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3. The Causes of the Economic Crisis: An Address (1931)

III. The Present Crisis

The crisis from which we are now suffering is also the outcome of a credit expansion. The present crisis is the unavoidable sequel to a boom. Such a crisis necessarily follows every boom generated by the attempt to reduce the “natural rate of interest” through increasing the fiduciary media. However, the present crisis differs in some essential points from earlier crises, just as the preceding boom differed from earlier economic upswings.

The most recent boom period did not run its course completely, at least not in Europe. Some countries and some branches of production were not generally or very seriously affected by the upswing which, in many lands, was quite turbulent. A bit of the previous depression continued, even into the upswing. On that account—in line with our theory and on the basis of past experience—one would assume that this time the crisis will be milder. However, it is certainly much more severe than earlier crises and it does not appear likely that business conditions will soon improve.

The unprofitability of many branches of production and the unemployment of a sizable portion of the workers can obviously not be due to the slowdown in business alone. Both the unprofitability and the unemployment are being intensified right now by the general depression. However, in this postwar period, they have become lasting phenomena which do not disappear entirely even in the upswing. We are confronted here with a new problem, one that cannot be answered by the theory of cyclical changes alone.

Let us consider, first of all, unemployment.

A. UNEMPLOYMENT

1. The Market Wage Process

Wage rates are market phenomena, just as interest rates and commodity prices are. Wage rates are determined by the productivity of labor. At the wage rates toward which the market is tending, all those seeking work find employment and all entrepreneurs find the workers they are seeking. However, the interrelated phenomena of the market from which the “static” or “natural” wage rates evolve are always undergoing changes that generate shifts in wage rates among the various occupational groups. There is also always a definite time lag before those seeking work and those offering work have found one another. As a result, there are always sure to be a certain number of unemployed.

Just as there are always houses standing empty and persons looking for housing on the unhampered market, just as there are always unsold wares in markets and persons eager to purchase wares they have not yet found, so there are always persons who are looking for work. However, on the unhampered market, this unemployment cannot attain vast proportions. Those capable of work will not be looking for work over a considerable period—many months or even years—without finding it.

If a worker goes a long time without finding the employment he seeks in his former occupation, he must either reduce the wage rate he asks or turn to some other field where he hopes to obtain a higher wage than he can now get in his former occupation. For the entrepreneur, the employment of workers is a part of doing business. If the wage rate drops, the profitability of his enterprise rises and he can employ more workers. So by reducing the wage rates they seek, workers are in a position to raise the demand for labor.

This in no way means that the market would tend to push wage rates down indefinitely. Just as competition among workers has the tendency to lower wages, so does competition among employers tend to drive them up again. Market wage rates thus develop from the interplay of demand and supply.

The force with which competition among employers affects workers may be seen very clearly by referring to the two mass migrations which characterized the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The oft-cited exodus from the land rested on the fact that agriculture had to release workers to industry. Agriculture could not pay the higher wage rates which industry could and which, in fact, industry had to offer in order to attract workers from housework, hand labor and agriculture. The migration of workers was continually out of regions where wages were held down by the inferiority of general conditions of production and into areas where the productivity made it possible to pay higher wages.

Out of every increase in productivity, the wage earner receives his share. For profitable enterprises seeking to expand, the only means available to attract more workers is to raise wage rates. The prodigious increase in the living standard of the masses, that accompanied the development of capitalism, is the result of the rise in real wages which kept abreast of the increase in industrial productivity.

This self-adjusting process of the market is severely disturbed now by the interference of unions whose effectiveness evolved under the protection and with the assistance of governmental power.

