May 12, 2008
The myth of Andrew W. Mellon the liquidationist

In his New York Times Economic View column of 11 May, “When Should the Fed Crash the Party?,” Peter L. Bernstein unfortunately perpetuates a myth based on an almost certainly spurious quotation. He puts in Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon’s mouth, using quotation marks, the declaration that the proper response to the crash of 1929 was: “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.” We do not, however, have any good reason to believe that Mellon ever spoke those words, or the other words Bernstein attributes to him. The sole and original source of these phrases is The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover (1952), which introduces them with the preamble “Mr. Mellon had only one formula: ”. The sentences in question appear in a passage where Hoover depicts himself as an enlightened economic policy activist in 1929, in contrast to Mellon, whom he depicts as leader of “the leave-it-alone liquidationists”. One must strongly suspect that Hoover was caricaturing Mellon to make himself look good.

Mellon’s public statements, writings, and a recent biography drawing on his papers all belie the caricature. His speeches contain no statement of liquidationist views; rather they urge that the Federal Reserve System should counter crises and “promote stabilization”. Mellon’s views on anti-Depression policy were less activist than Hoover’s. For example, Mellon was understandably not keen on Hoover’s policy of summoning businessmen to the White House to urge them not to cut wages even as product sales and prices collapsed. But Mellon’s views were not those of a one-formula liquidationist. As an ex-officio member of the Federal Reserve Board, he successfully urged the central bank to cut its discount rate after the stock market crash in October 1929, and supported subsequent rate cuts. In November 1929 he recommended tax cuts to stimulate the economy. He supported Hoover’s proposal to increase federal construction spending. Most damaging to Bernstein’s use of (Hoover’s caricature of) Mellon to disparage current-day non-interventionists, Mellon – wisely or not – supported the Administration’s initiative to create a National Credit Corporation, and its successor the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, to lend billions to illiquid banks.

Many well-known economists have perpetuated the myth by treating Hoover's "quotation" of Mellon as authentic. For details see my forthcoming JMCB paper.

Posted by Lawrence H. White at 10:31 PM in Economics

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it. -Adam Smith

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