Barry Eichengreen delivered the Presidential Address to the Economic History Association,"Economic History and Economic Policy," which is available at his website. He begins (footnotes omitted):
"This has been a good crisis for economic history. It will not surprise most members of this audience to learn that there was a sharp spike in references in the press to the term "Great Depression" following the failure of Lehman Bros. in September of 2008. More interesting is that there was also a surge in references to "economic history," first in February of 2008, with growing awareness that this could be the worst recession since you know when, and again in October, coincident with fears that the financial system was on the verge of collapse. Journalists, market participants, and policy makers all turned to history for guidance on how to react to this skein of otherwise unfathomable events."
Eichengreen discusses with care and detail whether analogies are chosen because they are the best example, or because they are a salient example almost within living memory, or because they deliver an already-selected policy conclusion. Drawing on a wide variety of political and economic examples, Eichengreen points out that since historical episodes never precisely match present events, often the most productive way to use history in making economic policy is not to use a single analogy, but instead to consider a number of somewhat relevant episodes, and to compare and contrast the events, policies, and outcomes. He makes the provocative point that the choice of analogy has a tendency to guide policy responses. In the case of the analogy from the Great Depression to the Great Recession:
"The analogy legitimated certain responses to the collapse of economic and financial activity while delegitimating others. It legitimized the notion that the Fed should respond aggressively to prevent the collapse of a few investment funds from precipitating a cascade of financial failures. This reflected the widespread currency of Friedman and Schwartz‘s interpretation of the Great Depression – that what had made the Depression great was the inadequate response of the Federal Reserve. ... The analogy with the Great Depression informed the policy response to the crisis more generally. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation increased deposit insurance coverage to $250,000 per depositor exactly one day after press references to the Great Depression peaked. The action was presumably informed by the view of the banking panics of the Great Depression as runs by uninsured depositors, and the historical interpretation, widely shared, that those panics had played a key role in the contraction of the money supply and the impairment of the payments system. The analogy with the Great Depression similarly lent legitimacy to the argument that the Congress and Administration should respond with fiscal stimulus. This reflected the "lesson" of history that the depth and duration of the Depression were attributable in no small part to the fact that fiscal stimulus was not used to counter the collapse of private demand. ...
The analogy with the Great Depression also delegitimized the temptation to respond with protectionist measures designed to bottle up the remaining demand. This reflected the lesson, widely taught to undergraduates and invoked by policy makers, that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff aggravated the crisis of the 1930s. In fact, this "lesson" of history is not supported by modern research, which concludes that Smoot Hawley played at most a minor role in the propagation of the Depression."
Eichengreen points out that these policy lessons are not the only possible lessons from the Great Depression, and that choosing other historical episodes might have emphasized other lessons.
"Did we need a new Neal Deal? Well, that depended on whether you sided with historians who argue that the New Deal helped to end the Depression or only prolonged it. Did we need a jolt to the exchange rate to vanquish deflationary expectations? The answer depended on whether your view was that Roosevelt‘s decision to take the U.S. off the gold standard in 1933 was the critical decision that transformed expectations and ended deflation or whether you thought it was a sideshow. For those attempting to move from metaphor to analogy, this was a reminder that the distilled, authoritative incapsulation of the period remains a work in progress.Eichengreen also makes the point that the connection from past to present also works in reverse: for example, current economic events will alter our historical understanding of the policy reactions to the Great Depression.
Although the Great Depression was clearly the dominant base case in discussions of the 2008-9 crisis, there were other possible analogies. There was the 1873 crisis, driven by an investment boom and bust like that of the period leading up to 2007, which led to the failure of brokerage houses, in parallel with the problems in 2008 of the investment banks. There was the 1907 crisis, in response to which J.P. Morgan organized a lifeboat operation that resembled in important respects the 2008 rescue of Bear Stearns by none other than JP Morgan & Co."
"The mainstream narrative is that the experience of the Depression led to a series of institutional and policy innovations making it less likely that something similar thing would happen again. American economic historians refer in this connection to federal deposit insurance, unemployment insurance, Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the concentration of monetary-policy-making authority at the Federal Reserve Board, and automatic fiscal stabilizers. Historians of other countries have similar list. Although the stabilizing impact of particular entries on these lists has been disputed, the thrust of the dominant narrative is clear.
We now have had a graphic reminder that we have less than fully succeeded in corralling threats to economic and financial instability. While policy responses may avoid the repetition of past threats, they are no guarantee against future threats. Markets tend to adapt to stabilizing policy innovations in ways that render those innovations less stabilizing. As memories of the earlier crisis fade, policy makers themselves become more likely to consort with market participants in this effort. I suspect that we will now see more attention to these longer-term adaptations to the legacy of the Great Depression and less to the short-term policy response."