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The Unreality of the “Real” Business Cycle

LONDON – Testifying recently before a United States congressional committee, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said that the recent financial meltdown had shattered his “intellectual structure.” I am keen to understand what he meant.

Since I have had no opportunity to ask him, I have to rely on his memoirs, The Age of Turbulence , for clues. But that book was published in 2007 – before, presumably, his intellectual structure fell apart.

In his memoirs, Greenspan revealed that his favorite economist was Joseph Schumpeter, inventor of the concept of “creative destruction.” In Greenspan’s summary of Schumpeter’s thinking, a “market economy will incessantly revitalize itself from within by scrapping old and failing businesses and then reallocating resources to newer, more productive ones.” Greenspan had seen “this pattern of progress and obsolescence repeat over and over again.”

Capitalism advanced the human condition, said Schumpeter, through a “perennial gale of creative destruction,” which he likened to a Darwinian process of natural selection to secure the “survival of the fittest.” As Greenspan tells it, the “rougher edges” of creative destruction were legislated away by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, but after the wave of de-regulation of the 1970’s, America recovered much of its entrepreneurial, risk-taking ethos. As Greenspan notes, it was the dot-com boom of the 1990’s that “finally gave broad currency to Schumpeter’s idea of creative destruction.”