"In the darkest days of the Depression, Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, one of the richest men in the United States, opposed any government action to stem the tide of plunging business activity and soaring unemployment. Instead, he urged a policy of supreme indifference.
“Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate,” he said. “It will purge the rottenness out of the system,” he added, and values “will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.”
John Maynard Keynes, for one, thought that prescriptions like Mellon’s were preposterous. The economist called those who held such views “austere and puritanical souls” who believed that it would “be a victory for the mammon of unrighteousness” if general prosperity were not “subsequently balanced by universal bankruptcy.” Keynes perceived too much good in prosperity to treat it as the enemy, and he revolutionized economic theory to prove his point.
Keynes won the argument, and government intervention to overcome rising unemployment and falling profits has been standard operating procedure forever after. Nevertheless, the debate over intervention is not ancient history. It replays in today’s headlines."
Its an interesting debate, but I read Bernstein as discussing the wrong debate. He is reviewing criticism of the treatment of the problem, namely, the Fed’s clean up duties. But there is a debate brewing on preventative measures, also.
What makes this go round somewhat different is that the Fed’s intervention was forced large numbers of people who were exceedingly reckless. Even by comparison to LTCM or the S&L crisis, the risk embracement was unusually widespread.
As we have seen, there is a cost to this.
This is more than a question of creative Federal Reserve intervention. Right now, the nation is only beginning a debate on several related issues — including, ansd perhaps most importantly, regulation versus deregulation. If unrestrained financial engineering can lead to catastrophe requiring massive Fed intervention with great costs to the public (inflation, debt, etc.) than the "re-regulation" of the financial markets is a very likely outcome.
This is an important issue worth watching as the election season progresses . . .
When Should the Fed Crash the Party?
PETER L. BERNSTEIN
NYT May 11, 2008