Smoot-Hawley and the Depression

"Protectionism" is an intentionally derogatory term used to describe the practice of one country taking measures to protect its domestic economy from encroachment by another country.  Over the past couple of years or so, as a result of recent financial crises and sundry economic meltdowns, there have been frequent reminders in much of the media about how we must, at all cost, avoid protectionism and the sure-to-result "trade war."  These warnings are often accompanied by the assertion that the economic malaise of the Great Depression was severely exacerbated when the United States passed legislation raising the tariffs on many goods to prohibitive levels.  Named after its congressional sponsors, the "Smoot-Hawley" legislation of 1930 has become synonymous with short-sighted, trade-killing, depression-engendering, mindless economic tinkering.

In a video segment recently posted at the National Review Online, Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution's "Uncommon Knowledge" program series interviewed conservative scholar and commentator Thomas Sowell and asked him, "How much should people really worry about the balance of trade?"  Sowell's answer: "Somewhat less than you worry about being struck by lightning."  He goes on to describe the Smoot-Hawley Act as "one of the biggest disasters in the history of the country" and asserts that people do not understand the history of the Depression.  Well, curiosity being the better part of discovery, I decided to do a bit of digging into the economic history of the U.S. during the Depression years in an effort to learn the impact of Smoot-Hawley on the 1930's tanking of the American economy.

Conclusion?  Smoot-Hawley and trade contraction had little impact.  Here's why.

First, let's define what is meant by GDP, or "Gross Domestic Product," as a measure of economic activity:

GDP = Government + Private Consumption + Private Investment + Government Investment + Exports - Imports

Exports and Imports include both goods and services.  Imports are subtracted from the total because they do not represent domestic economic activity other than in the form of a transfer of funds out of the country.  Now, the contention of the Smoot-Hawley critics is that by reducing trade between countries, the prohibitive tariffs imposed by the act created a greater, if not substantially greater, contraction of economic activity.  Did this, in fact, happen, at least within the U.S.?  The table given below indicates that this is not the case.

Let me explain.  The U.S. economy began contracting in 1929 and reached bottom in 1933.  After that point, economic activity began rising, but GDP did not exceed the level of 1929 until 1941, some twelve years later and on the eve of U.S. involvement in WWII.  As the economy slowed for the first five years of the Great Depression, so did the level of exports and imports.  But the size of any trade imbalance was quite small when compared to the level of economic contraction.  The extent of the overall slowdown was so great that over the course of five years, one and a third of a year's worth of economic activity at the level of 1929 was lost.  This is shown in the last column of the blue-tinted rows.

But the impact of trade was miniscule when compared to the size of the overall economic contraction.  Government expenditures remained essentially constant, but private consumption and investment plummeted.  Of the $131 billion in lost economic output over the five-year period, only about $0.7 billion seems attributable to trade.  This is shown as the last entry in the last row of the table.  In either absolute or relative terms, the trade portion of the economic contraction of the Great Depression appears to be of little import.


Table 1.1.5. Gross Domestic Product                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

[Billions of dollars]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Bureau of Economic Analysis

        
Downloaded on 1/8/2011 At 3:52:51 PM    Last Revised December 22, 2010

  
Total GDP

5-Yr Total

Total 5-Yr


       
Activity

if held level

loss of

Line #

YEAR >

1929 

1930 

1931 

1932 

1933 

1934 

'29 to '33

at '29 rate

Activity


Gross domestic product

103.6 

91.2 

76.5 

58.7 

56.4 

66.0 

386.4 

518.0 

-131.6 


         

Personal consumption

77.4 

70.1 

60.7 

48.7 

45.9 

51.5 

302.8 

387.0 

-84.2 


  Goods

43.8 

38.2 

31.7 

24.1 

23.8 

28.5 

161.6 

219.0 

-57.4 


    Durable goods

9.8 

7.7 

5.9 

4.0 

3.8 

4.6 

31.2 

49.0 

-17.8 


    Nondurable goods

33.9 

30.5 

25.8 

20.2 

20.0 

23.9 

130.4 

169.5 

-39.1 


  Services

33.6 

32.0 

29.0 

24.6 

22.2 

23.0 

141.4 

168.0 

-26.6 


Total of rows 4, 5 & 6 >

77.3 

70.2 

60.7 

48.8 

46.0 

51.5 

303.0  

386.5 

-83.5 


         

