Friday, June 15, 2007

Rethinking The Great Depression

I think I remember what I was taught about the Great Depression years ago. It is hard to reconstruct from memory what the prevailing wisdom of the nation was in the 1960’s, but I can at least remember what I was taught. The base narrative, as little as I thought about it, would have run something like this.

Americans were overoptimistic in the 1920’s leading to a false prosperity bubble which burst with the stock market crash of 1929. Partly through inheriting a bad job and partly through incompetence, Hoover didn’t fix things, and banks failed in the ensuing panic, impoverishing many. Roosevelt was elected and enacted some stimulative programs that very slowly pulled America out of the Depression. During the Depression itself people didn’t have jobs, particularly in the South, and spread across the country looking for work. There were bread lines, and the Dust Bowl.

One of my 11th-grade US History texts was titled The Perils of Prosperity, (that telegraphs its opinion on the matter, doesn’t it?) which apparently has been revised and is still in print. My mother’s family didn’t talk about it – I don’t recall anyone on that side of the family ever referencing it even years later – and I had no contact with my father or his family then. Whatever I learned must have come from newspapers, TV, and Look Magazine.

To this base other (contradictory) narratives were attached over the years – I have little idea where I picked most of them up.

Roosevelt’s programs didn’t help that much, but provided needed optimism. It was actually WWII that pulled us out of the Depression.

Roosevelt’s programs, especially Social Security, were the start of the creeping socialism that gave us our big government of today. But if he hadn’t done something like that, actual socialists like Norman Thomas might have been elected.

Hoover actually just got stuck with the bad choices from Harding and Coolidge, who let capitalism run unchecked.

The depression was worldwide, and there wasn’t much anyone could have done.

If politicians had just allowed the crash and recovery without trying to tinker with it and fix it, it would have been over more quickly.

Arnold Kling has a series over at TCSDaily which reconfigures the entire narrative. He focuses more on how the presentation of events by journalists and historians affected American attitudes over subsequent decades. His take is that the prosperity of the 20’s was not artificial, but we believed it was, and have retained an antibusiness, especially Big Business, attitude since. Additionally, our literary classes have held close to their breasts the idea that business success is somehow dangerous and unhealthy for both the culture and for individuals.

If you enjoy thinking about the history of beliefs and what myths we choose, the series is, in order:
How Depressing Was The Depression?
What Roosevelt Didn’t Know
The Great Tug-of-War


Ben Wyman said...

Most of my presumptions are the same as yours. I therefore blame you for giving them to me.

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