There’s not a lot of nostalgia for the Great Depression but, if we’d retained some of the values from that era, we might not be careening toward another one now. The Great Depression followed hard on the Roaring Twenties. The economy went from boom to bust. We look back on the twenties as a frivolous period of flappers and speakeasies, exuberant spending, loose moral standards, and widespread disregard for the law. There were those who condemned the gleeful irresponsibility that became emblematic of that era, but the young and “young at heart” scorned their dourness and ridiculed their dire predictions.
Then came the crash, followed by acute economic contraction. Exuberant spending was replaced by extruding the maximum value from every penny surrendered, cutting back to the essentials, and then learning that not all “essentials” were essential. Every tiny luxury, like a bar of soap or a candy bar, was appreciated more than the most extravagant bauble of the preceding era.
Instead of flinging away money for a night on the town, people found ways to entertain themselves that cost nothing, like huddling around the woodstove telling stories or playing games. People spent more time with their families, even if it wasn’t by choice. But the hardships they endured together forged strong familial bonds. Neighbors rallied to support one another, because nobody knew when they might be the one in need. Those who could get work worked hard, knowing they had to provide superior value to keep their job in a time when jobs were scarce. And they took pride in that fact, and honed their skills to ensure continued employment.
I’m not romanticizing the Great Depression. It was a miserable time. Many who would have been glad to work couldn’t get jobs. Many suffered tremendous losses through no fault of their own. Some even died from their hardships. But the vast majority managed to survive and became stronger, wiser, and more resilient, not in spite of, but because of, the adversities they endured.
Some say the New Deal was instrumental in ending the Great Depression, with its social welfare programs, agricultural subsidies that paid farmers not to grow crops, and the replacement of the gold standard with a fiat currency that has no intrinsic value. But there’s widespread disagreement among economists as to whether the New Deal helped or prolonged the Depression. The only thing we can say for certain is that it took World War II to end it.
WWII bolstered the economy, creating employment for everybody from soldiers to factory workers, and the surge in patriotism helped revive the spirit of the nation. Luxuries were still rare, but people felt they were sacrificing for a reason, and that gave them a sense of purpose and pride. After the war, the lessons instilled by years of austerity laid the foundation for a new era of prosperity.
The programs instituted by FDR as part of the New Deal were intended to be short-term recovery programs. Unfortunately, once a bureaucracy is established, it takes on a life of its own. It’s nearly impossible to dismantle government programs once they get entrenched. Many people were deeply ashamed to go on the dole, and the habits they acquired of continual striving to rise above that humiliation often led to great success later on. For the most part, they passed that fierce sense of self-reliance on to their children.
But others, too exhausted for the struggle, found it easier to sink into the trough that was offered them and accept government handouts as their lot in life. The social programs were seen to be a particular boon to the disadvantaged, but those are the ones for whom it proved most detrimental in the end. Those who would have had to work even harder to overcome the greater obstacles before them had less incentive to undertake that Herculean task when given the option to just accept what the government offered as compensation for their disadvantaged circumstances. And many of them passed that embittered sense of perpetual entitlement on to their children. To this day, that sad legacy of the New Deal has kept generation after generation mired in government-subsidized poverty.
Ironically, the descendants of those who achieved success in the post war boom, after only a couple of generations, were reduced to complacency by the very affluence their parents and grandparents struggled so hard to provide for them. The baby boomers had it easy, compared to their parents’ generation, and the generation that followed was spoiled by the expectation that everything in life should come easily. If they couldn’t afford something they wanted, they simply said “Charge it,” and it was theirs. They developed their own sense of entitlement; only instead of feeling entitled to mere subsistence, they felt entitled to a big house and a constant stream of little luxuries to gratify their every whim.
Now, the good times are over. A new depression may well be on the way. Maybe it will bring back some of those old-fashioned Depression-era values that served our parents and grandparents so well. Unfortunately, with our new president-elect, I foresee another New Deal on the horizon as well, even bigger and “better” than the last one…