Gross private domestic investment

16.5 

10.8 

5.9 

1.3 

1.7 

3.7 

36.2 

82.5 

-46.3 

21 

Government expenditures

9.4 

10.0 

9.9 

8.7 

8.7 

10.5 

46.7 

47.0 

-0.3 


Total of rows 2, 7 & 21 >

103.3 

90.9 

76.5 

58.7 

56.3 

65.7 

385.7 

516.5 

-130.8 


         
14 

Net exports of goods and services

0.4 

0.3 

0.0 

0.0 

0.1 

0.3 

-

-

-

15 

  Exports

5.9 

4.4 

2.9 

2.0 

2.0 

2.6 

17.2 

29.5 

-12.3 

16 

    Goods

5.3 

3.9 

2.5 

1.7 

1.7 

2.2 

15.1 

26.5 

-11.4 

17 

    Services

0.6 

0.5 

0.4 

0.3 

0.3 

0.3 

2.1 

3.0 

-0.9 

18 

  Imports

-5.6 

-4.1 

-2.9 

-1.9 

-1.9 

-2.2 

-16.4 

-28.0 

11.6 

19 

    Goods

-4.5 

-3.1 

-2.1 

-1.3 

-1.5 

-1.8 

-12.5 

-22.5 

10.0 

20 

    Services

-1.1 

-1.0 

-0.8 

-0.6 

-0.4 

-0.5 

-3.9 

-5.5 

1.6 


Total of rows 15 & 18 >

0.3 

0.3 

0.0 

0.1 

0.1 

0.4 

0.8 

1.5 

-0.7 


         
"Line #" matches the designations given in Table 1.1.5 "Gross Domestic Product" as published by the BEA.

 
Values given in Line #s 18, 19 & 20 have been inverted from those given in the original table to reflect the effect of imports on GDP.

Values for the year 1934 are given in italics to indicate that they are not included in the calculations and are for reference only.

BEA Source:

        



"Protectionism" is an intentionally derogatory term used to describe the practice of one country taking measures to protect its domestic economy from encroachment by another country.  Over the past couple of years or so, as a result of recent financial crises and sundry economic meltdowns, there have been frequent reminders in much of the media about how we must, at all cost, avoid protectionism and the sure-to-result "trade war."  These warnings are often accompanied by the assertion that the economic malaise of the Great Depression was severely exacerbated when the United States passed legislation raising the tariffs on many goods to prohibitive levels.  Named after its congressional sponsors, the "Smoot-Hawley" legislation of 1930 has become synonymous with short-sighted, trade-killing, depression-engendering, mindless economic tinkering.

In a video segment recently posted at the National Review Online, Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution's "Uncommon Knowledge" program series interviewed conservative scholar and commentator Thomas Sowell and asked him, "How much should people really worry about the balance of trade?"  Sowell's answer: "Somewhat less than you worry about being struck by lightning."  He goes on to describe the Smoot-Hawley Act as "one of the biggest disasters in the history of the country" and asserts that people do not understand the history of the Depression.  Well, curiosity being the better part of discovery, I decided to do a bit of digging into the economic history of the U.S. during the Depression years in an effort to learn the impact of Smoot-Hawley on the 1930's tanking of the American economy.

Conclusion?  Smoot-Hawley and trade contraction had little impact.  Here's why.

First, let's define what is meant by GDP, or "Gross Domestic Product," as a measure of economic activity:

GDP = Government + Private Consumption + Private Investment + Government Investment + Exports - Imports

Exports and Imports include both goods and services.  Imports are subtracted from the total because they do not represent domestic economic activity other than in the form of a transfer of funds out of the country.  Now, the contention of the Smoot-Hawley critics is that by reducing trade between countries, the prohibitive tariffs imposed by the act created a greater, if not substantially greater, contraction of economic activity.  Did this, in fact, happen, at least within the U.S.?  The table given below indicates that this is not the case.

