AUSTRIAN VS. CHICAGO ECONOMISTS: RESPONSE TO THE 2008 FINANCIAL CRISIS

By Mark Skousen
Updated in 2019

 “Blessed paper credit! Last and best supply!
That lends corruption lighter wings to fly.”

–Alexander Pope

AUSTRIAN

Since I wrote “Vienna and Chicago, Friends or Foes?” in 2005, we’ve suffered another monetary crisis, this one so serious that it undermined the very foundation of our monetary and economic system and is known as the “Great Recession.”

How do the Austrian and Chicago economists differ when it comes to answer these questions:  What caused the financial crisis of 2007-09? What is the best way out of the crisis and Great Recession? Let’s first start with the Chicago school, and Milton Friedman’s famous article, “Why the American Economy is Depression-Proof.”

Is the US Economy Depression-Proof?

 In late 2009, I was in Stockholm, Sweden, for the Mont Pelerin Society meetings, where 300 top experts gathered from around the world. At this meeting, I organized a special ad hoc session reassessing Milton Friedman’s famous lecture “Why the American Economy is Depression-Proof.”[1]  Friedman gave this optimistic lecture in Sweden in 1954, at a time when some prominent economists and financial advisors were predicting another crash on Wall Street and a collapse in the economy. A little over 50 years later, in the face of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, everyone at the meeting wanted to know if Friedman, one of the founders of the international society, would change his mind. Nobody knows for sure, since Friedman died in late 2006, before the crisis started. I do know that until his death, he always defended his bold prediction. From 1954 until his death in 2006, the United States suffered numerous contractions in the economy, an S&L crisis, a major terrorist attack, and even a few stock market crashes, and still it avoided the “big one,” a massive 1930s’s style Depression characterized by an unemployment rate of 15% or more (Friedman’s definition of a depression).

In his lecture, Friedman pointed to four major institutional changes to keep another Great Depression was happening:  federal bank deposit insurance; abandonment of the international gold standard; the growth in the size of government, including welfare payments, unemployment insurance, and other “built-in” stabilizers; and most importantly, the Federal Reserve’s determination to avoid a monetary collapse at all costs. Because the public and officials are petrified by the possibility of another depression, Friedman predicted that any signs of trouble would lead the Federal Reserve to take “drastic action” and shift “rapidly and completely to an easy money policy.” Consequently, according to Friedman, rising inflation would be far more of a threat to post-war America than another Great Depression.

So far so good. But now, following the financial crisis of 2008, I suspect Friedman would be forced to revise his views if he were alive. Admittedly, Friedman is still technically correct. There was no Great Depression in 2008-09, that is, according to government statistics. The official unemployment rate rose to 10% in 2009, far below the 15% rate necessary to qualify as a “depression.”

However, it’s important to note that the official unemployment rate does not include discouraged workers who have stopped looking, and those numbers apparently are in the millions. According to economist John Williams, editor of Shadow Statistics, if you count discouraged workers, the real unemployment rate exceeds 20%. See the chart below.

AUSTRIANSource:  www.shadowstats.com

The Fed and the Federal government appear to have averted disaster once again, at least in the short term. Yet they were able to do so only by putting millions on unemployment insurance and welfare (over 47 millions on food stamps and Medicaid), taking on unprecedented powers, and adding trillions of dollars in debt that so weaken the government and the public’s trust in its financial capacity to avoid future economic difficulties, and could lead to runaway inflation or a deflationary collapse.

Clearly, bank failures are not a thing of the past, and there have been runs on commercial banks and other financial institutions (money market funds), although Friedman is right that most banks are now either taken over by the FDIC or the Treasury, or forced to merger with a bigger, safer bank. Still, major institutions like Bank of America and Citibank would not have survived had it not been for government bailouts.

Friedman also stated in his lecture, “There has been no major depression that has not been associated with and accompanied by a monetary collapse….Monetary contraction or collapse is an essential conditioning factor for the occurrence of a major depression.”

