Irving Fisher Remains Immensely Important in the History of Economic Thought

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In February 1946, when they were both old men, Joseph Schumpeter wrote a letter to Irving Fisher explaining why he could not accept a plan on a proposed committee on monetary policy. He tried to soften his rejection by expressing his admiration for Irving Fisher.

“I consider you one of the dozen or so finest economists of all times and countries, and, if I did not know that, my work in the history of economic analysis which I hope to complete in the current year would have brought the fact home to me.”

Irving Fisher remains immensely important in the history of economic thought, and of economic policy. He was the most influential of academic economists in the period of the Great Depression. He had been an important influence on the English economist, Maynard Keynes, with whom he corresponded. During the slump Fisher had access to President Roosevelt and helped to influence the President’s response to the Depression.

In the early 1930s there was the same feeling that now exists that the experts have been taken by surprise and do not know how to respond. It is a mark of Fisher’s stature that he always had a rational proposal – and many of them still seem to have good sense behind them. Even on his deathbed, he did not hesitate to write a letter of warning to President Truman, who had succeeded Roosevelt, against the dangers of deflation. “I am in hospital, but so far as facts have reached me, the talk in Washington is to the effect of lower prices, which are sure to lead to disaster” (Letter dated March 21, 1947; Irving Fisher died April 30th, 1947).

With Franklin Roosevelt it is seldom possible to know whose advice he took. He flattered almost every adviser by praising his work. The notes that Fisher took after his meetings with the President suggest that he was – like everyone else – overwhelmed with Roosevelt’s charm. Nevertheless, Fisher provided some of the arguments which supported Roosevelt’s own preference for a reflationary policy. It was Roosevelt who told Fisher, at their meeting on September 6th, 1934, that he wanted to get all the unemployed at work as soon as possible and estimated that it would cost “five billion dollars to provide for the five million men for one year.” Roosevelt rather naively asked Fisher “how the money could be obtained.”

After Britain came off the gold standard in 1931, Fisher sent one of his letters to the British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. It contains one particularly telling sentence: “The irony of the present situation is that the world is being put deeper and deeper into debt by its very struggles to get out.”

That certainly strikes a note in the week of the U.S. nationalisation of Fannie May and Freddie Mac, at a cost of $5.4 trillion, which has to be added to the existing liabilities of the Federal Government. In 1934, President Roosevelt talked of public expenditure rising by $4 billion, in 2008 President Bush has increased U.S. exposure by $5 trillion – a thousand times as much.

Irving Fisher’s objective was stable money. He was the author of the equation of exchange, which states that MV = PT (Money x Velocity = Price x Transactions). He thought that a commodity based standard would be the most stable substitute for the gold standard.

In terms of the economic debates of the 1930s, the nationalisation of Fannie May and Freddie Mac is a potentially inflationary commitment of the U.S. Government. It transfers $5 trillion of liabilities to the public sector, or, as they were already in the public sector, it acknowledges and guarantees those liabilities.

The early opinion polls suggest that many American taxpayers are concerned that the $5 trillion will eventually land on them. It is, in any case, a huge experiment, an economic experiment on the scale of CERN. Other nations may observe it with awe. I think Irving Fisher would certainly have supported it.

William Rees-Mogg
for The Daily Reckoning Australia

William Rees-Mogg
Leading political editor William Rees-Mogg is former editor-in-chief for The Times and a member of the House of Lords. He has been credited with accurately forecasting glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall – as well as the 1987 crash. His political commentary appears in The Times every Monday. His financial insights can only be found in the Fleet Street Letter, the UK's longest-running investment newsletter.
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