TODAY’S RECESSION does not merely resemble the Great Depression; it is, to a real extent, a recurrence of it. It has the same unique causes and the same initial trajectory. Both downturns were triggered by a financial crisis coming on top of, and then deepening, a slowdown in industrial production and employment that had begun earlier and that was caused in part by rapid technological innovation. The 1920s saw the spread of electrification in industry; the 1990s saw the triumph of computerization in manufacturing and services. The recessions in 1926 and 2001 were both followed by “jobless recoveries.”
In each case, the financial crisis generated an overhang of consumer and business debt that—along with growing unemployment and underemployment, and the failure of real wages to rise—reduced effective demand to the point where the economy, without extensive government intervention, spun into a downward spiral of joblessness. The accumulation of debt also undermined the use of monetary policy to revive the economy. Even zero-percent interest rates could not induce private investment.
Finally, in contrast to the usual post-World War II recession, our current downturn, like the Great Depression, is global in character. Financial disturbances—aggravated by an unstable international monetary system—have spread globally. During the typical recession, a country suffering a downturn might hope to revive itself by cutting its spending. That might temporarily increase unemployment, but it would also depress wages and prices, simultaneously cutting the demand for imports and making a country’s exports more competitive against those of its rivals. But, when the recession is global, you get what John Maynard Keynes called the “paradox of thrift” writ large: As all nations cut their spending and attempt to devalue their currencies (which makes their exports cheaper), global demand shrinks still more, and the recession deepens.