The Myth at the Heart of Internet Austrianism

This post is not about Austrian economics, a field I know relatively little about.  Rather it is a response to dozens of comments I have received by people who claim to represent the Austrian viewpoint.  More specifically, it is a response to the claim that the 1929 crash was caused by a preceding inflationary bubble.  I will show that the 1920s were not inflationary, and hence that there was no bubble that could have caused an economic slump which began in late 1929.

  1. Inflation as price change:  Let’s start with the obvious, the 192os was a decade of deflation; prices fell.  Indeed the 1927-29 expansion was the only deflationary expansion of the entire 20th century.  That’s right, believe it or not the price level actually declined during the boom at the end of the 1920s.
  2. Inflation as money creation:  At this point commenters start claiming that inflation doesn’t mean rising prices, it means a rising money supply.  I think that is absurd, as that would mean we lack a term for rising prices.  But let’s assume it’s true.  The next question is; which money?  If inflation means more money, then don’t you have to say “base inflation,” or “M2 inflation?”  After all, these quantities often go in dramatically different directions.  Since the internet Austrians seem to blame the Fed, let’s assume they are talking about the sort of money created by the Fed, the monetary base.  In January 1920 the base was $6.909 billion, and in December 1929 it was $6.978 billion.  Thus it was basically flat, and this was during a period where the US population and GDP rose dramatically.  The broader monetary aggregates rose significantly, but the government didn’t even keep data on M1 and M2 until fairly recently.  No one in the 1920s thought the Fed should be targeting aggregates that didn’t even exist.
  3. Housing inflation:  There was no housing bubble in 1929, so there was nothing to burst and cause a depression.
  4. Asset inflation:  There was a stock price boom and crash, but we saw a crash of almost identical magnitude in 1987, and it had zero impact on the economy.  In any case, it would be odd to call rising stock prices “inflation,” because none of these internet Austrian commenters call falling stock prices “deflation.”  Stocks did very poorly during the 1966-82 period, yet I don’t see internet Austrians calling America’s Great Inflation a period of “deflation.”
  5. The price of gold:  Lots of modern internet Austrians focus on soaring gold prices as an indicator of inflation.  If we are going to use gold prices as a proxy, then here are the inflation rates for each year of the 1920s:  0%, 0%, 0%, 0%, 0%, 0%, 0%, 0%, 0%, and 0%.
  6. NGDP:  Ah, now we are talking.  I wish the term ‘inflation’ was used for rising NGDP, not rising prices.  And of course Hayek favored a stable NGDP.  If that’s what they mean by ‘inflation,’ then they can claim a meager victory for the 1920s, but very meager.  NGDP was (according to estimates of Gordon and Balke) $95.98 billion in the first quarter of 1920, and $100.92 billion in the 4th quarter of 1929.  That’s an increase of roughly 5% over 10 years, or about 0.5% a year.  This means NGDP per capita was falling sharply, as the US population rose by more than 15% during the 1920s.  I.e. NGDP per capita did much worse in the 1920s than it has in Japan during an 18 year period where total NGDP actually fell.  In fairness, there were sub-periods of faster NGDP growth, such as the 3% annual growth between the 1926:3 and 1929:3 cyclical peaks.  But that’s still far below average for the US, and thus I have trouble imagining how it could trigger the severe economic slump in late 1929.

And by the way, interest rates were not particularly low during the 1920s, particularly when you consider that it was a period of deflation.  So no one can seriously claim the Fed was following a low interest rate policy.

In my view monetary policy during the 1920s comes closer to the Austrian ideal than any other recent decade.  Then in the early 1930s we had deflation by almost any indicator (prices, NGDP, M1, M2, stock prices, etc) and the economy did poorly.  Too bad the Fed didn’t try to keep NGDP at $100 billion (as Hayek’s policy rule would have called for), instead of letting it fall to less than $50 billion in early 1933.

