Essays on the Great Depression

By Ben S. Bernanke | Go to book overview

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The Macroeconomics of the Great Depression:
A Comparative Approach

TO UNDERSTAND THE GREAT DEPRESSION is the Holy Grail of macroeconomics. Not only did the Depression give birth to macroeconomics as a distinct field of study, but also—to an extent that is not always fully appreciated—the experience of the 1930s continues to influence macroeconomists’ beliefs, policy recommendations, and research agendas. And, practicalities aside, finding an explanation for the worldwide economic collapse of the 1930s remains a fascinating intellectual challenge.

We do not yet have our hands on the Grail by any means, but during the past fifteen years or so substantial progress toward the goal of understanding the Depression has been made. This progress has a number of sources, including improvements in our theoretical framework and painstaking historical analysis. To my mind, however, the most significant recent development has been a change in the focus of Depression research, from a traditional emphasis on events in the United States to a more comparative approach that examines the experiences of many countries simultaneously. This broadening of focus is important for two reasons: First, though in the end we may agree with Romer (1993) that shocks to the domestic U.S. economy were a primary cause of both the American and world depressions, no account of the Great Depression would be complete without an explanation of the worldwide nature of the event, and of the channels through which deflationary forces spread among countries. Second, by effectively expanding the data set from one observation to twenty, thirty, or more, the shift to a comparative perspective substantially improves out ability to identify—in the strict econometric sense—the forces responsible for the world depression. Because of its potential to bring the profession toward agreement on the causes of the Depression—and perhaps, in consequence, to greater consensus on the central issues of contemporary macroeconomics—I consider the improved identification provided by comparative analysis to be a particularly important benefit of that approach.

In this lecture I provide a selective survey of our current understanding of

Reprinted with permission from Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking, vol. 27, no. 1 (Febru-
ary 1995) Copyright 1995 by The Ohio State University Press.

The author thanks Barry Eichengreen for his comments and Ilian Mihov for excellent re-
search assistance.

-5-

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