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The Shadow of Depression

The risk that the world’s investors currently are trying to avoid by rushing into US, Japanese, and German sovereign debt is not a “fundamental” risk. Rather, the risk stems from governments’ refusal, when push comes to shove, to match aggregate demand to aggregate supply in order to prevent mass unemployment.

BERKELEY – Four times in the past century, a large chunk of the industrial world has fallen into deep and long depressions characterized by persistent high unemployment: the United States in the 1930’s, industrialized Western Europe in the 1930’s, Western Europe again in the 1980’s, and Japan in the 1990’s. Two of these downturns – Western Europe in the 1980’s and Japan in the 1990’s – cast a long and dark shadow on future economic performance.

In both cases, if either Europe or Japan returned – or, indeed, ever returns – to something like the pre-downturn trend of economic growth, it took (or will take) decades. In a third case, Europe at the end of the 1930’s, we do not know what would have happened had Europe not become a battlefield following Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland.

In only one instance was the long-run growth trend left undisturbed: US production and employment after World War II were not significantly affected by the macroeconomic impact of the Great Depression. Of course, in the absence of mobilization for WWII, it is possible and even likely that the Great Depression would have cast a shadow on post-1940 US economic growth. That is certainly how things looked, with high levels of structural unemployment and a below-trend capital stock, at the end of the 1930’s, before mobilization and the European and Pacific wars began in earnest.

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