In a thought-provoking piece for the January issue of Vanity Fair , Joseph Stiglitz urges us to consider an important element of the Great Depression that has not received as much attention in the media as monetary policy, a troubled banking system, or political battling. Stiglitz points us to the shift away from agriculture in the late 1920s through the early 1930s as cause of the Depression. If we are to look more closely at that piece of history, then we may be able to extract important lessons for today, as we see so many Americans going through revolutionary changes in their work and in their workplaces. Citing resebarch that he has been doing with Bruce Greenwald , Stiglitz writes: The parallels between the story of the origin of the Great Depression and that of our Long Slump are strong. Back then we were moving from agriculture to manufacturing. Today we are moving from manufacturing to a service economy. The decline in manufacturing jobs has been dramatic—from about a third of the workforce 60 years ago to less than a tenth of it today. The pace has quickened markedly during the past decade. There are two reasons for the decline. One is greater productivity—the same dynamic that revolutionized agriculture and forced a majority of American farmers to look for work elsewhere. The other is globalization, which has sent millions of jobs overseas, to low-wage countries or those that have been investing more in infrastructure or technology. (As Greenwald has pointed out, most of the job loss in the 1990s was related to productivity increases, not to globalization.) Whatever the specific cause, the inevitable result is precisely the same as it was 80 years ago: a decline in income and jobs. The millions of jobless former factory workers once employed in cities such as Youngstown and Birmingham and Gary and Detroit are the modern-day equivalent of the Depression’s doomed farmers. The consequences for consumer spending, and for the fundamental health of the economy—not to mention the appalling human cost—are obvious, though we were able to ignore them for a while. For a time, the bubbles in the housing and lending markets concealed the problem by creating artificial demand, which in turn created jobs in the financial sector and in construction and elsewhere. The bubble even made workers forget that their incomes were declining. They savored the possibility of wealth beyond their dreams, as the value of their houses soared and the value of their pensions, invested in the stock market, seemed to be doing likewise. But the jobs were temporary, fueled on vapor. Mainstream macro-economists argue that the true bogeyman in a downturn is not falling wages but rigid wages—if only wages were more flexible (that is, lower), downturns would correct themselves! But this wasn’t true during the Depression, and it isn’t true now. On the contrary, lower wages and incomes would simply reduce demand, weakening the economy further. Of four major service sectors—finance, real estate, health, and education—the first two were bloated before the current crisis set in. The other two, health and education, have traditionally received heavy government support. But government austerity at every level—that is, the slashing of budgets in the face of recession—has hit education especially hard, just as it has decimated the government sector as a whole. Nearly 700,000 state- and local-government jobs have disappeared during the past four years, mirroring what happened in the Depression. As in 1937, deficit hawks today call for balanced budgets and more and more cutbacks. Instead of pushing forward a structural transition that is inevitable—instead of investing in the right kinds of human capital, technology, and infrastructure, which will eventually pull us where we need to be—the government is holding back. Current strategies can have only one outcome: they will ensure that the Long Slump will be longer and deeper than it ever needed to be. Read The Book of Jobs here .
Filed under: jobs, Great Depression, monetary policy, consumer spending, Fed, economic history, Joseph Stiglitz, agriculture, unemployed, workforce, workplace, bruce greenwald, cause of the great recession, cause of the great depression, columbia university