The Crisis of 2008 and the Return of New Deal Economics.

The “Great Recession” of the 2000s and since has inspired a certain interest in the “Great Depression” of the 1930s.[1]

The New Deal’s economic policies were grounded in historical precedents.  On the one hand, various forms of relief and public works projects put people to work, while the Agricultural Adjustment Act shored up the situation of farm-owners—at the expense of tenant farmers and share-croppers.  Like the Medieval three-field system, these policies put a floor under the economic collapse.  Thank God for that.

On the other hand, the New Deal tried to come to terms with the modern industrial corporation.[2]  This would be one engine of real recovery.  The Democrats along with some Republicans were divided on this subject.  For some, big business was inherently bad.  Businesses grew by swallowing up smaller firms; then they produced monopoly effects—higher prices, lower quality, a slowing of innovation.  This analysis was rooted in the “Populist” attack on railroads and other big corporations in the “Gilded Age.”  Subsequently, Democratic “Progressives” led by Woodrow Wilson had embraced a version of this policy.  They rejected big interest groups and wanted a strong national government to break-up or prevent their formation.  This strand of the New Deal pursued various anti-monopoly initiatives.

Others, however, accepted big interest groups (Big Labor as well as Big Business) and wanted a strong national government to hold the ring between them in the national interest.  This strand of thought pushed European-style “cartelization” to prevent the competitive price cutting that led to mass business failures, and downward pressure on both wages and demand; and promote efficiency through cooperation between big corporations and the government.  This strand sprang from the government directed economies of the First World War.  Allied with this strand of thought were intellectuals who had been deeply impressed by the Soviet “achievement” (although they sometimes shuddered at the human cost) and who favored “planning.”

The two strands struggled all through the New Deal.  Most often, anti-monopoly policy lost out because the efficiency and production advantages of big corporations far outweighed the gains from limiting the logical effects of competition.

Now the anti-trust arguments have reared their head again.[3]  Business concentration seems to be increasing.  Democrats focus on the real or imagined malign effects.  Bernie Sanders has called for the big banks to be broken up; Elizabeth Warren has called for an anti-trust assault on the big companies of Silicon Valley; and Hillary Clinton argues that big business uses its power “to raise prices, limit choices for consumers, lower wages for workers and hold-back competition from start-ups and small business.”

The New Deal analogy suggests that there is something to be said on the other side.  The New Deal’s first effort at “cartelization,” the National Recovery Administration (NRA) ended because the Supreme Court ruled against it in 1935, not because it had (yet) failed.  Later, with American entry into the Second World War, the New Deal abandoned its anti-business stance to get the massive increase in production needed for victory.  Both production and working-class incomes rose sharply.  That settled that question.  From then on, American liberalism rejected both government planning and attacks on monopoly.  Until now.

[1] See Amity Schlaes, The Forgotten Man, and Paul Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, as examples.

[2] Ellis Hawley, The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly: A Study in Economic Ambivalence (1966).

[3] Eduardo Porter, “With Competition in Tatters, The Rip of Inequality Widens,” NYT, 13 July 2016.

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