To say the obvious: we’re now in the fourth year of a truly nightmarish economic crisis. I like to think that I was more prepared than most for the possibility that such a thing might happen; developments in Asia in the late 1990s badly shook my faith in the widely accepted proposition that events like those of the 1930s could never happen again. But even pessimists like me, even those who realized that the age of bank runs and liquidity traps was not yet over, failed to realize how bad a crisis was waiting to happen – and how grossly inadequate the policy response would be when it did happen.
And the inadequacy of policy is something that should bother economists greatly – indeed, it should make them ashamed of their profession, which is certainly how I feel. For times of crisis are when economists are most needed. If they cannot get their advice accepted in the clinch – or, worse yet, if they have no useful advice to offer – the whole enterprise of economic scholarship has failed in its most essential duty.
And that is, of course, what has just happened...
The best you can say about economic policy in this slump is that we have for the most part avoided a full repeat of the Great Depression. I say “for the most part” because we actually are seeing a Depression-level slump in Greece, and very bad slumps elsewhere in the European periphery. Still, the overall downturn hasn’t been a full 1930s replay. But all of that, I think, can be attributed to the financial rescue of 2008-2009 and automatic stabilizers. Deliberate policy to offset the crash in private spending has been largely absent.
And I blame economists, who were incoherent in our hour of need. Far from contributing useful guidance, many members of my profession threw up dust, fostered confusion, and actually degraded the quality of the discussion...
And this is a terrible thing for those who want to think of economics as useful. This kind of situation is what we’re here for. In normal times, when things are going pretty well, the world can function reasonably well without professional economic advice. It’s in times of crisis, when practical experience suddenly proves useless and events are beyond anyone’s normal experience, that we need professors with their models to light the path forward. And when the moment came, we failed.