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Want to avoid another Depression? Try understanding the first one.

By Robert S. McElvaine,

“I have seen the future, and it works,” journalist Lincoln Steffens famously said of his 1919 visit to Bolshevik Russia. Guided by his economic faith, Steffens saw the future as he wanted it to be, not as it would be.

What excuse do we have when we follow people who, guided by a different economic faith, see the past as they want it to have been, not as it was? Today, under the influence of leaders blinded to facts by certain faith, we are careening toward a repetition of mistakes that led to catastrophe.

A CNN poll conducted in June found that almost half of Americans now think that another Great Depression is “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to occur within the next 12months.

One sensible response is to point out that it is also “very likely” that most of those who stated this view have little conception of what the Great Depression actually was. “Depression” has come to be a term that gets thrown around whenever anyone wants to assert that things are really bad.

And yet, there is a genuine danger that the already weak economy could turn into a second coming of the hard times of the 1930s. The focus of many politicians today on cutting spending and avoiding tax increases on the wealthy is based on a misunderstanding of what led to and extended the Great Depression — and it is setting us up for a new collapse.

Most people realize that a failure to raise the debt ceiling could be catastrophic. But the drastic cuts in federal spending that some Republicans are demanding in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling would be a repeat of the mistakes that prevented a full recovery in the 1930s and then caused a secondary collapse in 1937. Enacting these cuts is the most likely scenario in which the current recession could become a new depression.

With the economy in a precarious position, slashing spending, concentrating ever more wealth and income at the top, and blocking effective regulation is a prescription for disaster.

In fact, the first part of this prescription is very similar to one written by Dr. New Deal himself. Fearful of massive budget deficits, President Franklin D. Roosevelt cut back on spending as soon as his 1936 reelection was secured, plunging the economy into a renewed free fall that introduced the word “recession” into our lexicon so as to avoid calling the collapse a renewed depression.

Yet that is the course upon which a unified Republican Party is insisting we embark again this summer. For their part, President Obama and many Democrats have ceded the battlefield and are just trying to reduce the number of casualties. In a meeting on Thursday, for instance, the president placed cuts in Medicare and Social Security on the negotiating table.

Conservatives appear to be united behind a set of beliefs that are dangerously wrong. Theirs is a faith-based economics that contrasts with fact-based economics; their god is named the Market. Their economics is as immune to facts as its opposite, Marxism. Call it Marketism. A devout Marketist believes that the Market is always right and any government intervention is, well, sinful.

For more than two generations, the Great Depression discredited this religion that worships an omnipotent and beneficent Market. But beginning around 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan, the Marketists staged a revival.

One of my students brilliantly, if accidentally, captured the essence of this economic fundamentalism in a journal entry a few years ago: “During his presidency, Reagan implemented sloppy-side economics.”

It is that sloppy-side economics that conservatives have been pushing ever since, and the more it fails, the harder they push it.

During the Great Depression, Roosevelt called for “bold, persistent experimentation” and said: “It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

But the position of faithful Marketists, then and now, is this: Take the method (as they see it, there is only one) and try it. If it fails, deny its failure and try it again, and again, and again. But above all, keep trying the same thing.

The difference boils down to bold, persistent experimentation vs. bold persistence. That is exactly what Republican policy is: persistent support for the ideas that produced the Great Depression and the Great Recession.

Since the beginning of the Obama administration, Republicans have been working unstintingly to misread the history of the Depression and implement policies similar to those that led to the collapses of 1929 and 2008. “One of the good things about reading history is you learn a good deal,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared early in 2009. “And we know for sure that the big spending programs of the New Deal did not work. In 1940, unemployment was still 15 percent. And it’s widely agreed among economists that what got us out of the doldrums that we were in during the Depression was the beginning of World War II.”

Well, yes . . . but that fact demonstrates just the opposite of what Marketist fundamentalists argue.

It is plain that the reason the New Deal failed to end the Depression is not that Roosevelt and Congress overspent, but that they underspent. The New Deal was not too reckless in its spending; it was too cautious. The war ended the Depression precisely because it obliged Roosevelt and Congress to spend greater and greater amounts without worrying about where the money was coming from.

The basic reason that the Obama administration has not yet ended the economic disaster it inherited — as reflected in Friday’s dismal jobs report — is the same reason that prevented the New Deal from ending the Depression FDR inherited: It hasn’t spent enough. The 2009 stimulus staved off a second Great Depression, but it should have been much larger to produce a genuine recovery. Subsequently, even with majorities in both houses, the Democrats let the GOP define the argument and failed to force through needed programs to get the economy back on its feet.

It has been the alleged “socialism” of the New Deal that has prevented another Depression for seven decades. While a market-based economy is clearly the best system, it carries serious risks. Government intervention minimizes those risks for businesses and for people — just a spoonful of “socialism” helps the capitalism go up.

The goal of Republicans today, though, is to use the claim that we cannot afford social programs as an excuse to repeal the New Deal and go back to the halcyon days of Calvin Coolidge.

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” Mark Twain is said to have remarked. To the extent that our current history sounds like the 1930s, it is because of the lack of sense on the part of politicians. We know better than to slash spending and allow the rich to become even richer in a weak economy, but we’re set on doing it anyway.

If there is a new Great Depression, it won’t be without rhyme, but it will be without reason.

Robert S. McElvaine, a professor of history at Millsaps College, is the author of “The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941.” He is at work on a new book about the 1960s.

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