Scott Sumner is such a kindly soul. You can count on him to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, bending over backwards to find a way to make sense out of the most ridiculous statement that you can imagine. Even when he disagrees, he expresses his disagreement in the mildest possible terms. And if you don’t believe me, just ask Paul Krugman, about whom Scott, despite their occasional disagreements, always finds a way to say something nice and complimentary. I have no doubt that if you were fortunate enough to take one of Scott’s courses at Bentley, you could certainly count on getting at least a B+ if you showed up for class and handed in your homework, because Scott is the kind of guy who just would not want to hurt anyone’s feelings, not even a not very interested student. In other words, Scott is the very model of a modern major general – er, I mean, of a modern sensitive male.
But I am afraid that Scott has finally let his niceness get totally out of hand. In his latest post “The myth at the heart of internet Austrianism,” Scott ever so gently points out a number of really serious (as in fatal) flaws in Austrian Business Cycle Theory, especially as an explanation of the Great Depression, which it totally misdiagnosed, wrongly attributing the downturn to a crisis caused by inflationary monetary policy, and for which it prescribed a disastrously mistaken remedy, namely, allowing deflation to run its course as a purgatory of the malinvestments undertaken in the preceding boom. Scott certainly deserves a pat on the back for trying to shed some light on a subject as fraught with fallacy and folly as Austrian Business Cycle Theory, but unfortunately Scott’s niceness got the better of him when he made the following introductory disclaimer:
This post is not about Austrian economics, a field I know relatively little about. [Scott is not just nice, he is also modest and self-effacing to a fault, DG] Rather it is a response to dozens of comments I have received by people who claim to represent the Austrian viewpoint.
And then after his partial listing of the problems with Austrian Business Cycle Theory, Scott just couldn’t help softening the blow with the following comment.
Austrian monetary economics has some great ideas – most notably NGDP targeting. I wish internet Austrians would pay more attention to Hayek, and less attention to whoever is telling them that the Depression was triggered by the collapse of an inflationary bubble during the 1920s. There was no inflationary bubble, by any reasonable definition of the world “inflation.”
Scott greatly admires Hayek (as do I), so he sincerely wants to believe that the mistakes of Austrian Business Cycle Theory are not Hayek’s fault, but are the invention of some nasty inauthentic Internet Austrians. In fact, because in a few places Hayek seemed to understand that an increased demand for money (aka a reduction in the velocity of circulation) would cause a reduction in total spending (aggregate demand or nominal income) unless matched by an increased quantity of money, acknowledging that, at least in principle, the neutral monetary policy he favored should not hold the stock of money constant, but should aim at a constant level of total spending (aggregate demand or nominal income), Scott wants to absolve Hayek from responsibility for the really bad (as in horrendous) policy advice he offered in the 1930s, opposing reflation and any efforts to increase spending by deliberately increasing the stock of money. During the Great Depression, Hayek’s recognition that in principle the objective of monetary policy ought to be to stabilize total spending was more in the way of a theoretical nuance than a bedrock principle of monetary policy. The recognition is buried in chapter four of Prices and Production. The tenor of his remarks and the uselessness of his recognition in principle that total spending should be stabilized are well illustrated by the following remark at the beginning of the final section of the chapter
Anybody who is sceptical of the value of theoretical analysis if it does not result in practical suggestions for economic policy will probably be deeply disappointed by the small return of so prolonged an argument.
Then in the 1932 preface to the English translation of his Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle, Hayek wrote the following nugget:
Far from following a deflationary policy, Central Banks, particularly in the United States, have been making earlier and more far reaching efforts than have ever been undertaken before to combat the depression by a policy of credit expansion – with the result that the depression has lasted longer and has become more severe than any preceding one. What we need is a readjustment of those elements in the structure of production and of prices which existed before the deflation began and which then made it unprofitable for industry to borrow. But, instead of furthering the inevitable liquidation of the maladjustments brought about by the boom during the last three years, all conceivable means have been used to prevent that readjustment from taking place; and one of these means, which has been repeatedly tried though without success, from the earliest to the most recent stages of depression, has been this deliberate policy of credit expansion. (pp. 19-20)
And then Hayek came to this staggering conclusion (which is the constant refrain of all Internet Austrians):
To combat the depression by a forced credit expansion is to attempt to cure the evil by the very means which brought it about; because we are suffering from a misdirection of production, we want to create further misdirection – a procedure which can only lead to a much more severe crisis as soon as the credit expansion comes to an end. It would not be the first experiment of this kind which has been made. We should merely be repeating, on a much larger scale, the course followed by the Federal Reserve system in 1927, an experiment which Mr. A. C. Miller, the only economist on the Federal Reserve Board [the Charles Plosser of his time, DG] and, at the same time, its oldest member, has rightly characterized as “the greatest and boldest operation ever undertaken by the Federal reserve system”, an operation which “resulted in one of the most costly errors committed by it or any other banking system in the last 75 years”. It is probably to this experiment, together with the attempts to prevent liquidation once the crisis had come, that we owe the exceptional severity and duration of the depression. We must not forget that, for the last six or eight years, monetary policy all over the world [like, say, France for instance? DG] has followed the advice of the stabilizers. It is high time that their influence, which has already done harm enough, should be overthrown. [OMG, DG] (pp. 21-22)
That the orthodox Austrian (espoused by Mises, Hayek, Haberler, and Machlup) view at the time was that the Great Depression was caused by an inflationary monetary policy administered by the Federal Reserve in concert with other central banks at the time is clearly shown by the following quotation from Lionel Robbins’s book The Great Depression. Robbins, one of the great English economists of the twentieth century, became a long-distance disciple of Mises and Hayek in the 1920s and was personally responsible for Hayek’s invitation to deliver his lectures (eventually published as Prices and Production) on Austrian Business Cycle Theory at the London School of Economics in 1931, and after their huge success, arranged for Hayek to be offered a chair in economic theory at LSE. Robbins published his book on the Great Depression in 1934 while still very much under the influence of Mises and Hayek. He subsequently changed his views, publicly disavowing the book, refusing to allow it to be reprinted in his lifetime.
Thus in the last analysis, it was deliberate co-operation between Central bankers, deliberate “reflation” on the part of the Federal Reserve authorities, which produced the worst phase of this stupendous fluctuation. Far from showing the indifference to prevalent trends of opinion, of which they have so often been accused, it seems that they had learnt the lesson only too well. It was not old-fashioned practice but new-fashioned theory which was responsible for the excesses of the American disaster. (p. 54)
Like Robbins, Haberler and Machlup, who went on to stellar academic careers in the USA, also disavowed their early espousal of ABCT. Mises, unable to tolerate apostasy on the part of traitorous erstwhile disciples, stopped speaking to them. Hayek, though never disavowing his earlier views as Robbins, Haberler, and Machlup had, acknowledged that he had been mistaken in not forthrightly supporting a policy of stabilizing total spending. Mises was probably unhappy with Hayek for his partial u-turn, but continued speaking to him nevertheless. Of course, Internet Austrians like Thomas Woods, whose book Meltdown was a best-seller and helped fuel the revival of Austrianism after the 2008 crisis, feel no shame in citing the works of Hayek, Haberler, Machlup, and Robbins about the Great Depression that they later disavowed in whole or in part, without disclosing that the authors of the works being cited changed or even rejected the views for which they were being cited.
So I am sorry to have to tell Scott: “I know it’s hard for you, but stop trying to be nice to Mises and Hayek. They were great economists, but they got the Great Depression all wrong. Don’t try to sugarcoat it. It can’t be done.”