When the boom was in full force that fall and the market soared to it's most dizzying height, a few alarms were sounded. Over and over the Federal Reserve Board expressed fears of inflation, but the warnings were ignored. Inflation never led to hard times, anyway. Besides, Americans had an unbounded confidence in their future. "Be a bull on America," people were saying, "and never sell the United States short." These naive homilies were more than believed; they were acted upon as articles of faith: people plunged deeper into the market, and the spiral and the fevor continued.
The similarities between the Great Crash that ushered in the Great Depression just 50 years ago this month and the tremors that swept Wall Street and the world's financial institutions in recent days are self-evident and have been much commented upon: the recordbreaking volume of trading, the ticker running late, the concerns and fears about the depth and length of the decline. But the difference between then and now are even more arresting and instructive.
Now, when the nation's economic security is safeguard by government actions and policies sharply unlike the laissez-faire attitudes that prevailed in the '20s, distrust of government grows more pronounced by the day, it seems, and pessimism about the country is profound, if one is to believe the pollesters and their soundings.
Now, unlike the days after the stock market crash ended the historic bull market that promised prosperity forever, a citizen will not lose his savings if his bank folds. The government insures them. Now, if he loses his job during the latest economic dislocation, he won't go without income. The government provides unemployment payments. Now, if he becomes ill or is forced into retirement early he won't lack medical care or some pension benefits. The government underwrites them.
And yet as this unhappy anniversary arrives with fresh signs of nervousness about the nation's economic stability, ironically the great political issue that promises to dominate the next presidential year remains the working of the government that was fashioned largely as a reaction to the Depression that began half a century ago.
One night late last spring, when the president was in the midst of deciding how to address what he later publicly described as national malaise of the spirit, two of his young aides were talking about the America in which they had grown up. Despite the problems of their young adulthood -- the Vietnam war, the racial strife -- neither of them had really known people who had suffered desperate privation. To them the Depression was only a word in the history books.
As a child of the '30s, who happily grew up unscarred by the Depression years (my father didn't lose his job and we lived well for those times) what remains most vivid is the way attitude were shaped that lasted a lifetime. My parents, for instance, and those of many of my friends, were extremely wary about buying a house, even if they could afford to, preferring to rent. The same was true of their deep suspicions of and distrust for banks and bankers and investing in the stock market. The speculative bubble that had so cruelly burst in October 1929 influenced their thinking from then forward.
Now, a generation has arrived at maturity that thinks nothing of borrowing to the hilt, of living on credit and the installment plan, of existing without savings, of speculating and purchasing homes -- and second homes -- and cars -- and second cars -- that would have been physical possessions of only the very rich not so long ago.
The political aspects of the Depression mentality are, of course, familiar.
It was the Depession that brought a revolution in the role and reach of the American government, that centered greater and greater power in Washington and in the presidency. It transformed the political parties -- or, more properly, almost led to the extinction of one, the Republican, to the benefit of the other, the Democratic -- and it created the myth of the near-perfect leader that still survives.
Franklin Roosevelt not only dominated that Depression era; his ghost hovers over all of American politics since. He was far from the radical he was portrayed as at the time, the enemy of his class, the betrayer of ancient democratic principles. Amid the true radicals and demagogues of the times, people of such differing strips as the Huey Longs and Father Coughlins, FDR was a centrist, the consummate pragmatist whose leadership preserved instead of destroyed the capitalist system that had come close to permanent collapse with the crash. Now the government he did so much to shape is both taken for granted and dismissed as inadequate to the demands of the new period of economic tension America appears to be entering in the 1980s.
Perhaps the final irony of this Depression milestone we approach -- and the most pertinent application to this uncertain political present -- comes down to this contradiction:
Fifty years ago, despite the worst economic catastrophe ever to befall the nation, Americans remained essentially optimistic about the future. They banded together to create reforms of institutions and government that served the country well for decades and helped prevent a recurrence of 1929. Now, despite those safegaurds and despite the accumulation of undreamed-of-affluence, Americans seem afflicted by a depression of the spirit and an inability to agree on any common political and economic course.
It's quite possible that only a great shock or a great crisis, will unite and force them to assess and act upon the kind of government needed for the closing years of this century.