2. The Labor Union Wage Rate Concept

According to labor union doctrine, wages are determined by the balance of power. According to this view, if the unions succeed in intimidating the entrepreneurs, through force or threat of force, and holding nonunion workers off with the use of brute force, then wage rates can be set at whatever height desired without the appearance of any undesirable side effects. Thus, the conflict between employers and workers seems to be a struggle in which justice and morality are entirely on the side of the workers. Interest on capital and entrepreneurial profit appear to be ill-gotten gains. They are alleged to come from the exploitation of the worker and should be set aside for unemployment relief. This task, according to union doctrine, should be accomplished not only by increased wage rates but also through taxes and welfare spending which, in a regime dominated by pro-labor union parties, is to be used indirectly for the benefit of the workers.

The labor unions use force to attain their goals. Only union members, who ask the established union wage rate and who work according to union-prescribed methods, are permitted to work in industrial undertakings. Should an employer refuse to accept union conditions, there are work stoppages. Workers who would like to work, in spite of the reproach heaped on such an undertaking by the union, are forced by acts of violence to give up any such plan. This tactic on the part of the labor unions presupposes, of course, that the government at least acquiesces in their behavior.

3. The Cause of Unemployment

If the government were to proceed against those who molest persons willing to work and those who destroy machines and industrial equipment in enterprises that want to hire strikebreakers, as it normally does against the other perpetrators of violence, the situation would be very different. However, the characteristic feature of modern governments is that they have capitulated to the labor unions.

The unions now have the power to raise wage rates above what they would be on the unhampered market. However, interventions of this type evoke a reaction. At market wage rates, everyone looking for work can find work. Precisely this is the essence of market wages—they are established at the point at which demand and supply tend to coincide. If the wage rates are higher than this, the number of employed workers goes down. Unemployment then develops as a lasting phenomenon. At the wage rates established by the unions, a substantial portion of the workers cannot find any work at all. Wage increases for a portion of the workers are at the expense of an ever more sharply rising number of unemployed.

Those without work would probably tolerate this situation for a limited time only. Eventually they would say: “Better a lower wage, than no wage at all.” Even the labor unions could not withstand an assault by hundreds of thousands, or millions of would-be workers. The labor union policy of holding off those willing to work would collapse. Market wage rates would prevail once again. It is here that unemployment relief is brought into play and its role [in keeping workers from competing on the labor market] needs no further explanation.

Thus, we see that unemployment, as a long-term mass phenomenon, is the consequence of the labor union policy of driving wage rates up. Without unemployment relief, this policy would have collapsed long ago. Thus, unemployment relief is not a means for alleviating the want caused by unemployment, as is assumed by misguided public opinion. It is on the contrary, one link in the chain of causes which actually makes unemployment a long-term mass phenomenon.

4. The Remedy for Mass Unemployment

Appreciation of this relationship has certainly become more widespread in recent years. With all due caution and with a thousand reservations, it is even generally admitted that labor union wage policy is responsible for the extent and duration of unemployment. All serious proposals for fighting unemployment depend on recognition of this theory. When proposals are made to reimburse entrepreneurs, directly or indirectly from public funds, for a part of their wage costs, if they seek to recruit the unemployed in their plants, then it is being recognized that entrepreneurs would employ more workers at a lower wage scale. If it is suggested that the national or municipal government undertake projects without considering their profitability, projects which private enterprise does not want to carry out because they are not profitable, this too simply means that wage rates are so high that they do not permit these undertakings to make profits. (Incidentally, it may be noted that this latter proposal entirely overlooks the fact that a government can build and invest only if it withdraws the necessary means from the private economy. So putting this proposal into effect must lead to just as much new unemployment on one side as it eliminates on the other.)

Then again, if a reduction in hours of work is considered, this too implies recognition of our thesis. For after all, this proposal seeks to shorten the working hours in such a way that all the unemployed will find work, and so that each individual worker, to the extent that he will have less work than he does today, will be entitled to receive less pay. Obviously this assumes that no more work is to be found at the present rate of pay than is currently being provided. The fact that wage rates are too high to give employment to everyone is also admitted by anyone who asks workers to increase production without raising wage rates. It goes without saying that, wherever hourly wages prevail, this means a reduction in the price of labor. If one assumes a cut in the piece rate, labor would also be cheaper where piece work prevails. Obviously then, the crucial factor is not the absolute height of hourly or daily wage rates, but the wage costs which yield a definite output.

