Could We Have Survived a Great Depression?

by Bob Schwartz

The Great Recession did not turn into a(nother) Great Depression, and the prospects of continuing towards prosperity, or at least less economic insecurity, seem good. The big question that we now have a limited luxury to ask is this: Could we have survived a Great Depression? The study of that question may be the most valuable we can make.

The Great Depression has spawned an industry for scholars, historians, and thinkers of all stripes, and that has been a good thing. Systems and people are seen truest at their moments of greatest stress, and hardly anything before or since qualifies

Looking at how we managed to survive the last Great Depression – whether it was leadership and action, the normal cycle correcting a horrific anomaly, the fortunate unfortunate impact of a global war, or all/none of the above – tells us something about how we might handle the next. A couple of small starting points:

Creativity matters. Dismissing creative civic solutions out of hand and out of political pique is something we can never afford, and in the worst times something we should never tolerate. Love him or hate him, FDR got boldly creative, pushing the bounds of constitutionality, convention, and common sense. But when things fall apart as they did, common sense is cold comfort. Herbert Hoover, who was in fact a man of civic accomplishment, lacked the boldness and sense of adventure needed for the unprecedented times.

The question is: At that moment in 2008, if things had gone from bad to worse, would there have been the will to be creative and to try things, even if that meant setting aside ideology and political advantage. The answer is that nothing at the time, and nothing today, tells us that there would have been.

Optimism matters. One of the latest political ads from Rick Santorum depicts a cautionary apocalyptic vision of Obama America, something straight out of the Book of Revelation. During the Great Depression, there was no need for a fanciful version of the Apocalypse; it was already there. Books, songs, and movies painted an accurate vision of hardship, but they also tried for uplift and hope. The best and smartest politicians realized that when the spirit of America was already broken, the last thing people needed was a reminder that things could and might yet get worse. Happy days might not have been there again, as the song said, but there was no point in saying that they never would.

So as with the dismissal of creative solutions, the question is, in the face of a 21st century Great Depression, whether today’s politicians could find a way to set aside the darkness and pessimism for a brighter vision of good times ahead, even if it meant faking optimism, even if it meant losing political advantage. There is little evidence of that.