Don't Get Depressed, It's Not 1929

By Gross, Daniel | Newsweek, December 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Don't Get Depressed, It's Not 1929


Gross, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Daniel Gross

Instead of out-of-work men asking, 'Brother, can you spare a dime?' we have executives asking Congress if it can spare $100 billion.

It's difficult to avoid the ubiquitous comparisons between the current sad state of financial affairs and the Great Depression. "This is not like 1987 or 1998 or 2001," Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain said at a conference on Nov. 11. "We will in fact look back to the 1929 period to see the kind of slowdown we are seeing now." A newsweekly that is a loathed rival worthy competitor depicted President-elect Barack Obama on its cover as the second coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And in Washington, the buzz is all about what the new team will do in its first 100 days. What's next? Show trials in Moscow?

All this historically inaccurate nostalgia can occasionally make you want to clock somebody with one of the three volumes of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s New Deal history. The Credit Debacle of 2008 and the Great Depression may have similar origins: both got going when financial crisis led to a reduction in consumer demand. But the two phenomena differ substantially. Instead of workers with 5 o'clock shadows asking, "Brother, can you spare a dime?" we have clean-shaven financial-services executives asking congressmen if they can spare $100 billion. More substantively, the economic trauma the nation suffered in the 1930s makes today's woes look like flesh wounds.

"By the afternoon of March 3, scarcely a bank in the country was open to do business," FDR said in his March 12, 1933, fireside chat (now available on a very cool podcast at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's Web site). In 1933 some 4,000 commercial banks failed, causing depositors to take huge losses. (There was no FDIC back then.) The recession that started in August 1929 lasted for a grinding 43 months, during which unemployment soared to 25 percent and national income was cut in half. By contrast, through mid-November of this year, only 19 banks had failed. The Federal Reserve last week said it expects unemployment to top out at 7.6 percent in 2009. Economists surveyed by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank believe the recession, which started in April 2008, will be over by next summer. (Of course, the same guys back in January forecast that the economy would grow nicely in 2008 and 2009.) But don't take it from me. Take it from this year's Nobel laureate in economics. "The world economy is not in depression," Paul Krugman writes in his just-reissued book "The Return of Depression Economics." "It probably won't fall into depression, despite the magnitude of the current crisis (although I wish I was completely sure about that)."

So what's with all the speakeasy-era speak? Financial executives invoke distant history in part to make up for their own recent shortcomings. …

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