Whether it's the 1930s or the 2010s, depressions are the only casualties in a currency war
I don't know how it compares to peeing in your bed, as one anonymous senior Fed official put it, but a currency war is one of the surest ways to end a global slump. Despite what you may have heard, it was a big part of what stopped the vicious circle of the Great Depression.
Currency wars are the best type of wars. Nobody dies, and everybody can recover, as long as everybody plays along. Here's how it works. One country devalues its currency -- in other words, prints money -- which, in a time of weak global demand, puts pressure on other countries to do the same, lest they lose out on trade. Then another country devalues, and so on, in a cascade of looser money. It's the invisible hand pushing for expansionary monetary policy when it's needed most.
But there are a few caveats. For one, a currency war only makes sense during a global depression when short-term interest rates are mostly stuck at zero. It's about boosting monetary stimulus when conventional methods are out of ammo. For another, devaluing forever (a là China) is not a sustainable growth strategy. It might make sense for developing nations to subsidize export industries early on, but, eventually, this will only cause imbalances to build up, while robbing the domestic population of purchasing power. And finally, there's a risk that a currency war could turn into a trade war. In other words, countries will retaliate to expansionary monetary policy not with expansionary monetary policy of their own, but with tariffs. Presumably that's what our silver-tongued senior Fed official was getting at with this head-scratcher of a quote:
Devaluing a currency is like peeing in bed. It feels good at first, but pretty soon it becomes a real mess.
This fear of a currency war begetting a trade war is certainly serious, but it's made to sound more serious thanks to some bad history. Here's the erroneous story you might have heard (especially now that Japan's talk of more aggressive easing has revived fears of a currency war):
After the Great Crash of 1929, countries abandoned the gold standard and devalued their currencies in a beggar-thy-neighbor battle to the bottom. This currency war turned into a trade war, with countries eventually resorting to tariffs and counter-tariffs, as they tried to grab a hold on an ever-shrinking pie of demand. The consequent collapse in world trade is what made the Great Depression so great, and set the stage for the trade war to turn into an actual one.
Scary stuff. But not quite true. The reality is the trade war started before the currency war, and the latter jump-started recovery wherever it was tried. The infamous Smoot-Hawley tariff in the U.S., the first salvo in the trade war to come, was actually passed in June 1930, more than a full year before any country devalued its currency. It wasn't until September 1931 that Britain abandoned the gold standard ... and that's when things get a bit complicated. It's hard to accuse Britain of "competitive" devaluation here, because it had no choice but devaluation; it had simply run out of gold. Nonetheless, other countries responded to Britain's increased competitiveness by increasing their trade barriers; in this case, the currency war, such as it was, did exacerbate the ongoing trade war, as Gavyn Davies of the Financial Times points out.
But then a funny thing happened. The punishment for Britain's economic weakness was a recovery. Ditching gold gave Britain (and everybody else who did so) the freedom to pursue more aggressive monetary and fiscal policies than the "rules of the game" of the gold standard had allowed.* As you can see in the chart below (via Brad DeLong) from Barry Eichengreen's magisterial work on the depression, Golden Fetters, recovery followed devaluation everywhere. There was no reward for financial orthodoxy in the 1930s. The countries that stayed with the gold standard the longest, the so-called Gold Bloc of France, Belgium, and Poland, were the last to begin growing again. In other words, the currency war didn't deepen the depression; it ended it.
And that brings us to one last, stupid question. How did beggar-thy-neighbor policies kickstart growth even after world trade had already collapsed? In other words, how did stealing a trade advantage help so much when there wasn't much trade to steal? Well, it's not entirely, or even mostly, about stealing trade. Indeed, as Scott Sumner points out, the U.S. trade balance actually worsened in 1933 after FDR took us off gold, even as the economy quickly reversed its death-spiral and began a virtuous cycle. It's easiest to frame devaluation as grabbing demand from abroad, but it's really about increasing demand at home. Devaluation means printing money, and more money during a liquidity trap means more demand, period. It also allows more stimulus spending than a fixed-exchange rate system (like the gold standard) would. The next time you hear someone lamenting the "destructive devaluations that followed the Great Depression," remember to ask them -- what was so destructive about ending the most destructive depression in modern history?
The only thing we have to fear is fear of currency wars itself. Depressions are the only casualties in these kind of conflicts.
* There were two exceptions. The gold standard did not constrain looser monetary policy in the U.S. and France in the early years of the depression, as both had more than enough gold to back more credit growth, but chose instead to sterilize their gold inflows out of fear of nonexistent inflation in the face of actual deflation. This stockpiling drained everybody else of gold, and consequently made staying on the gold standard impossible. Even the U.S. and France had to eventually abandon it to reverse years of deflation.
Trump’s attacks on the free press don’t just threaten the media—they undermine the public’s capacity to think, act, and defend democracy.
Are Donald Trump’s latest attacks on the press really that bad? Are they that out-of-the-ordinary, given the famous record of complaints nearly all his predecessors have lodged? (Even George Washington had a hostile-press problem.)
Are the bellows of protest from reporters, editors, and others of my press colleagues justified? Or just another sign that the press is nearly as thin-skinned as Trump himself, along with being even less popular?
I could prolong the buildup, but here is the case I’m going to make: Yes, they’re that bad, and worse.
