Commentary Magazine


Back to the Future

Robert Reich, President Clinton’s secretary of Labor, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times in which he tries to explain why the recovery from the “Great Recession” has been so sluggish. He fails to do that, but the article is a window into why the Obama administration has failed so dismally in this area: liberals are hopelessly stuck in the past. And in order to remain so, they distort history and manipulate statistics.

As always, Reich blames the rich for making too much money, noting that while the top 1 percent had only 9 percent of total income in the late 1970s, today’s super-rich take in 23.5 percent. These figures are based on adjusted gross income reported in federal tax returns and so should be looked at carefully to see how they square with “compensation,” which is something very different. But Reich simply ignores the fact that whenever there has been a major technological development, from the full-rigged ship in the 15th century to the microprocessor in the 20th, there has always quickly followed an inflorescence of fortunes based on the new technology. This, inevitably, causes income inequality to widen. The poor don’t get poorer, the rich just get suddenly much richer. The more fundamental the new technology is, the more the gap will widen, and the microprocessor is the most fundamental new technology since agriculture 10,000 years ago.

Just look at the Forbes 400 list to see how many brand-new fortunes are based on the microprocessor. Seven of the top 10 are (neither Wal-Mart nor Bloomberg would have been possible without cheap computing power). Any attempt to flatten the income curve in these revolutionary terms and thus reduce inequality would inescapably reduce wealth creation.

He writes, “What’s more, the rich don’t necessarily invest their earnings and savings in the American economy; they send them anywhere around the globe where they’ll summon the highest returns — sometimes that’s here, but often it’s the Cayman Islands, China or elsewhere.” That’s perfectly true. But the rich living in the Cayman Islands, China, and elsewhere do exactly the same thing, often investing in America, which enjoys robust capital inflows as well as outflows. We now have a nearly total global economy, especially when it comes to capital. Any attempt to change that would be disastrous for both the United States and the world.

He writes:

Meanwhile, as the economy grows, the vast majority in the middle naturally want to live better. Their consequent spending fuels continued growth and creates enough jobs for almost everyone, at least for a time. But because this situation can’t be sustained, at some point — 1929 and 2008 offer ready examples — the bill comes due.

This time around, policymakers had knowledge their counterparts didn’t have in 1929; they knew they could avoid immediate financial calamity by flooding the economy with money. But, paradoxically, averting another Great Depression-like calamity removed political pressure for more fundamental reform. We’re left instead with a long and seemingly endless Great Jobs Recession.

The Great Depression and its aftermath demonstrate that there is only one way back to full recovery: through more widely shared prosperity. In the 1930s, the American economy was completely restructured. New Deal measures — Social Security, a 40-hour work week with time-and-a-half overtime, unemployment insurance, the right to form unions and bargain collectively, the minimum wage — leveled the playing field.

Where do I begin? The depression that began in 1929 came out of a severe depression in American agriculture, caused by a revival in European agriculture and falling food prices owing to land once devoted to fodder crops for horses and mules being turned over to production of human food as the internal combustion engine took over the transportation and farm-equipment sectors. It did not come out of excess personal debt and a real estate bubble.

They didn’t know in 1929 that you could avoid immediate financial calamity by flooding the economy with money? Here’s what Benjamin Strong, governor of the New York Federal Reserve and effectively head of the Fed, wrote in 1928. “The very existence of the Federal Reserve System is a safeguard against anything like a calamity growing out of money rates. … We have the power to deal with such an emergency instantly by flooding the Street with money.” The problem was that the Federal Reserve didn’t flood the economy with money after the crash in 1929 (Ben Strong died in late 1928) but kept interest rates high. An ordinary stock market crash and economic depression were turned into the Great Depression by horrendous government mistakes, of which the Fed’s was only one.

And if the New Deal was the way back to full recovery, why did it take 10 years (and suddenly vast orders for war materiél) to achieve it? Robert Reich should read Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, which pretty well demolishes the now ancient notions about the New Deal that liberals cling to, sort of like the way people in fly-over country cling to guns and religion.

He writes,

In the decades after World War II, legislation like the G.I. Bill, a vast expansion of public higher education and civil rights and voting rights laws further reduced economic inequality. Much of this was paid for with a 70 percent to 90 percent marginal income tax on the highest incomes.

Ah, the good old days of 91 percent tax rates on those rascally rich guys! Of course, those were mere nominal rates, the rich didn’t pay anything like that much, because deductions and other tax fiddles were nearly limitless in those days. All interest rates were deductible, for instance, allowing someone in the 91 percent bracket to borrow money and have Uncle Sam pay 91 percent of the interest costs.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

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