Austrian monetary economics has some great ideas–most notably NGDP targeting.  I wish internet Austrians would pay more attention to Hayek, and less attention to whomever is telling them that the Depression was triggered by the collapse of an inflationary bubble during the 1920s.  There was no inflationary bubble, by any reasonable definition of the word “inflation.”

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About Scott Sumner 492 Articles

Affiliation: Bentley University

Scott Sumner has taught economics at Bentley University for the past 27 years.

He earned a BA in economics at Wisconsin and a PhD at University of Chicago.

Professor Sumner's current research topics include monetary policy targets and the Great Depression. His areas of interest are macroeconomics, monetary theory and policy, and history of economic thought.

Professor Sumner has published articles in the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, and the Bulletin of Economic Research.

Visit: TheMoneyIllusion

7 Comments on The Myth at the Heart of Internet Austrianism

  1. You think money creating as inflation is absurd? It’s the original definition. We already have a word for rising prices… rising prices. What word do I have for increasing the money supply if we let people like you bastardize the word?

    Banks create new money when they loan, it’s called ‘fractional reserve banking’. Banks made lots of loans in the 20s as it was legal to loan money for the purpose of investing in equities, ‘buying on margin’. The loaned money to purchase the stocks were inflation. Over leveraged banks and a market dip triggered margin calls, and a deflationary spiral.

    • It saddens me greatly that many people define inflation as the increase in prices when that increase in prices across the board is a result of an inflation of the money supply.

      I would find the author more convincing if he actually addressed critiques by other economists such as Rothbard in “America’s Great Depression” from which most of the casual economists obtain their platform. I cannot fault someone who takes a casual interest in not having reams of data on hand to support a position at which they arrived from reading a book with that data in it perhaps a decade ago.

      While this might be useful in using online against those claims it does no more disprove the cause than the online statements of casual economists due to prove it.

  2. “This post is not about Austrian economics, a field I know relatively little about.”

    Then don’t mention it. Allegedly you are an economist, do some actual research. Maybe read a book? Do you allow your students to be so intellectually lazy? Do oil prices impact inflation? Do you understand our monetary system, and how it has changed since 1920? Like from a technical perspective? You don’t seem to, see your commentary on gold in the 20s.

    I will admit, many “internet Austrians” do not understand economics. That said, someone with a PhD ought to actually read what they are attempting to refute. You don’t understand the Austrian Theory of the Business (Trade) Cycle, so you cannot even attempt to critique it. It is not “inflation” that is the problem at all.

    I work on Wall Street, I have read Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Hülsmann. It is far more useful than much of what is written.

  3. Scott: I’m not sure whether I classify as an internet Austrian or not, but that should not matter.

    Please see the table on page 92 of this book. Better yet, please read all of chapter 4, which begins on p. 84.:

    For the stock market to rise by a factor of 5 between 1921 (the important date, since there was a monetary contraction until then) and 1929, while NGDP still rose moderately, there must necessarily have been a greater quantity of money in the economic system to push stock prices higher (unless the prices of other significant assets FELL). It’s impossible for stocks to rise without more money making them rise–dramatically more money must have been spent. It’s mathematically inescapable. Where did the additional money come from? It had to come from somewhere. As an aside (or related to the last comment), there was in fact a housing boom in the mid 20s prior to the stock market boom.

    Otherwise, what’s your explanation for the rise in stock prices, and the source of collapse in stock prices of 90%?

    Best Regards.

    P.S. “Inflation” historically referred to the quantity of money, not the price level.

  4. “…Austrian economics, a field I know relatively little about.”

    No kidding.

    This article is one big heaping pile of fail.

    Your approach is like running Micosoft commands into a Linus terminal. You sir, are colossally stupid. “His areas of interest are macroeconomics, monetary theory and policy, and history of economic thought.”

    Apparently not.

    Take a look at Europe… now pick up Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State.

    Good luck.

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