However, the demand to reduce wage rates is now also being made openly. In fact, wage rates have already been substantially lowered in many enterprises. Workers are called upon by the press and government officials to relax some of their wage demands and to make a sacrifice for the sake of the general welfare. To make this bearable, the prospect of price cuts is held out to the workers, and the governments try to secure price reductions by putting pressure on the entrepreneurs.

However, it is not a question of reducing wage rates. This bears repeating with considerable emphasis. The problem is to re-establish freedom in the determination of wage rates. It is true that in the beginning this would lead to a reduction in money wage rates for many groups of workers. How far this drop in wage rates must go to eliminate unemployment as a lasting phenomenon can be shown only by the free determination of wage rates on the labor market. Negotiations between union leaders and business combinations, with or without the cooperation of officials, decisions by arbitrators or similar techniques of interventionism are no substitute. The determination of wage rates must become free once again. The formation of wage rates should be hampered neither by the clubs of striking pickets nor by government's apparatus of force. Only if the determination of wage rates is free, will they be able to fulfill their function of bringing demand and supply into balance on the labor market.

5. The Effects of Government Intervention

The demand that a reduction in prices be tied in with the reduction in wage rates ignores the fact that wage rates appear too high precisely because wage reductions have not accompanied the practically universal reduction in prices. Granted, the prices of many articles could not join the drop in prices as they would on an unhampered market, either because they were protected by special governmental interventions (tariffs, for instance) or because they contained substantial costs in the form of taxes and higher than unhampered market wage rates. The decline in the price of coal was held up in Germany because of the rigidity of wage rates which, in the mining of hard coal, come to 56 percent of the value of production.1 The domestic price of iron in Germany can remain above the world market price only because tariff policy permits the creation of a national iron cartel and international agreements among national cartels. Here too, one need ask only that those interferences which thwart the free market formation of prices be abolished. There is no need to call for a price reduction to be dictated by government, labor unions, public opinion or anyone else.

Against the assertion that unemployment is due to the extreme height of wages, it is entirely wrong to introduce the argument that wages are still higher elsewhere. If workers enjoyed complete freedom to move, there would be a tendency throughout the economic world for wage rates for similar work to be uniform. However, in recent years, the freedom of movement for workers has been considerably reduced, even almost completely abolished. The labor unions ask the government to forbid the migration of workers from abroad lest such immigrants frustrate union policy by underbidding the wage rates demanded by the unions.

If there had been no immigration restrictions, millions of workers would have migrated from Europe to the United States in recent decades. This migration would have reduced the differences between American and European wage rates. By stopping immigration into the United States, wage rates are raised there and lowered in Europe. It is not the hardheartedness of European capitalists, but the labor policy of the United States (and of Australia and other foreign countries too) which is responsible for the size of the gap between wage rates here in Europe and overseas. After all, the workers in most European countries follow the same policy of keeping out foreign competitors. They, too, restrict or even prohibit foreign workers from coming into their countries so as to protect in this way the labor union policy of holding up wage rates.

6. The Process of Progress

A popular doctrine makes “rationalization” responsible for unemployment. As a result of “rationalization,” practically universal “rationalization,” it is held that those workers who cannot find employment anywhere become surplus. “Rationalization” is a modern term which has been in use for only a short time. The concept, however, is by no means new. The capitalistic entrepreneur is continually striving to make production and marketing more efficient. There have been times when the course of “rationalization” has been relatively more turbulent than in recent years. “Rationalization” was taking place on a large scale when the blacksmith was replaced by the steel and rolling mills, handweaving and spinning by mechanical looms and spindles, the stagecoach by the steam engine—even though the word “rationalization” was not then known and even though there were then no officials, advisory boards and commissions with reports, programs and dogmas such as go along with the technical revolution today.

