Amazon.com]

Grant understands that despite the pseudo-natural science veneer of mainstream economics the fact remains that economic value is inherently subjective and thus economic measurement is also subjective. Mr. Grant confronts the subjectivity of economic measurement head-on in his book in an enlightening discussion of whether the 1921 depression was, in fact, a depression at all.

Was It a Depression?

Grant concludes it was a depression, but mainstream economist Christine Romer, for example, concludes it was not a depression. As Grant observes, Ms. “Romer, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, presented her research, titled ‘World War I and the Postwar Depression,’ in a 1988 essay in the Journal of Monetary EconomicsThe case she made for discarding one set of GNP estimates for another is highly technical. But the lay reader may be struck by the fact that neither the GNP data she rejected, nor the ones she preferred, were compiled in the moment. Rather, each set was constructed some 30 to 40 years after the events it was intended to document” (p. 68).

In contrast, Mr. Grant surveys economic activity as it existed prior to and during 1920–21 and as it was evaluated during those times. Therefore, five pages into chapter 5 of his book, which is titled “A Depression in Fact,” we read that:

A 1920 recession turned into a 1921 depression, according to [Wesley Clair] Mitchell, whose judgment, as a historian, business-cycle theorist and contemporary observer, is probably as reliable as anyone’s. This was no mere American dislocation but a global depression ensnaring nearly all the former Allied Powers (the defeated Central Powers suffered a slump of their own in 1919). “Though the boom of 1919, the crisis of 1920 and the depression of 1921 followed the patterns of earlier cycles,” wrote Mitchell, “we have seen how much this cycle was influenced by economic conditions resulting from the war and its sudden ending. … If American business men were betrayed by postwar demands into unwise courses, so were all business men in all countries similarly situated.”

So depression it was … (p. 71)

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Interestingly, there are a variety of similarities between “The Forgotten Depression” of 1921 and “The Great Recession” of 2007–2008. For example:

  • War finance (the currency debasement and credit expansion associated with funding war) has long been associated with economic distortion including World War I, which preceded “The Forgotten Depression.” Such distortions unfortunately continue to the present day.
  • Scandal is also associated with booms and busts; for example, the boom preceding “The Forgotten Depression” had Charles Ponzi while the boom preceding “The Great Recession” had Bernie Madoff.
  • The booms preceding both financial disruptions also saw governmental banking regulators not doing a very good job of regulating the banks under their supervision.
  • Citibank famously fell under significant distress in both events.
  • Both eras had former professors of Princeton University in high-ranking governmental positions: Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States at the beginning of “The Forgotten Depression” while Ben Bernanke was chairman of the Fed during “The Great Recession.”
  • On the practitioner-side, value investor Benjamin Graham profited handsomely from the distressed investments that he made during “The Forgotten Depression” while his best known student, Warren Buffett, profited from the distressed investments that he made during “The Great Recession.”

The Crash That Cured Itself

Despite similarities, there are noteworthy differences between these two financial events. Foremost among the differences is the reason why “The Forgotten Depression” has, in fact, been forgotten: the government did nothing to stop it. Not only were interest rates not lowered and public money not spent, but interest rates were actually raised and debt paid down. The context behind these actions is fascinating and superbly told and analyzed by Mr. Grant. Read the rest of this entry »


The Socialist Economics of Italian Fascism

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If classical liberalism spells individualism, Fascism spells government. Sound familiar? 

Lawrence K. Samuels writes: The economics of Italian Fascism is often ignored or trivialized because so much of it is found in today’s world economies. Consider some of the components of fascist economics: central planning, heavy state subsidies, protectionism (high tariffs), steep levels of nationalization, rampant cronyism, large deficits, high government spending, bank and industry bailouts, overlapping bureaucracy, massive social welfare programs, crushing national debt, bouts of inflation and “a highly regulated, multiclass, integrated national economic structure.”1

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“The Fascist conception of life accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with the State…Fascism reasserts the rights of the state. If classical liberalism spells individualism, Fascism spells government.”

— Benito Mussolini, from “Doctrine of Fascism

On numerous occasions, Benito Mussolini identified his economic policies with “state capitalism”—the exact phrase that Vladimir Lenin used to usher in his New Economic Policy (NEP). Lenin wrote: “State capitalism would be a step forward as compared with the present state of affairs in our liberal-fascismSoviet Republic.”2 After Russia’s economy collapsed in 1921, Lenin allowed privatization and private initiative, and he let the people trade, buy and sell for private profit.3 Lenin was moving towards a mixed economy.

