HERBERT HOOVER is currently making one of his frequent reappearances in American political life. You have probably seen a good many references to him in the past several months, in relation to the state of the economy. With the publication of last month's unemployment figures, you are very likely to be seeing even more of him. In the past he has been evoked mainly on the left, by way of warning against the dangers of economic disaster ahead. It's interesting to see that same theme now turning up on the right, as conservative theorists and business lobbyists try to fight off a tax increase. Raising taxes in the midst of a recession, they argue, will have the same consequences as Mr. Hoover's attempts to balance his budget in the Depression.
But watch out. The analogy between the Hoover years and the present situation is exceedingly inexact.
The economic catastrophe of the Hoover years was a collapse of demand. There's still much academic controversy over the causes of it. But in the summer of 1929--a good two months before the stock market crash in October--production and prices began to fall at a dire rate. As incomes fell, people spent less, causing further unemployment in an accelerating spiral. The Depression reached its low point at just about the time Hoover left office, in early 1933. By that time, the gross national product had fallen nearly a third since 1929, and the unemployment rate was 25 percent--in a society with no unemployment compensation, no Social Security and no bank deposit insurance.
Whatever the pains and anxieties of the present moment, they are of an altogether different order. There is no sign whatever of a continuing downward spiral. Since the present recession began last summer, GNP has probably fallen about 3 percent. People's personal spending on consumption is holding up almost too nicely--it's higher now than it was at the beginning of the recession. The threat this summer is not a general collapse of incomes and demand, in the manner of 1929. The threat is the continuing oppressive weight of very high interest rates.
The American economy has been flat since early 1979. There have been small ups and downs, but along a plateau. Unemployment has risen by nearly 5 million over those 31/2 years, but not because the total number of jobs has plunged as it did in the Hoover period. While the number of jobs has risen since 1979, it has not risen fast enough to keep up with a growing population. There's no reason to hope that employment will rise fast enough until the interest rates come down.
The one thing that the federal government can most usefully do about interest rates is to reduce its own budget deficits. That requires, first of all, the tax increase now moving through Congress. Raising taxes in a conventional recession might well be perilous. But by far the greater peril now is the blight of excessive rates, sustained by fears of unmanageable federal deficits. It's a difficult year for the economy, but it's not 1929.