September 29, 2020

Don’t Lose the Thread. The Economy Is Experiencing an Epic Collapse of Demand.

“Please, spend wisely, but spend as much as you can!” Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, implored the world’s governments at an event in May. “And then, spend a bit more for your doctors, for your nurses, for the vulnerable people in your society.”

Both the Fed and the I.M.F. more typically act as brakes on fiscal profligacy. For Mr. Powell and Ms. Georgieva to effectively beg elected officials to stop a spiraling crisis reflects the unusual circumstances of this moment and the extraordinary risk they see if government action is inadequate to the job. Their comments are the equivalent of a normally debt-averse financial adviser urging a family to borrow more money to ride out a period of illness without suffering long-term financial damage.

When the crisis we now know as the Great Depression began in 1929, President Herbert Hoover started with denial, then tried blaming other countries, then argued that there was nothing the government could really do to contain the damage.

Eventually, the Hoover administration took more aggressive action, creating a large federal program of mass employment. “He gave a speech and said that 700,000 Americans were at work on federal public works, and it was bigger than anything that had done before,” Mr. Rauchway said. “And that was true, but it was at a time when more than seven million people were out of work.”

That crisis showed how when there are profound rips in the economic fabric, repairing them isn’t a simple job, it isn’t quick, and even what seems like a huge response often isn’t enough.

It’s great that the economy is ticking up from its shutdown of March and April. And the world right now is confusing and chaotic. But that makes it all the more important not to lose focus on fundamental forces that risk holding back the economy and that, if unchecked, could mean a second lost decade in this young century.

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