Industrial progress has always set workers free. There have always been shortsighted persons who, fearing that no employment would be found for the released workers, have tried to stop the progress. Workers have always resisted technical improvement and writers have always been found to justify this opposition. Every increase in the productivity of labor has been carried out in spite of the determined resistance of governments, “philanthropists,” “moralists” and workers. If the theory which attributes unemployment to “rationalization” were correct, then 99 out of 100 workers at the end of the nineteenth century would have been out of work.

Workers released by the introduction of industrial technology find employment in other positions. The ranks of newly developing branches of industry are filled with these workers. The additional commodities available for consumption, which come in the wake of “rationalization,” are produced with their labor. Today this process is hampered by the fact that those workers who are released receive unemployment relief and so do not consider it necessary to change their occupation and place of work in order to find employment again. It is not on account of “rationalization,” but because the unemployed are relieved of the necessity of looking around for new work, that unemployment has become a lasting phenomenon.

B. PRICE DECLINES AND PRICE SUPPORTS

1. The Subsidization of Surpluses

The opposition to market determination of prices is not limited to wages and interest rates. Once the stand is taken not to permit the structure of market prices to work its effect on production there is no reason to stop short of commodity prices.

If the prices of coal, sugar, coffee or rye go down, this means that consumers are asking more urgently for other commodities. As a result of the decline in such prices, some concerns producing these commodities become unprofitable and are forced to reduce production or shut down completely. The capital and labor thus released are then shifted to other branches of the economy in order to produce commodities for which a stronger demand prevails.

However, politics interferes once again. It tries to hinder the adjustment of production to the requirements of consumption—by coming to the aid of the producer who is hurt by price reductions.

In recent years, capitalistic methods of production have been applied more and more extensively to the production of raw materials. As always, wherever capitalism prevails, the result has been an astonishing increase in productivity. Grain, fruit, meat, rubber, wool, cotton, oil, copper, coal, minerals are all much more readily available now than they were before the war and in the early postwar years. Yet, it was just a short while ago that governments believed they had to devise ways and means to ease the shortage of raw materials. When, without any help from them, the years of plenty came, they immediately took up the cudgels to prevent this wealth from having its full effect for economic well-being. The Brazilian government wants to prevent the decline in the price of coffee so as to protect plantation owners who operate on poorer soil or with less capital from having to cut down or give up cultivation. The much richer United States government wants to stop the decline in the price of wheat and in many other prices because it wants to relieve the farmer working on poorer soil of the need to adjust or discontinue his enterprise.

Tremendous sums are sacrificed throughout the world in completely hopeless attempts to forestall the effects of the improvements made under capitalistic production. Billions are spent in the fruitless effort to maintain prices and in direct subsidy to those producers who are less capable of competing. Further billions are indirectly used for the same goals, through protective tariffs and similar measures which force consumers to pay higher prices. The aim of all these interventions—which drive prices up so high as to keep in business producers who would otherwise be unable to meet competition—can certainly never be attained. However, all these measures delay the processing industries, which use capital and labor, in adjusting their resources to the new supplies of raw materials produced. Thus the increase in commodities represents primarily an embarrassment and not an improvement in living standards. Instead of becoming a blessing for the consumer, the wealth becomes a burden for him, if he must pay for the government interventions in the form of higher taxes and tariffs.

2. The Need for Readjustments

The cultivation of wheat in central Europe was jeopardized by the increase in overseas production. Even if European farmers were more efficient, more skilled in modern methods and better supplied with capital, even if the prevailing industrial arrangement were not small and pygmy-sized, wasteful, productivity-hampering enterprises, these farms on less fertile soil with less favorable weather conditions, still could not rival the wheat farms of Canada. Central Europe must reduce its cultivation of grain, as it cut down on the breeding of sheep decades ago. The billions which the hopeless struggle against the better soil of America has already cost is money uselessly squandered. The future of central European agriculture does not lie in the cultivation of grain. Denmark and Holland have shown that agriculture can exist in Europe even without the protection of tariffs, subsidies and special privileges. However, the economy of central Europe will depend in the future, to a still greater extent than before, on industry.

