Thursday, March 5, 2009

When America Came Together

By David Luhrssen
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Recently the New York Times cautiously advanced the word “depression” into articles on the current downturn. It’s a scary term, but maybe staring it down might not be a bad idea. Examining the last depression could be helpful if the correct conclusions are drawn from its example. The History Channel’s four-part series “The Great Depression” is out now on DVD.

Former New York governor Mario Quomo introduces the program with memories of his own Depression-era childhood. His father was out of work and the neighborhood grocer took in the Quomos, allowing them to live in the back room in exchange for work around the store. “Nobody wants to repeat anything like the Great Depression,” Quomo says, but adds: “Americans forgot their differences and came together.”

There is truth that the spirit of community sustained many during the Depression. It’s also true that misery loved company and the voices challenging the system that led to the catastrophe often spoke in shrill tones of fascism and communism.

The Great Depression’s causes were similar to the current Great Recession: the irrational exuberance of an unregulated economy and the mindless materialism of the rich and their admirers. Like now, it was a global crisis of interconnected economies with the Wall Street Crash precipitating a hundred other crashes. Before long assembly lines halted and crops rotted in the fields. Money saved for a rainy day evaporated and poor houses ran out of beds. In the U.S. unemployment reached 25 percent.

The President at the time of the Crash, Herbert Hoover, was a much brighter man than George W. Bush. But although he was a progressive among Republicans and a humanitarian, his vision was curbed by the same ideology that ran rampant over the world during the last few years. He believed the economy would heal itself but the public didn’t want to wait. In 1932 Americans elected the aristocratic Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose calm coherence, effervescent charm and quick wit are occasionally analogous to Barack Obama. Despite the rhetoric and false history spouted by Rush Limbaugh and company, the economy never healed itself. The Great Depression was ended by World War II, which counts as the biggest federal spending project ever.

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