Great Myths of the Great Depression

By Reed, Lawrence W. | Freeman, August 1998 | Go to article overview
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Great Myths of the Great Depression


Reed, Lawrence W., Freeman


Many volumes have been written about the Great Depression and its impact on the lives of millions of Americans. Historians, economists, and politicians have all combed the wreckage searching for the "black box" that will reveal the cause of this legendary tragedy. Sadly, all too many of them decide to abandon their search, finding it easier perhaps to circulate a host of false and harmful conclusions about the events of seven decades ago.

How bad was the Great Depression? Over the four years from 1929 to 1933, production at the nation's factories, mines, and utilities fell by more than half. People's real disposable incomes dropped 28 percent. Stock prices collapsed to one-tenth of their precrash height. The number of unemployed Americans rose from 1.6 million in 1929 to 12.8 million in 1933. One of every four workers was out of a job at the Depression's nadir, and ugly rumors of revolt simmered for the first time since the Civil War.

Old myths never die; they just keep showing up in college economics and political science textbooks. Students today are frequently taught that unfettered free enterprise collapsed of its own weight in 1929, paving the way for a decade-long economic depression full of hardship and misery. President Herbert Hoover is presented as an advocate of"handsoff," or laissez-faire, economic policy, while his successor, Franklin Roosevelt, is the economic savior whose policies brought us recovery. This popular account of the Depression belongs in a book of fairy tales and not in a serious discussion of economic history, as a review of the facts demonstrates.

The Great, Great, Great, Great Depression

To properly understand the events of the time, it is appropriate to view the Great Depression as not one, but four consecutive depressions rolled into one. Professor Hans Sennholz has labeled these four "phases" as follows: the business cycle; the disintegration of the world economy; the New Deal; and the Wagner Act.1

The first phase explains why the crash of 1929 happened in the first place; the other three show how government intervention kept the economy in a stupor for over a decade.

Phase I: The Business Cycle

The Great Depression was not the country's first depression, though it proved to be the longest. The common thread woven through the several earlier debacles was disastrous manipulation of the money supply by government. For various reasons, government policies were adopted that ballooned the quantity of money and credit. A boom resulted, followed later by a painful day of reckoning. None of America's depressions prior to 1929, however, lasted more than four years and most of them were over in two. The Great Depression lasted for a dozen years because the government compounded its monetary errors with a series of harmful interventions.

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