Economic historian Barry Eichengreen says our leaders ignored many of the key lessons of the Great Depression

Historians in the News
tags: Great Depression, Great Recession



The global economy stood on the precipice, making the possibility of a descent into the horrors of the Great Depression — the despair our grandparents told us about — all too real. Then some brave leaders with a knowledge of history and names like BernankeGeithner and Paulson (or if you have an international bent, TrichetKing and Darling) stepped in, applied the lessons of that brutal period and pulled us back from the abyss.

That, anyway, is the oversimplified history of the crisis of 2008 that has become commonly accepted thanks to book-length journalistic narratives(one of which I wrote) and the memoirs of several major officials involved. To the degree that these officials are faulted, it is usually for the large budget deficits or multitrillion-dollar central bank balance sheets that resulted from years of interventionism and still haunt us.

Now one of the world’s leading economic historians, Barry Eichengreen, has come forth with an alternate view: Rather than hoist anyone to our shoulders for preventing another Depression, we should be more cleareyed about the ways in which global leaders did not really learn the lessons of the 1930s at all and made many of the same mistakes as their Depression-era counterparts.

 

His new book, “Hall of Mirrors” (Oxford University Press), accuses the global leaders of the 21st century of failing to heed the warning signs that a crisis might occur and then becoming too self-satisfied with the initial success they had at containing the worst effects of the banking crisis in late 2008 and early 2009.

The reason the global economy is still in rough shape seven years later, in this telling, is that leaders in the United States and Europe drew the conclusions they wanted to hear from the Depression.

“Once we averted a Great Depression, we succumbed to the instinct to do less in order to sustain economic growth,” Mr. Eichengreen, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an interview. “The fact that we successfully averted a depression enabled policy makers to declare that we were ready to go back to normal policies before that was the reality.”...




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