WASHINGTON -- It is now conventional wisdom that the world has avoided a second Great Depression. Governments and the economists who advise them learned the lessons of the 1930s. When the gravity of the financial crisis became apparent in late 2008, the response was swift and aggressive. Central banks like the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank dropped interest rates and lent liberally to threatened financial institutions and rattled investors. The United States and many countries approved "stimulus" programs of tax cuts and additional spending. Panic was halted. A downward spiral of falling private spending and rising unemployment was reversed. The resulting economic slump was awful. But it was not another Great Depression. The worst has passed.
Or has it? Greece's plight challenges this optimistic interpretation. It implies that celebration is premature and that the economic crisis has moved into a new phase: one dominated by the huge debt burdens of governments in advanced societies. Comparisons with the Great Depression remain relevant -- and unsettling. Now, as then, we may be prisoners of deep and poorly understood changes to the world economic system.
Historians increasingly attribute the Depression to broad geopolitical upheavals. World War I shattered the existing global economic order. Dominated by Great Britain, it fostered vibrant trade and rested on the gold standard. (Under the gold standard, paper currencies could be converted into gold coins or bullion.) The war also spawned huge international debts, reflecting German war reparations and large U.S. loans to Britain and France. It was impossible to reconstruct the prewar order. Britain was too weak, the gold standard was too constricting, and the debts were too heavy. But countries tried, because the prewar order had delivered prosperity. This futile effort brought on Depression. Only when economic hardship became unbearable were unrealistic goals (keeping the gold standard, repaying debts) abandoned.
There are eerie, if crude, parallels now. The welfare state is today's equivalent of the gold standard. With aging societies, advanced countries have promised more benefits than their tax bases can support. Hence, high government debt. Greece is merely the canary in the coal mine. But politicians resist cutting popular benefits except under extreme pressure. It takes a crisis. Greece, again. Another unsettling parallel is the global economy. The United States' leadership since World War II is eroding before China's ascent. There's a danger now, as then, of a power vacuum. Witness the long delay in coming to Greece's aid. No one country acted decisively, even as markets grew nervous.
Of course, these parallels do not preordain a second Depression. But they at least clarify today's confusing economic outlook. There's a tug-of-war. The normal mechanics of the business cycle signal recovery, while deeper economic weaknesses threaten it. In late 2008 and early 2009, fear and hysteria were almost palpable, especially in the United States. Consumers and companies cut spending anywhere they could. From September 2008 to June 2009, the U.S. economy lost 6 million payroll jobs. In 2009, American car sales were almost 40 percent lower than in 2007. Governments' frenetic interventions stabilized confidence. People and firms are opening their wallets again, here and abroad. The world economy will grow almost 4.3 percent in 2010 and 2011, with the United States expanding at an average of nearly 3 percent, reckons the International Monetary Fund.
But the deep-seated problems remain. Three stand out: first, the weight of the welfare state and aging populations; second, the burden of huge private debts (mortgages and consumer loans in America and elsewhere); and finally, huge imbalances in global trade, with some countries -- notably China -- running massive surpluses and others -- notably the United States -- having large deficits. Each threatens a vigorous recovery that could conceivably plunge the world back into a protracted slump.
To cope with big budget deficits, developed countries would cut spending or raise taxes. These steps would weaken recovery. The problem is that failing to do so might have the same effect by creating a financial crisis. Lenders, scared by mounting debt, would insist on higher interest rates. The value of older government bonds, issued at lower interest rates, would drop. Banks around the world, which are big holders of various countries' bonds, would suffer huge losses. So would other investors and financial institutions. The financial system might again seize up.
The dilemma posed by Greece isn't unique. It's different only in degree. In 2009, Greece's budget deficit was almost 14 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) -- its economy. Its accumulated debt was 115 percent of GDP. Meanwhile, Italy's deficit was 5 percent of GDP and its debt 116 percent of GDP. Spain's deficit was 11 percent of GDP and its debt 53 percent. Germany's deficit was 3 percent and its debt 73 percent. The U.S. deficit -- calculated slightly differently -- was 9.9 percent of GDP; the debt, 53 percent of GDP. Most developed countries, representing about half the world economy, are caught in the same trap.