I think Trump’s first month in office, capped by his “enemy of the people” announcement about the press, has been even more ominous and destructive than the Trump of the campaign trail would have prepared us for, which is of course saying something. And his “lying media” campaign matters not only in itself, which it does, but also because it is part of what is effectively an assault by Trump on the fundamentals of democratic governance.
Jewish Community Centers around the country have been bombarded by menacing phone calls. For the most part, people are sad, not scared.
The Nashville Jewish Community Center has now gotten so many telephone bomb threats that the dates run together, said Leslie Sax, the executive director. The first call came on January 9, when Nashville was one of the first 15 JCCs to get threats. The next call was January 18, accompanying yet another national wave. The latest was just this weekend, on Presidents’ Day, when 11 JCCs around the country were threatened, according to a spokesperson for the national organization. The Nashville facility, more full than usual with people exercising on the holiday weekend, was evacuated before security gave the all-clear.
“Most people just feel sadness—they’re sad that this is happening,” Sax said. “Everyone keeps saying they’re disheartened and frustrated.” But even though people are upset, they don’t seem to be scared. “I haven’t heard fear,” she said.
Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states—these are what reliably reduce economic disparities.
Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.
The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this “Great Compression” (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.
Joe Moran’s book Shrinking Violets is a sweeping history that doubles as a (quiet) defense of timidity.
The Heimlich maneuver, in the nearly 50 years since Dr. Henry Heimlich established its protocol, has been credited with saving many lives. But not, perhaps, as many as it might have. The maneuver, otherwise so wonderfully simple to execute, has a marked flaw: It requires that choking victims, before anything can be done to help them, first alert other people to the fact that they are choking. And some people, it turns out, are extremely reluctant to do so. “Sometimes,” Dr. Heimlich noted, bemoaning how easily human nature can become a threat to human life, “a victim of choking becomes embarrassed by his predicament and succeeds in getting up and leaving the area unnoticed.” If no one happens upon him, “he will die or suffer permanent brain damage within seconds.”
Experts on Turkish politics say the use of that term misunderstands what it means in Turkey—and the ways that such allegations can be used to enable political repression.
Over the last week, the idea of a “deep state” in the United States has become a hot concept in American politics. The idea is not new, but a combination of leaks about President Trump and speculation that bureaucrats might try to slow-walk or undermine his agenda have given it fresh currency. A story in Friday’s New York Times, for example, reports, “As Leaks Multiply, Fears of a ‘Deep State’ in America.”
It’s an idea that I touched on in discussing the leaks. While there are various examples of activity that has been labeled as originating from a “deep state,” from Latin America to Egypt, the most prominent example is Turkey, where state institutions contain a core of diehard adherents to the secular nationalism of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which is increasingly being eroded by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey has seen a series of coups, stretching back to 1960, as well as other activity attributed to a deep state.
The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
It’s 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
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By replacing Mike Flynn with H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump added one of the most talented officers the U.S. Army has ever produced to his team.
Let me be as clear as I can be: The president’s selection of H.R. McMaster to be his new national security advisor is unambiguously good news. The United States, and the world, are safer for his decision.
McMaster is one of the most talented officers the U.S. Army has ever produced. That sounds like hyperbole but isn’t. In the Gulf War, he led an armored cavalry troop. At the Battle of 73 Easting—a battle much studied since—his 12 tanks destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 armored personnel carriers, and 30 trucks. In 23 minutes.
In the next Iraq war, he led a brigade in 2005 and was among the first U.S. commanders to think differently about the conflict and employ counterinsurgency tactics to pacify Tal Afar—one of the most wickedly complex cities in Iraq. He excelled at two different echelons of command in two very different wars.
The Border Adjustment Tax, a proposal favored by House Speaker Paul Ryan, has aroused serious opposition from Republican senators.
Donald Trump is feeling good about taxes. In his gonzo press conference last Thursday, he assured Americans that “very historic tax reform” is absolutely on track and is going to be—wait for it!—“big league.” The week before, he told a bunch of airline CEOs that “big league” reform was “way head of schedule” and that his people would be announcing something “phenomenal” in “two or three weeks.” And at his Orlando pep rally this past weekend, he gushed about his idea for a punitive 35 percent border tax on products manufactured overseas. The magic is happening, people. And soon America’s tax code will be the best, most beautiful in the world.
But here’s the thing. What Trump doesn’t know about the legislative process could overflow the pool at Mar-a Lago. And when it comes to tax reform, even minor changes make Congress lose its mind. Weird fault lines appear, and the next thing you know, warring factions have painted their faces blue and vowed to die on the blood-soaked battlefield before allowing this marginal rate to change or that loophole to close.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like” Trump’s approach to national security, says a former counterterrorism adviser to three presidents.
Updated on February 20 at 4:40 p.m. ET
President Donald Trump has made national security a centerpiece of his agenda, justifying policies ranging from a travel ban to close relations with Russia. But the United States is now more vulnerable to attack than it was before Trump took office, according to the man who served as George W. Bush’s crisis manager on 9/11.
“In terms of a major terrorist attack in the United States or on U.S. facilities, I think we’re significantly less ready than we were on January 19,” said Richard Clarke, who served on the National Security Council in the George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations. “I think our readiness is extremely low and dangerously low. Certainly [government] agencies at a professional level will respond [to an attack], but having a coordinated interagency response is unlikely given the current cast of characters [in the administration] and their experience.”