By this time, it is easy to understand the paradox of the phenomenon that higher yields in the production of raw materials and foodstuffs cause harm. The interventions of governments and of the privileged groups, which seek to hinder the adjustment of the market to the situation brought about by new circumstances, mean that an abundant harvest brings misfortune to everyone.

In recent decades, in almost all countries of the world, attempts have been made to use high protective tariffs to develop economic self-sufficiency (autarky) among smaller and middle-sized domains. Tremendous sums have been invested in manufacturing plants for which there was no economic demand. The result is that we are rich today in physical structures, the facilities of which cannot be fully exploited or perhaps not even used at all.

The result of all these efforts to annul the laws which the market decrees for the capitalistic economy is, briefly, lasting unemployment of many millions, unprofitability for industry and agriculture, and idle factories. As a result of all these, political controversies become seriously aggravated, not only within countries but also among nations.

C. TAX POLICY

1. The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality

The harmful influence of politics on the economy goes far beyond the consequences of the interventionist measures previously discussed.

There is no need to mention the mobilization policies of the government, the continual controversies constantly emerging from nationalistic conflicts in multi-lingual communities and the anxiety caused by saber rattling ministers and political parties. All of these things create unrest. Thus, they may indirectly aggravate the crisis situation and especially the uneasiness of the business world.

Financial policy, however, works directly.

The share of the people's income which government exacts for its expenditures, even entirely apart from military spending, is continually rising. There is hardly a single country in Europe in which tremendous sums are not being wasted on largely misguided national and municipal economic undertakings. Everywhere, we see government continually taking over new tasks when it is hardly able to carry out satisfactorily its previous obligations. Everywhere, we see the bureaucracy swell in size. As a result, taxes are rising everywhere. At a time when the need to reduce production costs is being universally discussed, new taxes are being imposed on production. Thus the economic crisis is, at the same time, a crisis in public finance also. This crisis in public finance will not be resolved without a complete revision of government operations.

One widely held view, which easily dominates public opinion today, maintains that taxes on wealth are harmless. Thus every governmental expenditure is justified, if the funds to pay for it are not raised by taxing mass consumption or imposing income taxes on the masses. This idea, which must be held responsible for the mania toward extravagance in government expenditures, has caused those in charge of government financial policy to lose completely any feeling of a need for economy. Spending a large part of the people's income in senseless ways—in order to carry out futile price support operations, to undertake the hopeless task of trying to support with subsidies unprofitable enterprises which could not otherwise survive, to cover the losses of unprofitable public enterprises and to finance the unemployment of millions—would not be justified, even if the funds for the purpose were collected in ways that do not aggravate the crisis. However, tax policy is aimed primarily, or even exclusively, at taxing the yield on capital and the capital itself. This leads to a slowing down of capital formation and even, in many countries, to capital consumption. However, this concerns not capitalists only, as generally assumed. The quantitatively lower the ratio of capital to workers, the lower the wage rates which develop on the free labor market. Thus, even workers are affected by this policy.

Because of tax legislation, entrepreneurs must frequently operate their businesses differently from the way reason would otherwise indicate. As a result, productivity declines and consequently so does the provision of goods for consumption. As might be expected, capitalists shy away from leaving capital in countries with the highest taxation and turn to lands where taxes are lower. It becomes more difficult, on that account, for the system of production to adjust to the changing pattern of economic demand.

Financial policy certainly did not create the crisis. However, it does contribute substantially to making it worse.

D. GOLD PRODUCTION

1. The Decline in Prices

One popular doctrine blames the crisis on the insufficiency of gold production.