Yet a monetary expansion is no guarantee that a crisis can be avoided. In fact, the U. S. came awfully close to an economic collapse in late 2008 without any monetary contraction. During 2008, the money supply (M2) grew every month and 9% for the year. Clearly, monetary contraction isn’t the only source of instability in the economy. Economic disaster can also be precipitated by easy money, irresponsible banking practices, or perverse tax and regulatory policies. One of the weaknesses of the Friedman Chicago school approach is their belief that inflationary asset bubbles only have micro effects on the economy and can be defused without having a debilitating macroeconomic impact. The real-estate crisis of 2007-09 demonstrated otherwise, and that’s why most Chicago economists failed to predict

The Great Contraction, Updated

Interestingly, Friedman’s famous chapter, “The Great Contraction, 1929-1933,” taken from his magnum opus, A Monetary History of the United States, 1869-1960 (Princeton University Press, 1963), was reprinted in 2007, with a new introduction by his co-author, Anna J. Schwartz. The short book had long been out of print, and was brought back just before the real estate crisis started and after Milton Friedman died. It was perfect timing as we were about to witness the worst economic debacle since the Great Depression. Yet Professor Schwartz was oblivious to any evidence of a collapse. She wrote, “As the federal funds rate moves in a low and narrow range in response to low and stable inflation, volatility of the business cycle and real economy has moderated.”[2]

 

The Austrians Response

The Austrian economists, on the other hand, knew full well that the Fed’s artificial low interest rate policy and the government’s meddling with banks and mortgage companies to encourage excessive home ownership was about to blow up in their faces. Austrian financial economists, such as Peter Schiff, Bert Dohmen, and Fred Foldvary, anticipated the crisis, and said so in 2007 at FreedomFest. That is why I concluded “Advantage, Vienna” in the debate between the Austrian and Chicago schools on the business cycle (see chapter 6 of “Vienna and Chicago”).

Based on the Mises-Hayek theory of the business cycle, the Austrian economists proposed their fundamental thesis that monetary inflation is never neutral, and that asset bubbles cause unsustainable structural imbalances on a macro level. Inflation has negative unintended consequences. The Austrians knew that eventually a collapse was inevitable. As Ludwig von Mises once said, “We have outlived the short-run and are suffering from the long-run consequences of [inflationary] policies.”

At the end of our special session, I asked members of the Mont Pelerin Society how many of them still agreed with Friedman, that the American economy is “depression proof.” Only a handful raised their hands, and they were all American economists. The rest of the crowd, mostly from abroad, pointed out that most other countries did not suffer a banking crisis. The financial crisis was largely Anglo-American-induced. They agreed that until the United States adopts a stable monetary and banking system, it can no longer be considered depression-proof.

 

Government Response to the Crisis

What should the government do in response to the crisis, if anything? The United States and many other countries followed the standard Keynesian prescription — the government ran massive deficits and the central banks cut interest rates. In short, they engaged in easy money at all levels:  injecting liquidity and adopting activist fiscal and monetary policy.

The 2007 reprint of “The Great Contraction” published Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s remarks at a 2002 conference in Chicago honoring Milton Friedman on his 90th birthday. At the end, he said, “I would like to say to Milton and Anna:  Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”[3]  Bernanke said he had learned the Friedman lesson well. The Fed would not allow the banking system to collapse and cause another Great Depression. Indeed, he lived up to his word during the 2008 financial crisis in injecting massive amounts of liquidity (fiat money).

Unfortunately, Bernanke failed to recognize the other lesson found in Friedman’s scholarly works:  activist fiscal policy doesn’t work and is unnecessary. In Friedman’s testing of Keynesian policy prescription, he found that the deficit spending multiplier was extremely low, not 4 or 5 as taught in the textbooks, but 0 to 1, in its impact on the economy. Recently Robert Barro (Harvard) concluded it was close to 0, no positive impact at all. The increase in government spending was largely offset by private spending declining (crowding out).

Friedman and the Chicago economists argued that the money multiplier resulting from the Fed buying government bonds and injecting liquidity into the banking system was much higher, as much as 3 or 4. Accordingly, Friedman advocated that the Fed should be the primary source of new stimulus to get the economy going again, and fiscal policy should remain stable.

In short, it was unnecessary and maybe even downright harmful for Ben Bernanke to have called Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in September 2008, and encourage the Congress to get involved. According to this view, the trillion dollar deficits and TARP monies were completely unnecessary. Monetary policy could do all the heavy lifting. After TARP became law, I asked Glenn Hubbard, former president of the Council for Economic Policy under Bush and the dean of Columbia Business School, if the Fed had all the emergency powers necessary to buy any asset — Treasuries, mortgages, even stocks — to avert a meltdown, and he said emphatically, “Yes.” It was not necessary to get Congress involved.