[Order Jonah Goldberg’s book “Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning”  from Amazon]

He even demanded that state-owned companies operate on profit/loss principles.4Lenin acknowledged that he had to back away from total socialism and allow some capitalism.

 “In his 1928 autobiography, Mussolini made clear his dislike for liberal capitalism: ‘The citizen in the Fascist State is no longer a selfish individual who has the anti-social right of rebelling against any law of the Collectivity.’”

Mussolini followed Lenin’s example and proceeded to establish a state-driven economic model in Italy. In essence, Mussolini’s fascism was simply an imitation of Lenin’s “third way,” which combined market-based mechanisms and socialism—similar to Red China’s “market socialism.” In short, Lenin’s revised Marxism culminated in “socialist-lite” policies that helped inspire Mussolini to craft his own Italian-style fascism with a right-wing socialist twist. Thus, one could argue that Lenin’s politics were the first modern-day version of fascism and state-corporatism.

01 Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini during Hitler's 1938 state visit to Italy

“As the effects of the Great Depression lingered, Italy’s government promoted mergers and acquisitions, bailed out failing businesses and ‘seized the stock holdings of banks, which held large equity interests.’ The Italian state took over bankrupt corporations, cartelized business, increased government spending, expanded the money supply, and boosted deficits. The Italian government promoted heavy industry by ‘nationalizing it instead of letting the companies go bankrupt.”

Economist Ludwig von Mises, who fled the Nazi conquest of Europe, contended that the “economic program of Italian Fascism did not differ from the program of British Guild Socialism as propagated by the most eminent British and European socialists.”5,6

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“The Fascist conception of life accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with the State…Fascism reasserts the rights of the state. If classical liberalism spells individualism, Fascism spells government.”

— Benito Mussolini

In The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, Sheldon Richman succinctly states: “As an economic system, fascism is socialism with a capitalist 36b25ade-47bd-11e1-9a92-00144feabdc0.imgveneer.”7 He contends that socialism seeks to abolish capitalism outright, while fascism gives the appearance of a market-based economy, even though it relies heavily on the central planning of all economic activities. According to authors Roland Sarti and Rosario Romeo, “[U]nder Fascism the state had more latitude for control of the economy than any other nation at the time except for the Soviet Union.”8

[Read the full text here, at Library of Economic Liberty]

Interestingly, Mussolini found much of John Maynard Keynes’s economic theories consistent with fascism, writing: “Fascism entirely agrees with Mr. Maynard Keynes, despite the latter’s prominent position as a Liberal. In fact, Mr. Keynes’ excellent little book, The End of Laissez-Faire (1926) might, so far as it goes, serve as a useful introduction to fascist economics. There is scarcely anything to object to in it and there is much to applaud.”9

After the worldwide Great Depression, Mussolini became more vocal in his claims that fascism explicitly rejected the capitalist elements of economic individualism and laissez-faire liberalism.10 In his “Doctrine of Fascism,” Mussolini wrote: “The Fascist conception of life accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with the State…Fascism reasserts the rights of the state. If classical liberalism spells individualism, Fascism spells government.” In his 1928 autobiography, Mussolini made clear his dislike for liberal capitalism: “The citizen in the Fascist State is no longer a selfish individual who has the anti-social right of rebelling against any law of the Collectivity.”11 Read the rest of this entry »


James Pethokoukis: How Crony Capitalism is Slowing Global Economic Growth

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 writes: US productivity growth, at least as measured, has been in low gear for a decade. And especially so since the Great Recession, averaging just 0.6% annually from 2010 through 2014. We’re aren’t going to consistently hit 3% GDP growth, much less 4%, like that.

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Then again, productivity growth has slowed in most OECD countries over the past decade. A new OECD research note doesn’t think the problem is a lack of innovation, so much as an inability to spread innovation broadly throughout advanced economies. “A breakdown of the diffusion machine” is what the OECD calls it.

