In his August 9ts column , Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman stated:
So it seems that we aren’t going to have a second Great Depression after all. What saved us? The answer, basically, is Big Government. . . . [W]e appear to have averted the worst: utter catastrophe no longer seems likely. And Big Government, run by people who understand its virtues, is the reason why.
Alan Reynolds of the Wall Street Journal has a response:
This is certainly a novel theory of the business cycle. To be taken seriously, however, any such explanation of recessions and recoveries must be tested against the facts. It is not enough to assert the U.S. economy would have experienced a “second Great Depression” were it not for the Obama stimulus plan.
Even those who think government borrowing is a free lunch can’t possibly believe the government has already done enough “stimulus spending” to explain the difference between depression and recovery.
CNN Money recently calculated that the stimulus plan has spent just $120 billion—less than 1% of GDP—mostly on temporary tax cuts ($53 billion) and additional Medicaid, food stamps and unemployment benefits. Less than $1 billion has been spent on highway and energy projects. Commitments for the future are much larger, but households and firms can’t spend commitments.
Proponents of Big Government can’t say we avoided the next Great Depression due to hypothetical stimulus money that is mostly unspent. So they argue it’s more important that the federal government merely continued spending and didn’t “slash” spending as in the early 1930s. But the federal government didn’t slash spending in the early ’30s. Federal spending rose by 6.2% in 1930, 7.7% in 1931 and 30.2% in 1932. Since prices were falling, real increases in federal spending were huge during the Hoover years.
A 1999 study in The Journal of Economic Perspectives by Christina Romer (now head of the Council of Economic Advisers) found that “real macroeconomic indicators have not become dramatically more stable between the pre-World War I and post-World War II eras, and recessions have become only slightly less severe.” Ms. Romer also noted that “recessions have not become noticeably shorter” in the era of Big Government. In fact, she found the average length of recessions from 1887 to 1929 was 10.3 months. If the current recession ended in August, then the average postwar recession lasted one month longer—11.3 months. The longest recession from 1887 to 1929 lasted 16 months. But there have been three recessions since 1973 that lasted at least that long.
The relative brevity of recessions before the New Deal is particularly surprising since the U.S. economy was then dominated by farming and manufacturing—industries far more prone to nasty cyclical surprises than today’s service-based economy.
To believe Big Government explains why this extremely long recession was not even longer, we need to find some connection between the size of government and the depth and duration of recessions. There is no such connection in U.S. history, or in recent cyclical experience of other countries.
On the contrary, recessions have become longer as the U.S. government (and the Fed) became larger, more expensive, and more involved in the economy. Foreign countries in which government spending accounts for about half of the economy have also suffered the deepest recessions lately, while economic recovery is well established in countries where government spending is a smaller share of GDP than in the U.S.
In short, bigger government appears to produce only bigger and longer recessions.
In my humble opinion, a belief in Keynesian economics seems to be based more on faith in the power of government than historical or empirical evidence.