The Retreat of Macroeconomic Policy

BERKELEY – One disturbing thing about studying economic history is how things that happen in the present change the past – or at least our understanding of the past. For decades, I have confidently taught my students about the rise of governments that take on responsibility for the state of the economy. But the political reaction to the Great Recession has changed the way we should think about this issue.

Governments before World War I – and even more so before WWII – did not embrace the mission of minimizing unemployment during economic downturns. There were three reasons, all of which vanished by the end of WWII.

First, there was a hard-money lobby: a substantial number of rich, socially influential, and politically powerful people whose investments were overwhelmingly in bonds. They had little personally at stake in high capacity utilization and low unemployment, but a great deal at stake in stable prices. They wanted hard money above everything.

Second, the working classes that were hardest-hit by high unemployment generally did not have the vote. Where they did, they and their representatives had no good way to think about how they could benefit from stimulative government policies to moderate economic downturns, and no way to reach the levers of power in any event.