The speaker's list for the Council on Foreign Relations "A Second Look at the Great Depression" conference on March 30 is out, and it is a doozy--even the Heritage Foundation would never have dared to put forward a speaker's list so partisan, so biased, and with so few speakers with more than an inch-deep knowledge of the Great Depression. Jamie Galbraith, Nick Taylor, and Jonathan Alter are all by themselves holding down the center and the left of the political spectrum. And Jamie and Richard Sylla are the only people holding down the non-Chicago and non-goldbug-wingnut part of the economic spectrum.
In general, when you have a panel at a conference about an issue, you find (a) the smartest and best-informed person who thinks "yes," (b) the smartest and best-informed person who thinks "no," and (c) somebody thoughtful in the middle to hold the balance. That is... not the strategy that the Council on Foreign Relations has followed in this case.
Over the weekend I have gotten
two three four copies of the program in the email--all with accompanying commentary that sounds somewhat... panicked:
The CFR Board is aware of the situation...
Who would you recommend as replacement speakers? Preferably not more New Deal-denialists..."
The CFR... is... perhaps belatedly getting worried about a lack of balance...
A perverse part of me wants to watch them go ahead...
They are looking to make the speaker's list less biased...
A Second Look at the Great Depression and New Deal
Monday, March 30, 2009 — 8:15 AM to 6:00 PM
Welcoming Remarks: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
Session One: 1929: Bubble or Growth? Irving Fisher was the Yale economist who argued that market prices were not too high in 1929 and was rewarded with half a century of ridicule. There is evidence that Fisher may not be so far off, and that the more illusionary we deem growth in the 1990s, the more likely we are to demand fiscal, financial, and monetary policy shifts or reform. * Edward C. Prescott * Benn Steil * Richard Sylla
Session Two: Nice Work If You Can Get It: The Role of Labor Policy: Did labor policy under Hoover and Roosevelt make the Depression worse, keep it the same, or actually pave the way to recovery? Labor policy and wages are again an issue today in regard to auto companies’ legacy obligations, new union legislation (“card check”), or public-sector union obligations for state governments. * Price V. Fishback * Lee E. Ohanian * Richard K. Vedder * James F. Hoge Jr.
Session Three: Infrastructure Spending to Grow: What did we learn from the Depression era spending programs of the New Deal? Will spending, especially infrastructure spending, take us to recovery? How political is such spending? * Ellen R. McGrattan * Nick Taylor * Anna J. Schwartz * Simon Constable
Session Four: Keynote: Why a Second Look Matters * Robert E. Lucas Jr. * Carl J. Schramm, President and CEO, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
Session Five: The New Financial Deal: What can we learn about reforming today’s financial markets from those of the 1930s? What does the Depression tell us the new architecture should and should not do? * John Cochrane * Thomas F. Cooley
Session Six: Today’s Path to Growth: What Do the 1930s Tell Us About Now? * James K. Galbraith * Jonathan Alter * Amity Shlaes
at the Harold Pratt House, 58 East 68th Street, New York, New York 10065
This event will be on the record.
As I see it, Cochrane and Lucas are smart enough to always be worth listening to no matter what they are talking about. Alter and Taylor know stuff about politics in the 1930s. Galbraith knows stuff about politics and economics in the 1930s. Fishback and Sylla know a great deal about the economics of the 1930s. Those six belong in their places on the program. The rest do not--they don't know enough about the issues they are talking about to be on the stage rather than in the audience.
It's not as though people who are qualified to be on the stage--who actually know stuff about the Great Depression--are hard to find. Where is Eugene White? Hugh Rockoff? Michael Bordo? Claudia Goldin? Robert Higgs? Jeremy Atack? Peter Temin? Bill Sundstrom? Charlie Calomiris? Chris Meissner? Chris Haynes? Kris Mitchener? David Wheelock? Lee Alston? Peter Lindert? David Mowery? Robert Whaples? Eric Rauchway? Marc Flandreau? Barry Eichengreen? Christie Romer? Ben Bernanke? Doug Irwin? Tim Hatton? Richard Portes? Ken Rogoff? Gary Walton? Thomas Ferguson? A.P. O'Brien? J.R. Vernon? Robert Shiller? Richard Grossman? Mark Thomas? Robert Gordon? Joseph Mason? Pierre Siklos? Theda Skocpol? Margaret Weir? Gary Libecap? Maggie Levenstein? Naomi Lamoreaux? Michael Bernstein? Dan Raff? Dan Nelson? Sally Clarke? David Hounshell? Louis Johnston? Jeff Miron? Ken Snowden? Jim Hamilton? Susan Carter? Steve Cecchetti? Sanford Jacoby? Josh Rosenbloom? Bob Margo? John Wallis? Farley Grubb? Alex Field? And a host of others from all political and analytic perspectives whose knowledge of the Great Depression swamps those of the Council on Foreign Relation's speakers.
Why oh why can't we have better thinktanks?
It looks as though Richard Haass badly needs to do some house cleaning. And if he won't, then Carla Hills and Robert Rubin need to get involved.
 You may ask what this means. I don't know. It seems ignorant and illiterate. First of all, Irving Fisher was ridiculed not for saying that the market was fairly-valued in 1929 but for saying that the market was not going to go down: that it had reached a plateau that was "permanent"--that investments in stocks were no longer risky. There is no evidence that Fisher was not so far off: the market did go down in 1929, 1930, 1931, and 1932. And then we shift to "the more illusionary we deem growth in the 1990s, the more likely we are to demand fiscal, financial, and monetary policy shifts or reform"--which seems to be neither a coherent thought nor connected to the issue of market valuation in 1929.