Barack Obama says that we have to “jolt” the economy. That certainly makes sense, if you take the media’s account of the economy seriously — but should the media be taken seriously?
Amid all the political and media hysteria, national output has declined by less than one-half of 1 percent. It may not have declined even that much — or at all — when the statistics are revised later, as they very often are. We are not talking about the Great Depression, when output dropped by one-third and unemployment soared to 25 percent.
But this is a golden political opportunity for politicians to use the current financial crisis to fundamentally change an economy that has been successful for more than two centuries, so politicians can micromanage all sorts of businesses and play Robin Hood, taking from those not likely to vote for them and transferring part of their earnings to those who will do so. For that, the politicians need lots of hype, which is generously supplied by the media.
Whatever the merits of trying to shore up some financial institutions, in order to prevent a major disruption of the credit flows that keep the whole economy going, what has in fact been done has been to create a huge pot of money — hundreds of billions of dollars — that politicians can use to give out goodies hither and yon, to whomever and for whatever reason they please.
No doubt we could all use a few billion dollars every now and then. But the question of who actually gets it will be strictly in the hands of Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. It is one of the few parts of the legacy of the Bush administration that the Democrats are not likely to criticize.
Much as we may deplore partisanship in Washington, bipartisan disasters are often twice as bad as partisan disasters — and this is a bipartisan disaster in the making.
Too many people who argue there is a beneficial role for the government to play in the economy glide swiftly from that to the conclusion that the government will in fact confine itself to playing such a role.
In the light of history, this is a faith which passeth all understanding. Even in the case of the Great Depression of the 1930s, increasing numbers of economists and historians who have looked back at that era have concluded that, on net balance, government intervention prolonged the Great Depression.
Many of those who have, over the years, praised the fact that this was the first time that the federal government took responsibility for trying to get the country out of a depression do not ask what seems like the logical follow-up question: Did this depression therefore end faster than other depressions where the government stood by and did nothing?
The Great Depression of the 1930s was in fact the longest-lasting of all our depressions.
Government policy in the 1930s was another bipartisan disaster. Despite a myth that Herbert Hoover was a “do nothing” president, he was the first U.S. president to step in to try to put the economy back on track.
With the passing years, it has increasingly been recognized that what Franklin Roosevelt did was largely a further extension of what Hoover had done. Where Hoover made things worse, FDR made them much worse.
Herbert Hoover did what Barack Obama proposes doing. Hoover raised taxes on high-income people and restricted international trade, to try to save American jobs. It didn’t work then and it is unlikely to work now.
Perhaps the most disastrous of all the counterproductive policies of the federal government was the National Industrial Recovery Act under FDR, which set out to do exactly what the politicians today want to do — micromanage businesses.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court declared that Act unconstitutional, sparing the country an even bigger disaster.
Today, it is unlikely the courts will let anything as old-fashioned as the Constitution stand in the way of “change.” In short, the economy today has some serious problems but things are not desperate, though they can be made desperate by politicians.
Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.