The Magazine

Who Built the Recession?

Two guilty parties.

Sep 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 01 • By JEFFREY BELL and RICH DANKER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Bill Clinton, who rode a recession into office and left the scene just before another one began, knows something about the blame game. Addressing the Democratic convention on Wednesday night, he made a full-throated effort to defend the Obama presidency by putting it in the context of past Republican failure.

Former President Clinton

NEWSCOM

“They want to go back to the same old policies that got us into trouble in the first place,” he warned, listing tax cuts, financial deregulation, defense spending, and domestic budget cuts as examples. Clinton’s argument was an inch deep, but it recalled the fact that the economic catastrophe that primed Obama’s 2008 victory and has dogged his incumbency remains a liability to Republicans four years later.

If Clinton and his party believe that tax cuts can cause a financial crisis, that’s a new line of attack. If they believe that financial deregulation did it, they have never made a comprehensive case for exactly how. If it was too much spending on defense rather than entitlements, then they should review the boom of the 1980s. The Democrats have never really made a coherent argument of how the GOP caused such misery—they only pointed the finger. Meanwhile, Republicans act as if life began in January 2009.

There remains one explanation that has escaped both sides’ scrutiny because they share culpability for it. Beginning in 2001, easy money from the Federal Reserve flooded the markets with cheap credit, creating asset bubbles and finally tipping the American financial system on its side. This was a period of legitimate economic success (52 consecutive months of job growth under President George W. Bush) mixed with fake wealth attached to real estate and financial assets. No Republican is eager to wade into that story, while no Democrat wants to admit that their current strategy is reminiscent of it: Lean on the Fed to juice the economy.

Reliance on a loose-money Fed did not end well for the presidents who attempted it (Nixon, Carter, both Bushes), while Reagan and Clinton, by contrast, saw the fruits of a strong dollar. But even those relatively successful monetary policy records showed signs of dysfunction beneath the surface. Reagan was fortunate the rest of the world was eager to finance the deficit spending he failed to curb. For Clinton, the tech bubble collapse snowballed into a recession, but only on his way out the door.

Clinton can point the finger as well as anybody, but outside of the political arena he has shown he has some understanding of this issue. In an appearance at the Peterson Foundation in 2010, he responded to a question from moderator Bob Schieffer about the SEC’s battle with Goldman Sachs by looking at the bigger picture of how finance came to dominate the economy. Clinton explained: “Ever since we went off the gold standard, which was necessary for economic management purposes, if you look at it we had a global financial economy before we had a global trade economy and certainly before we had any global environmental and labor safeguards. And ever since then economic inequality has increased.”

He’s right. Real household median income grew a measly 17 percent between 1971, the year Nixon ended convertibility of the dollar to gold, and 2009. The financial sector’s share of the economy doubled in the same period while the manufacturing component was cut nearly in half. There has been a major financial crisis on average every four years. A debt-based monetary system has produced a debt-driven economy, which rewards those with the financial acumen and assets to play the market while eroding the earnings and savings of working Americans.

Clinton feels our pain but clings to the old-line idea of “economic management.” He holds to the belief that the government knows better than the market what the economy needs, especially when it comes to money. In a choice between the gold standard and central bank power associated with paper money, he sides with Ben Bernanke and his Federal Open Market Committee.

Republicans did too, at least until the presidential campaign got under way. By the end of the primaries, though, most of the candidates, including Romney, had vowed to name a new Fed chairman. The party platform adopted in Tampa on August 29 calls for a commission to study a gold standard. If the Romney-Ryan ticket shows some willingness to rethink fiat currency and dependency on the Fed, the GOP will be able to point Clinton’s bony finger back at the Democrats and make them defend the monetary system that is a major reason we got into trouble in the first place.

Jeffrey Bell and Rich Danker are policy director and economics director at American Principles Project.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers