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Try Everything

BERKELEY – When it became clear in late 2008 that the global economy was headed toward a crash at least as dangerous as the one that had initiated the Great Depression, I was alarmed, but also hopeful. We had, after all, seen this before. And we also had a model for how to mitigate the damage; unfortunately, policymakers left it on the shelf.

For three and a half years following the start of the Great Depression, US President Herbert Hoover’s top priority was to balance the budget, trying – but ultimately failing – to restore business confidence. In 1933, newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed course, adopting a simple yet radical strategy: try everything that might boost demand, increase production, or reduce unemployment – and then keep doing the things that work.

Roosevelt abandoned attempts to balance the budget, increased the money supply, and initiated deficit spending. He took the United States off the gold standard, had the government hire workers directly, and offered loan guarantees to those in danger of losing their homes. He cartelized the oil industry and instituted aggressive antitrust policies to break up monopolies.

To be sure, Roosevelt’s New Deal policies sometimes conflicted with one another, and quite a few of them were counterproductive. But, by trying everything, and then scaling up the most successful policies, Roosevelt was ultimately able to turn the economy around.