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[Read the full text here, at AEIdeas]

The gap between high productivity firms and low productivity firms is increasing. (Maybe also helping to explain rising inequality.) So why aren’t innovations spreading as fast as they used to? The WSJ’s analysis of the paper sums it up nicely:

One key reason appears to be that the process of “creative destruction” identified by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter as essential to capitalism’s dynamism appears to have lost some of its ferocity. In the OECD’s words, “market selection is weak.” One reason for that is government policy, which the OECD said favors incumbents across a whole range of areas, from regulations designed to protect the environment, to taxation. As a result, older firms that suffer from low productivity growth endure, often “trapping” workers in jobs for which they are over qualified. Read the rest of this entry »


NBC: ‘Making Lies Sound Truthful and Murder Respectable’

NBC Praises Communism as One of History’s ‘Pivotal Experiments’

4349565134_nbc_communist_logo_answer_3_xlarge“The towering presence, the empire that ascended to affirm a colossal footprint. The revolution that birthed one of modern history’s pivotal experiments. But if politics has long shaped our sense of who they are, it’s passion that endures. As a more reliable right to their collective heart. What they build in aspirations lifted by imagination. What they craft, through the wonder of every last detail. How magical the fusion of sound and movement can be. How much a glass of distilled perfection and an overflowing table can matter. Discover the Russian people through these indelible signatures. Discover what we share with them through the games that open here tonight.”

George Orwellcall your office. As he wrote in “Politics and the English Language, in 1946, such euphemisms are “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,” and certainly describing Communism as “one of modern history’s pivotal experiments” fits the bill in spades.

Read the rest of this entry »


Analysis: Why Government Doesn’t—and Can’t—Manage Resources Like a Private Business

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Government versus Private Resource Management: The Theory

Robert P. Murphy writes: According to a common but naïve worldview, there are objective, well-known techniques for producing various goods and services, and the consumer preferences regarding these outputs are also common knowledge. In such a worldview—which even many professional economists, in discussing policy, seem to hold—it seems only natural to conclude that government officials could improve upon the decentralized market outcome. After all, the government has access to the same “production function” as private firms, and if it decides to be the monopoly producer of a good or service, it can avoid wasteful advertising expenses and other redundancies. Such arguments were behind the proposals for outright “market socialism” in the era between World Wars I and II, and, to this day, they guide recommendations for heavy government regulation of “natural monopolies” such as utilities.

However, more-practical economists recognize the limits of their textbook diagrams with elegant marginal revenue and marginal cost curves. In reality, we operate in a world of uncertainty. The “least cost” method of producing a good or service is never obvious, nor is what consumers will be willing to pay for various items. In a famous lecture, “Competition as a Discovery Procedure,” Friedrich Hayek explained how markets in the real world stumble upon this hidden knowledge. Various people with access to different information make piecemeal discoveries and constantly modify their operations accordingly; they receive feedback from market prices in the form of profit or loss. Firms mimic particularly profitable innovations, and if a firm does not adapt quickly enough, it will go out of business. Hayek thus viewed competition as a process rather than a condition or end-state. The state of “perfect competition” described in the textbooks—which includes the property that all firms in an industry use the identical “least-cost” method of production—is actually something that would emerge over time onlybecause of the competitive rivalry between the firms, and only if the conditions in the real world remained static long enough for all firms to fully adapt.

Read the rest of this entry »


[VIDEO] F. A. Hayek on Social Justice

From Firing Line, William F Buckley Jr hosts a discussion on social justice with George Roche III (Hillsdale College) and Noble Laureate economist F. A. Hayek. http://www.LibertyPen

Note host William F. Buckley arguing the case for social justice and redistributionism, to drive the discussion. Not because Buckley personally embraces and defends collectivism, obviously, he’s merely conducting a revealing interview,  drawing out contrasting views. Artfully performing his role as moderator, Buckley’s does a surprisingly fair job of making the opposition (socialism) case, in order to probe Hayek’s and Roche’s positions. It’s a pleasure to watch. Hayek is brilliant.

The growth of central planning, and the concentration of power in the last several years makes the Johnson-era “Great Society” catastrophe of federal overreach and corruption look quaint by comparison. There’s no lucid counterpoint being made. The public debate is muddled by smaller minds. It makes me wish we had a respected public figure like Hayek in national media, in our time. This discussion is more relevant now than when it was recorded. Popular intellectuals of this caliber are sorely missing. The ideas expressed here are as fresh and vibrant–and consequential–today as they were then. And the stakes are just as high.

F A Hayek – Social Justice – YouTube