January 12, 2015

In his memoirs, US President Herbert Hoover says that he received the following advice from Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon after the stock market crash of 1929:

Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate. It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.” According to Hoover, Mellon “insisted that, when the people get an inflation brainstorm, the only way to get it out of their blood is to let it collapse” and that “even a panic was not altogether a bad thing.

In other words, if Hoover’s recollection was correct (it probably was), Mellon’s advice was for the government to stay out of the way and let the markets clear.

Paul Krugman and many others have blamed the course of action recommended by Mellon for the severity of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The problem with this line of argument is that Hoover strenuously disagreed with Mellon’s advice and chose not only to ignore it, but to do the exact opposite!

Hoover was an engineer by education who believed that the economy could be managed as if it were a giant engineering project. He was an aggressively interventionist president who thought that the economic pain that the stock market crash suggested was coming could be lessened by, among other things, preventing prices from falling and replacing private-sector demand with public-sector demand. He was a consistent critic of free (unregulated) markets and a relentless advocate for a greatly expanded role for government. He was actually a pre-Keynes Keynesian (Keynes was a prominent figure in economics at the time, but he hadn’t yet written the book that would become the bible for government economic meddling).

As an aside, during the 1932 presidential election campaign FD Roosevelt lambasted Hoover for being fiscally imprudent. In fact, FDR went as far as describing the Hoover Administration as “the most reckless and extravagant…of any peacetime government anywhere, any time.” However, after taking over the Presidency FDR quickly forgot almost everything he had said during the election campaign and greatly extended the interventionist approach initiated by his predecessor.

I strongly believe that Mellon’s advice was sound, but the point I want to make right now is that this advice cannot logically be blamed for worsening the economic downturn of the 1930s, regardless of whether or not it was sound. This is because the advice was not followed.

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