The basic error in this attempt to explain the crisis rests on equating a drop in prices with a crisis. A slow, steady, downward slide in the prices of all goods and services could be explained by the relationship to the production of gold. Businessmen have become accustomed to a relationship of the demand for, and supply of, gold from which a slow steady rise in prices emerges as a secular (continuing) trend. However, they could just as easily have become reconciled to some other arrangement—and they certainly would have if developments had made that necessary. After all, the businessman's most important characteristic is flexibility. The businessman can operate at a profit, even if the general tendency of prices is downward, and economic conditions can even improve then too.

The turbulent price declines since 1929 were definitely not generated by the gold production situation. Moreover, gold production has nothing to do with the fact that the decline in prices is not universal, nor that it does not specifically involve wages also.

It is true that there is a close connection between the quantity of gold produced and the formation of prices. Fortunately, this is no longer in dispute. If gold production had been considerably greater than it actually was in recent years, then the drop in prices would have been moderated or perhaps even prevented from appearing. It would be wrong, however, to assume that the phenomenon of the crisis would not then have occurred. The attempts of labor unions to drive wages up higher than they would have been on the unhampered market and the efforts of governments to alleviate the difficulties of various groups of producers have nothing to do with whether actual money prices are higher or lower.

Labor unions no longer contend over the height of money wages, but over the height of real wages. It is not because of low prices that producers of rye, wheat, coffee and so on are impelled to ask for government interventions. It is because of the unprofitability of their enterprises. However, the profitability of these enterprises would be no greater, even if prices were higher. For if the gold supply had been increased, not only would the prices of the products which the enterprises in question produce and want to sell have become or have remained proportionately higher, but so also would the prices of all the goods which comprise their costs. Then too, as in any inflation, an increase in the gold supply does not affect all prices at the same time, nor to the same extent. It helps some groups in the economy and hurts others. Thus no reason remains for assuming that an increase in the gold supply must, in a particular case, improve the situation for precisely those producers who now have cause to complain about the unprofitability of their undertakings. It could be that their situation would not only not be improved; it might even be worsened.

The error in equating the drop in prices with the crisis and, thus, considering the cause of this crisis to be the insufficient production of gold is especially dangerous. It leads to the view that the crisis could be overcome by increasing the fiduciary media in circulation. Thus the banks are asked to stimulate business conditions with the issue of additional banknotes and an additional credit expansion through credit entries. At first, to be sure, a boom can be generated in this way. However, as we have seen, such an upswing must eventually lead to a collapse in the business outlook and a new crisis.

2. Inflation as a “Remedy”

It is astonishing that sincere persons can either make such a demand or lend it support. Every possible argument in favor of such a scheme has already been raised a hundred times, and demolished a thousand times over. Only one argument is new, although on that account no less false. This is to the effect that the higher than unhampered market wage rates can be brought into proper relationship most easily by an inflation.

This argument shows how seriously concerned our political economists are to avoid displeasing the labor unions. Although they cannot help but recognize that wage rates are too high and must be reduced, they dare not openly call for a halt to such overpayments. Instead, they propose to outsmart the unions in some way. They propose that the actual money wage rate remain unchanged in the coming inflation. In effect, this would amount to reducing the real wage. This assumes, of course, that the unions will refrain from making further wage demands in the ensuing boom and that they will, instead, remain passive while their real wage rates deteriorate. Even if this entirely unjustified optimistic expectation is accepted as true, nothing is gained thereby. A boom caused by banking policy measures must still lead eventually to a crisis and a depression. So, by this method, the problem of lowering wage rates is not resolved but simply postponed.

Yet, all things considered, many may think it advantageous to delay the unavoidable showdown with labor union policy. However, this ignores the fact that, with each artificial boom, large sums of capital are malinvested and, as a result, wasted. Every diminution in society's stock of capital must lead toward a reduction in the “natural” or “static” wage rate. Thus, postponing the decision costs the masses a great deal. Moreover, it will make the final confrontation still more difficult, rather than easier.

  • 1. [This address to German industrialists was given in 1931.—Ed.]