The Franklin D. Roosevelt President Library and Museum has put scans up of several important documents that highlight FDR’s transition from trying to balancing the budget in the Great Depression to, after the crash of 1937, his ability to see that Keynesian deficit spending could help the recovery. The page that has the resources, plus a history, is located here: FDR: From Budget Balancer to Keynesian.
The primary documents includes several campaign speeches by Roosevelt as they evolved over the 1930s, and it also includes John Maynard Keynes’s 1938 private letter to President Roosevelt. The Keynes letter is great. He is a model of clarity, wit, and seriousness with a towering intellect on all matters economic.
After the fiscal and monetary contraction that brought on the crash of 1937, liberals in the Roosevelt administration weren’t sure what to do. Keynes, in his letter, outlined a five step plan including both what had just worked and what to continue doing until the economy healed:
This is how we should judge our current elites and opinion leaders. How well do they understand this game plan for addressing a massive crisis like the one we are in, and under what economic ideology and rationality are they deviating from it? Right now it is a full-time job trying to convince elites that this is the right program for the country, rather than rewriting federal and state law to businesses’ liking and focusing obsessively on the deficit. So little has been learned, and what we’ve learned has been forgotten.
Keynes also noted that getting the housing market straightened out is one of the best ways to handle the Depression. “Housing is by far the best aid to recovery because of the large and continuing scale of potential demand; because of the wide geographical distribution of this demand; and because the sources of its finance are largely independent of the Stock Exchanges.” Getting the housing market right is also an uphill battle for our recession and administration.
1933 Aside: Keynes Does the Twist
There’s a debate within left-liberal economic circles over the relative importance of monetary versus fiscal policy in dealing with the economic downturn. Often you hear that all the stuff Bernanke is doing, from QE to Operation Twist, is a rejection of what Keynes would advise if he was living today.
Since we are looking at Keynes’ letters to President Roosevelt, let’s look at his 1933 open letter to FDR, published in the New York Times. Among other recommendations, he advises the new administration to do two things on the domestic front (my bold):
If you were to ask me what I would suggest in concrete terms for the immediate future, I would reply thus… In the field of domestic policy, I put in the forefront, for the reasons given above, a large volume of Loan-expenditures under Government auspices. It is beyond my province to choose particular objects of expenditure. But preference should be given to those which can be made to mature quickly on a large scale, as for example the rehabilitation of the physical condition of the railroads… You can at least feel sure that the country will be better enriched by such projects than by the involuntary idleness of millions.
I put in the second place the maintenance of cheap and abundant credit and in particular the reduction of the long-term rates of interest. The turn of the tide in great Britain is largely attributable to the reduction in the long-term rate of interest which ensued on the success of the conversion of the War Loan. This was deliberately engineered by means of the open-market policy of the Bank of England. I see no reason why you should not reduce the rate of interest on your long-term Government Bonds to 2½ per cent or less with favourable repercussions on the whole bond market, if only the Federal Reserve System would replace its present holdings of short-dated Treasury issues by purchasing long-dated issues in exchange. Such a policy might become effective in the course of a few months, and I attach great importance to it.
His first suggestion constitutes fiscal stimulus. But his second suggestion is urging the Federal Reserve to replace its short-term bonds with long-term bonds to bring down the rates on the long-term bonds — just like Operation Twist! Equally interesting, instead of naming an amount of Treasuries to buy, like $800 billion or $2 trillion, Keynes says to hit a specific rate. The Federal Reserve can either set a rate or an amount, and we’ve been doing QE through setting purchase amounts. Maybe this other way that he suggests, having QE set a target for long-term rates, is a better way of doing QE? He’s a pretty smart fellow.
Keynes “terrified lest progressives causes…suffer injury”
Going back to the 1938 letter, I find Keynes’ conclusion chilling.
In this letter, Keynes is saying that if FDR didn’t handle the recovery correctly the whole New Deal would be at risk. Full employment is hard to accomplish, very hard, but it isn’t impossible. And the stakes are higher than just the economic recovery — failure means that progressive governance and polices are both at “risk to their prestige” from a prolonged downturn. Taking the economic downturn “too lightly” puts all of it — from responsibly combating global warming, to bringing fairness and justice to those working in the shadows of labor market, to making sure everyone has access to insurance against sickness and poverty in old age, to the rest of the liberal governance project — at risk. And, as we see the years pass by, it is too easy to lose precious time.