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THE CAUSES OF TRADE DEPRESSIONS

I do not propose to deal with such branches of the problem of unemployment as casual labour or seasonal

fluctuations. I confine myself to what we all, I suppose, feel to be the really big problem, to unemployment

which is not special to particular industries or districts, but which is common to them all, to a general

depression of almost every form of business and industrial activity. General trade depressions are no new

phenomenon, though the present depression is, of course, far worse than any we have experienced in modern

times. They used to occur so regularly that long before the war people had come to speak of cyclical

fluctuations, or to use a phrase which is now common, the trade cycle. That is a useful phrase, and a useful

conception. It is well that we should realise, when we speak of those normal pre−war conditions, to which we

hope some day to revert, that in a sense trade conditions never were normal; that, at any particular moment

you care to take, we were either in full tide of a trade boom, with employment active and prices rising, and

order books congested; or else right on the crest of the boom, when prices were no longer rising generally,

though they had not yet commenced to fall, when employment was still good, but when new orders were no

longer coming in; or else in the early stages of a depression, with prices falling, and every one trying to unload

stocks and failing to do so, and works beginning to close down; or else right in the trough of the depression

where we are to−day; that we were at one or other of the innumerable stages of the trade cycle, without any

prospect of remaining there for very long, but always, as it were, in motion, going round and round and round.

What are the root causes which bring every period of active trade to an inevitable end? There are two which

are almost invariably present towards the end of every boom. First, the general level of prices and wages has

usually become too high; it is straining against the limits of the available supplies of currency and credit, and,

unless inflation is to be permitted, a restriction of credit is inevitable which will bring on a trade depression. In

those circumstances, a reduction of the general level of prices and wages is an essential condition of a trade

revival. A reduction of prices and wages. That point has a significance to which I will return. The second cause is the distorted balance which grows up in every boom between different branches of

industrial activity. When trade is good, we invariably build ships, produce machinery, erect factories, make

every variety of what are termed "constructional goods" upon a scale which is altogether disproportionate to

the scale upon which we are making "consumable goods" like food and clothes. And that condition of things

could not possibly endure for very long. If it were to continue indefinitely, it would lead in the end to our

having, say, half a dozen ships for every ton of wheat or cotton which there was to carry. You have there a

maladjustment, which must be corrected somehow; and the longer the readjustment is postponed, the bigger

the readjustment that will ultimately be inevitable. Now that means, first on the negative side, that, when you

are confronted with a trade depression, it is hopeless to try to cure it by looking for some device by which you

can give a general stimulus to all forms of industry. Devices of that nature may be very useful in the later

stages of a trade depression, when the necessary readjustments both of the price−level and of the relative

outputs of different classes of commodities have already been effected, and when trade remains depressed

only because people have not yet plucked up the necessary confidence to start things going again. But in the

early stages of a depression, an indiscriminating stimulus to industry in general will serve only to perpetuate

the maladjustments which are the root of the trouble. It will only put off the evil day, and make it worse when

it comes. The problem is not one of getting everybody back to work on their former jobs. It is one of getting

them set to work on the right jobs; and that is a far more difficult matter.

On the positive side, what this really comes to is, that if you wish to prevent depressions occurring you must

prevent booms taking the form they do. You must prevent prices rising so much, and so many constructional

goods being made during the period of active trade; and I am not going to pretend that that is an easy thing to

do. It's all very well to say that the bankers, through their control of the credit system, might endeavour to

guide industry and keep it from straying out of the proper channels. But the bankers would have to know

much more than they do about these matters, and, furthermore, the problem is not merely a national one−−it is

a world−wide problem. It would be of little use to prevent an excess of ships being built here, if that only

meant that still more ships were built, say, in the United States.

I do not say that even now the banks might not do something which would help; still less do I wish to convey

the impression that mankind must always remain passive and submissive, impotent to control these forces

which so vitally affect his welfare. But I say that for any serious attempt to master this problem, the necessary

detailed knowledge has still to be acquired, and the rudiments of organisation have still to be built up; and the

problem is not one at this stage for policies and programmes. What you can do by means of policies and

programmes lies, at present, in the sphere of international politics. In that sphere, though you cannot achieve

all, you might achieve much. To reduce the problem to its pre−war dimensions would be no small result; and

that represents a big enough objective, for the time being, for the concentration of our hardest thinking and

united efforts. But into that sphere I am not going to enter. I pass to the problem of unemployment relief.