Let me explain.  The U.S. economy began contracting in 1929 and reached bottom in 1933.  After that point, economic activity began rising, but GDP did not exceed the level of 1929 until 1941, some twelve years later and on the eve of U.S. involvement in WWII.  As the economy slowed for the first five years of the Great Depression, so did the level of exports and imports.  But the size of any trade imbalance was quite small when compared to the level of economic contraction.  The extent of the overall slowdown was so great that over the course of five years, one and a third of a year's worth of economic activity at the level of 1929 was lost.  This is shown in the last column of the blue-tinted rows.

But the impact of trade was miniscule when compared to the size of the overall economic contraction.  Government expenditures remained essentially constant, but private consumption and investment plummeted.  Of the $131 billion in lost economic output over the five-year period, only about $0.7 billion seems attributable to trade.  This is shown as the last entry in the last row of the table.  In either absolute or relative terms, the trade portion of the economic contraction of the Great Depression appears to be of little import.


Table 1.1.5. Gross Domestic Product                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

[Billions of dollars]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Bureau of Economic Analysis

        
Downloaded on 1/8/2011 At 3:52:51 PM    Last Revised December 22, 2010

  
Total GDP

5-Yr Total

Total 5-Yr


       
Activity

if held level

loss of

Line #

YEAR >

1929 

1930 

1931 

1932 

1933 

1934 

'29 to '33

at '29 rate

Activity


Gross domestic product

103.6 

91.2 

76.5 

58.7 

56.4 

66.0 

386.4 

518.0 

-131.6 


         

Personal consumption

77.4 

70.1 

60.7 

48.7 

45.9 

51.5 

302.8 

387.0 

-84.2 


  Goods

43.8 

38.2 

31.7 

24.1 

23.8 

28.5 

161.6 

219.0 

-57.4 


    Durable goods

9.8 

7.7 

5.9 

4.0 

3.8 

4.6 

31.2 

49.0 

-17.8 


    Nondurable goods

33.9 

30.5 

25.8 

20.2 

20.0 

23.9 

130.4 

169.5 

-39.1 


  Services

33.6 

32.0 

29.0 

24.6 

22.2 

23.0 

141.4 

168.0 

-26.6 


Total of rows 4, 5 & 6 >

77.3 

70.2 

60.7 

48.8 

46.0 

51.5 

303.0  

386.5 

-83.5 


         

Gross private domestic investment

16.5 

10.8 

5.9 

1.3 

1.7 

3.7 

36.2 

82.5 

-46.3 

21 

Government expenditures

9.4 

10.0 

9.9 

8.7 

8.7 

10.5 

46.7 

47.0 

-0.3 


Total of rows 2, 7 & 21 >

103.3 

90.9 

76.5 

58.7 

56.3 

65.7 

385.7 

516.5 

-130.8 


         
14 

Net exports of goods and services

0.4 

0.3 

0.0 

0.0 

0.1 

0.3 

-

-

-

15 

  Exports

5.9 

4.4 

2.9 

2.0 

2.0 

2.6 

17.2 

29.5 

-12.3 

16 

    Goods

5.3 

3.9 

2.5 

1.7 

1.7 

2.2 

15.1 

26.5 

-11.4 

17 

    Services

0.6 

0.5 

0.4 

0.3 

0.3 

0.3 

2.1 

3.0 

-0.9 

18 

  Imports

-5.6 

-4.1 

-2.9 

-1.9 

-1.9 

-2.2 

-16.4 

-28.0 

11.6 

19 

    Goods

-4.5 

-3.1 

-2.1 

-1.3 

-1.5 

-1.8 

-12.5 

-22.5 

10.0 

20 

    Services

-1.1 

-1.0 

-0.8 

-0.6 

-0.4 

-0.5 

-3.9 

-5.5 

1.6 


Total of rows 15 & 18 >

0.3 

0.3 

0.0 

0.1 

0.1 

0.4 

0.8 

1.5 

-0.7 


         
"Line #" matches the designations given in Table 1.1.5 "Gross Domestic Product" as published by the BEA.

 
Values given in Line #s 18, 19 & 20 have been inverted from those given in the original table to reflect the effect of imports on GDP.

Values for the year 1934 are given in italics to indicate that they are not included in the calculations and are for reference only.

BEA Source:

        



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