The myth of secular stagnation
Those responsible for managing the 2008 recovery found the idea of secular stagnation attractive, because it explained their failures to achieve a quick, robust recovery. So, as the economy languished, a concept born during the Great Depression of the 1930s was revived.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, some economists argued that the United States, and perhaps the global economy, was suffering from “secular stagnation,” an idea first conceived in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Economies had always recovered from downturns. But the Great Depression had lasted an unprecedented length of time. Many believed that the economy recovered only because of government spending on World War II, and many feared that with the end of the war, the economy would return to its doldrums.
Something, it was believed, had happened, such that even with low or zero interest rates, the economy would languish. For reasons now well understood, these dire predictions fortunately turned out to be wrong.
Those responsible for managing the 2008 recovery (the same individuals bearing culpability for the underregulation of the economy in its pre-crisis days, to whom President Barack Obama inexplicably turned to fix what they had helped break) found the idea of secular stagnation attractive, because it explained their failures to achieve a quick, robust recovery. So, as the economy languished, the idea was revived: Don’t blame us, its promoters implied, we’re doing what we can.
The events of the past year have put the lie to this idea, which never seemed very plausible. The sudden increase in the US deficit, from around 3% to almost 6% of GDP, owing to a poorly designed regressive tax bill and a bipartisan expenditure increase, has boosted growth to around 4% and brought unemployment down to a 18year low. These measures may be illconceived, but they show that with enough fiscal support, full employment can be attained, even as interest rates rise well above zero.
The Obama administration made a crucial mistake in 2009 in not pursuing a larger, longer, better-structured, and more flexible fiscal stimulus. Had it done so, the economy’s rebound would have been stronger, and there would have been no talk of secular stagnation. As it was, only those in the top 1% saw their incomes grow during the first three years of the so-called recovery.
Some of us warned at the time that the downturn was likely to be deep and long, and that what was needed was stronger and different from what Obama proposed. I suspect that the main obstacle was the belief that the economy had just experienced a little “bump,” from which it would quickly recover. Put the banks in the hospital, give them loving care (in other words, hold none of the bankers accountable or even scold them, but rather boost their morale by inviting them to consult on the way forward), and, most important, shower them with money, and soon all would be well.
But the economy’s travails were deeper than this diagnosis suggested. The fallout from the financial crisis was more severe, and massive redistribution of income and wealth toward the top had weakened aggregate demand. The economy was experiencing a transition from manufacturing to services, and market economies don’t manage such transitions well on their own.
What was needed was more than a massive bank bailout. The US needed a