The right-wing advocates of no bailout and “spending freeze” are, in essence, calling for a return to the Hoover-Mellon policies that had disastrous results in the past. The nature of those results is spelled out in the chart. What people are living through today is no walk in the park, but it’s vastly better than the alternative. Meanwhile, the left-populist alternative of no bailouts and massive stimulus wouldn’t have been quite as bad because some proportion of the masses of the unemployed could have been employed in public sector jobs. To get stimulus on that scale, however, would have required an extremely high percentage of pure makework and essentially wasted funds.
What we’re seeing today is policy that’s basically on the right track, with errors on the margin. What we saw in the past was policy that was pointed in the complete wrong direction, married to good ideas like public relief on the margin. Unfortunately, as you can see on the chart there’s a ton of room between “not as bad as the Great Depression” and “worse than all the other post-war recessions.” And if we stay stuck in that territory for a long time, as I fear we might, there’s a real chance that voters will conclude in 2010 and 2012 that “bailouts and stimulus don’t work” and we’ll respond to continuing economic weakness with Hooverite policies that push us off the cliff. [emphasis added.]