Stimulus Thinking, and Nuance

DAVID LEONHARDT
Published: March 31, 2009

Every so often, history serves up an analogy that’s uncomfortable, a little distracting and yet still very relevant.
In the summer of 1933, just as they will do on Thursday, heads of government and their finance ministers met in London to talk about a global economic crisis. They accomplished little and went home to battle the crisis in their own ways.

More than any other country, Germany — Nazi Germany — then set out on a serious stimulus program. The government built up the military, expanded the autobahn, put up stadiums for the 1936 Berlin Olympics and built monuments to the Nazi Party across Munich and Berlin.

The economic benefits of this vast works program never flowed to most workers, because fascism doesn’t look kindly on collective bargaining. But Germany did escape the Great Depression faster than other countries. Corporate profits boomed, and unemployment sank (and not because of slave labor, which didn’t become widespread until later). Harold James, an economic historian, says that the young liberal economists studying under John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s began to debate whether Hitler had solved unemployment.

No sane person enjoys mixing nuance and Nazis, but this bit of economic history has a particular importance this week. In the run-up to the G-20 meeting, European leaders have resisted calls for more government spending. Last week, the European Union president, Mirek Topolanek, echoed a line from AC/DC — whom he had just heard in concert — and described the Obama administration’s stimulus plan as “a road to hell.”

Here in the United States, many people are understandably wondering whether the $800 billion stimulus program will make much of a difference. They want to know: Does stimulus work? Fortunately, this is one economic question that’s been answered pretty clearly in the last century.

Yes, stimulus works.

When governments have taken aggressive steps to soften an economic decline, they have succeeded. The Germans did it in the 1930s. Franklin D. Roosevelt did so more haltingly, and had more halting results. Even the limp Japanese recovery plan of the 1990s makes the case. Although dithering over a bank rescue kept Japan in a slump, government spending on roads and bridges made things better than they otherwise would have been.


NYT