 

Did the Fed Cause the Real Estate Bubble?

After the financial crisis, Ben Bernanke refused to take responsibility for the collapse—or the real estate bubble. He noted that the real estate boom was a worldwide phenomenon, ignoring the fact that the dollar is a world currency. But what about the Federal Reserve’s responsibility to be the chief banking regulator? I was in attendance in January 2007, when Bernanke presented a luncheon paper on “Bank Regulation,” in which he used the words “crisis” and “panic” 34 times. Surely Bernanke knew about the irresponsible “subprime” and “no doc” loans commercial and mortgage bankers were involved in. Shouldn’t Bernanke have had the “courage to act” (to use the title of his memoirs) to stop this nonsense when he became Fed chairman; and shouldn’t he have resigned in disgrace for allowing it to happen?

 

The Austrian Response: “Do Nothing”? 

The most extreme response to the financial crisis is the recommendation by some Austrian economists to “do nothing,” that is, for the government to let the malinvestments collapse on their own weight. Libertarian economist Jeffrey Miron, who teaches at Harvard, wrote an article entitled “The Case for Doing Nothing,” for Reason magazine in 2009. According to these economists, government should not increase spending (the Keynesian prescription) nor should the Fed engage in easy money and inject liquidity (the Monetarist solution)—both policies might make matters worse. If anything, the government should retrench like everyone else. This was known as the classical economic policy. Thomas E. Woods, Jr., Austrian economist with the Mises Institute, wrote about the 1920-21 period in American history as an example:

“The conventional wisdom holds that in the absence of government countercyclical policy, whether fiscal or monetary (or both), we cannot expect economic recovery — at least, not without an intolerably long delay. Yet the very opposite policies were followed during the depression of 1920–1921, and recovery was in fact not long in coming. The economic situation in 1920 was grim. By that year unemployment had jumped from 4 percent to nearly 12 percent, and GNP declined 17 percent. No wonder, then, that Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover — falsely characterized as a supporter of laissez-faire economics — urged President Harding to consider an array of interventions to turn the economy around. Hoover was ignored. Instead of “fiscal stimulus,” Harding cut the government’s budget nearly in half between 1920 and 1922. The rest of Harding’s approach was equally laissez-faire. Tax rates were slashed for all income groups. The national debt was reduced by one-third. The Federal Reserve’s activity, moreover, was hardly noticeable. As one economic historian puts it, ‘Despite the severity of the contraction, the Fed did not move to use its powers to turn the money supply around and fight the contraction.’ By the late summer of 1921, signs of recovery were already visible. The following year, unemployment was back down to 6.7 percent and it was only 2.4 percent by 1923.”[4]

It takes a great deal of faith in capitalism to adopt this laissez faire policy in today’s world.

 

How to Order “Vienna and Chicago”

I refer to my book, “Vienna and Chicago, Friends or Foes?” as the Clash of the Titans. You can read more about it at http://mskousen.com/?s=vienna+and+chicago

It’s been endorsed by both sides – by Milton Friedman (Chicago school) and Roger Garrison (Austrian school). Supply side economist Art Laffer wrote me, “I don’t know whether I should love you or hate book. Your book was so good I spent half a day plus avoiding what I supposed to do in order to read it. It’s great!”

To order, go to www.skousenbooks.com. The price is US$20, and I pay the postage if mailed inside the US. (Add $30 for airmail shipment outside the US.) Or call Harold at Ensign Publishing, 1-866-254-2057.


[1] Milton Friedman, “Why the American Economy is Depression-Proof,” lecture delivered in Stockholm in April, 1954, and reprinted in Dollars and Deficits (Prentice-Hall, 1658), pp. 72-96. Friedman’s controversial lecture is still not available online, although my response, “Why the U. S. Economy is Not Depression-Proof” is:  http://mises.org/journals/rae/pdf/RAE3_1_5.pdf

[2] Anna Jacobson Schwartz, “New Preface,” The Great Contraction, 1929-1933 (Princeton University Press, 2007), p. xi.

[3] Ben S. Bernanke, “Remarks,” The Great Depression, 1929-1933, p. 247.

[4] Thomas E. Woods, Jr., “The Forgotten Depression of 1920” (Mises Institute, November 27, 2009):  http://mises.org/daily/3788

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