Sunday :: Oct 16, 2011

Echoes of the Great Depression


by Mary

Joe Nocera recently read a book about the Great Depression by Fredrick Lewis Allen, a popular historian of that era, called Since Yesterday. Nocera finds some surprising echoes of that time today.

In “Since Yesterday,” bankers are vilified; homes are foreclosed on; people desperately search for work — just like today. Businessmen speak of the need for “confidence,” a word that “enters the vocabulary only when confidence is lacking.” Elsewhere Allen writes, “No longer were vital economic decisions made at international conferences of bankers; now they were made only by the political leaders of states.”

Allen makes the surprising point that, while small business suffered terribly during the Great Depression, big corporations did well. When large companies needed to lay off workers to maintain profitability, they did so ruthlessly. Bursts of economic growth, however, were rarely accompanied by an increase in employment. Why? Because new technology allowed companies to increase productivity at the expense of workers. Just like today.

What dominates “Since Yesterday” — as it must dominate any history of the Great Depression — is the government’s responses to the crisis. Herbert Hoover was “leery of any direct governmental offensive against the Depression,” writes Allen. “So he stood aside and waited for the healing process to assert itself, as according to the hallowed principles of laissez-faire economics it should.” Sticking to his convictions, Hoover allowed the country to sink deeper and deeper into Depression, becoming in the process one of its victims — “along with the traditional economic theories of which he was the obstinate and tragic spokesman.”

Nocera makes the point that not only trying to balance the budget when the economy had still not recovered lengthened the Depression and that the biggest mistake Roosevelt made was not doing more.

Toward the end of his book, Allen sums up the mood of the country. By 1939, people were weary of hard economic times, but they were also weary of Roosevelt’s endless experiments. Many modern historians believe that Roosevelt’s biggest problem was not that he’d done too much, but that he’d done too little — that the Depression required a response bigger than even Roosevelt’s New Deal. Implicitly, Allen agrees with that.

Seems like this book would be something Obama and the members of the super committee should read before they inflict too much damage to our economy.

Mary :: 12:00 AM :: Comments (4) :: Digg It!