Alan S. Blinder: Let's hope 2010 is not 1936

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[Alan S. Blinder is a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton and former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve. He has advised many Democratic politicians.]

CONTRARY to what you may have heard from some doomsayers, 2009 is not 1930 redux. What we must guard against, instead, is 2010 or 2011 becoming another 1936.

Realistically, there is little danger that the economy is heading toward a repeat performance of the Great Depression — when real gross domestic product in the United States declined 27 percent and unemployment soared to 25 percent. What we have is bad enough: our worst recession since the 1930s. But unless our leaders behave unbelievably foolishly, we will not repeat the tragic slide into the abyss of 1930 to 1933 — for two main reasons.

First, our economy has many built-in safeguards that did not exist back then — like unemployment insurance, Social Security and federal deposit insurance, to name just three. These programs serve as safety nets that cushion the fall. And while they are certainly not strong enough to prevent recessions, they should be enough to prevent another depression.

The more important reason is that Barack Obama, Timothy F. Geithner and Ben S. Bernanke are not Herbert Hoover, Andrew Mellon and Eugene Meyer. (Who’s that? Mr. Meyer was the Federal Reserve chairman from September 1930 to May 1933.) In stark contrast to the laissez-faire crowd that ruled the roost in 1930 and 1931, our current economic leaders are not waiting for the sagging economy to right itself. Rather, they have taken numerous extraordinary steps already — and stand ready to do more if necessary.

That’s the good news. But even if another depression is next to impossible, there is still the danger that next year, or the year after, might turn into 1936. Let me explain.

From its bottom in 1933 to 1936, the G.D.P. climbed spectacularly (albeit from a very low base), averaging gains of almost 11 percent a year. But then, both the Fed and the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt reversed course.

In the summer of 1936, the Fed looked at the large volume of excess reserves piled up in the banking system, concluded that this mountain of liquidity could be fodder for future inflation, and began to withdraw it. This tightening of monetary policy continued into 1937, in a weak economy that was ill-prepared for it....

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