The Lessons of the 1920-21 Depression

Interesting column by James Grant on the short but severe post-WWI Depression of 1920-21:

Our Great Recession ended 2½ years ago, according to the official cyclical timekeepers, but you wouldn’t know it by a glance at the news. Zero percent interest rates and $1 trillion in “stimulus” notwithstanding, the U.S. economy can hardly seem to heave itself out of bed in the morning. Now compare this with the first full year of recovery from the ugly depression of 1920-21. In 1922, under the unsung stewardship of the president best remembered for his underlings’ scandals and his own early death in office, the unemployment rate fell from 15.6 percent to 9 percent (on its way to 3.2 percent in 1923), while constant-dollar output leapt by 16 percent. After which the 1920s proverbially roared.

And how did the administration of Warren G. Harding, in conjunction with the Federal Reserve, produce these astonishing results? Why, by raising interest rates, reducing the public debt and balancing the federal budget. Let 21st-century economists rub their eyes in disbelief. Eighteen months after the depression started, it ended.

I’ve been fascinated by the contrast of Harding’s response to the 1920 depression versus Roosevelt’s seemingly-counterproductive response to the Great Depression since I read several discussions a few years back (see here, here, and here).  The problem with macroeconomics, of course, is the paucity of data points and the inability to control for relevant variables.  But it is nevertheless striking to me that discussion always seems to focus on what at first glance appears to be the failed Hoover-Roosevelt response to the Great Depression rather than the apparently effective Harding response to the 1920 Depression.

The only discussions I’ve seen of the 1920 Depression are those that support Harding.  Has anyone written a good response to that story, because what I’ve read seems fairly compelling (at least to the extent that macroeconomics can ever tell a compelling story).

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