The same is true, though to a lesser extent, of heavily indebted households in the developed world. As they pare back, or lenders tighten lending standards, consumer spending will remain subdued, depriving the recovery of another powerful propellant. It wasn't just Americans who enjoyed years of easy credit. In the United States, household debt reached 138 percent of disposable income in 2007, reports the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Elsewhere, comparable figures were also high: 138 percent in Canada; 128 percent in Japan, 186 percent in Britain; 102 percent in Germany. There is no precise threshold as to what constitutes too much debt; but these levels suggest restraint and retrenchment, not exuberant spending.
On paper, the escape from these problems seems plain. China, India, Brazil and other "emerging market" countries would become the world's engine of growth. Their appetite for advanced goods from the developed world -- airplanes, power plants, earth-moving equipment, medical instruments -- would raise their living standards and sustain production and employment in advanced countries. This could be happening. The latest IMF forecasts have poorer countries ("emerging and developing economies") growing at about 6.5 percent in 2010 and 2011 compared with 2.4 percent for all developed countries. The trouble is that this shift requires that China and other Asian countries permanently renounce export-led growth. It's not clear that they can or will.
Everywhere countries face changes of policies, practices and habits that are deeply woven into their social, political and economic fabrics. Can developed countries gradually rein in their welfare states? Will Asia's relentless export economies shift to domestic-led growth? Will Americans save more and spend less -- and the Chinese do the opposite? As after World War I, reverting to what's familiar, comfortable and understood may be hazardous. It was the inability to see and adapt to change in the 1920s -- a process complicated by the war's animosities -- that fundamentally caused the Great Depression, economic historians Barry Eichengreen of the University of California, Berkeley, and Peter Temin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have argued.
The case that we have dodged a second Great Depression rests on a narrower notion: that the Depression was preventable; and that advances in economic knowledge allowed us to do so. If we knew then what we know now, governments could have averted the tragedy. Despite some disagreements, economic scholars subscribe to a broad consensus about what went wrong in the 1930s. Government central banks, like the Fed, were too passive. They didn't halt bank panics. Intervention at decisive moments (perhaps the failure of the Bank of the United States in late 1930 or Austria's Credit Anstalt in spring 1931) could have changed history. Instead, mounting unemployment and falling prices fed on each other. Debtors couldn't repay loans, leading to more bank failures, a contraction of credit and deposit losses. But this time the mistakes were not repeated. Despite criticism, banks were "bailed out." Money was pumped into credit markets to pre-empt a downward spiral.
By this reading, the world has bought itself time to deal with underlying problems. As the economic recovery strengthens and lengthens, the politics of confronting unstable export-led growth (for Asia) or unsustainable welfare spending (for developed countries) will grow easier. People will be more optimistic about the future; they will be more open to necessary, if not popular, adjustments. This could happen. The world may muddle through, making gradual and messy changes that ultimately defuse another large crisis.
But there is another more sobering reading of the Great Depression. It is that painful and once unthinkable changes are made only under the pressure of acute crisis. One reason that central banks were so passive is that they clung to the gold standard: Relaxing credit policies too dramatically to rescue banks might lead to a loss of gold; people would demand metal to replace paper money. Gold was abandoned in various countries only after it seemed untenable. Similarly, the post-World War I debt problem wasn't "solved" until repayment was impossible. As for Britain's place as global leader, the United States assumed that role only in World War II.
Against that backdrop, today's unresolved problems -- over the welfare state, leadership in the global economy -- become more ominous. They suggest that major adjustments won't be made until they're compelled by some sort of crisis. This possibility defines the present economic drama. Will the recovery encourage conscious changes? Or is recovery providing a false sense of security? The stakes are, of course, enormous, because -- as everyone knows -- the economic suffering of the Great Depression transformed many countries' politics for the worse and led to World War II.