Brough's Books on Great Depression

The Great Depression

History of the Twentieth Century
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    The Great Depression is the period of history that followed "Black Thursday", the stock market crash of Thursday, October 24, 1929. The events in the United States triggered a world-wide depression, which led to deflation and a great increase in unemployment. On the global scale, the market crash in the USA was a final straw in an already shaky world economic situation. Germany was suffering from hyperinflation of currency, and many of the Allied victors of World War I were having serious problems paying off huge war debts. In the late 1920s the American economy at first seemed immune to the mounting troubles, but with the start of the 1930s it crashed with startling rapidity. 

    A fundamental misdistribution of purchasing power might have been the Depression's main contributing factor. As industrial and agricultural production increased, the proportion of the profits going to farmers, factory workers, and other potential consumers was far too small to create a market for goods that they were producing. Even in 1929, after nearly a decade of economic growth, more than half the families in America lived on the edge or below the subsistence level-too poor to share in the great consumer boom of the 1920s, too poor to buy the cars and houses and other goods the industrial economy was producing, too poor in many cases to buy even the adequate food and shelter for themselves. As long as corporations had continue to expand their capital facilities (their factories, warehouses, heavy equipment, and other investments), the economy had flourished. By the end of the 1920s, however, capital investments had created more plant space than could be profitably used, and factories were pouring out more goods than consumers could purchase. 

     
    The USA's economy had thus been showing some signs of distress for months before October 1929. Business inventories of all kinds were three times as large as they had been a year before (an indication that the public was not buying products as rapidly as in the past); and other signposts of economic health-freight carloads, industrial production, wholesale prices-were slipping downward. 

    There was also a serious lack of diversification in the American economy of the 1920s. Prosperity had been excessively dependent on a few basic industries, notably construction and automobiles; in the late 1920s, those industries began to decline. Between 1926 and 1929, expenditures on construction fell from $11 billion to under $9 billion. Automobile sales began to decline somewhat later, but in the first nine months of 1929 they declined by more than one third. Once these two crucial industries began to weaken, there was not enough strength in other sectors of the economy to take up the slack. 

    Two policies exacerbated the depression. The first is the tight money policies of the Federal Reserve which restricted the money supply. The second was the recourse to protectionism with measures such as the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, which raised tariffs on imports in order to protect local producers who were being hurt by foreign competition. In response, many other countries also raised their tariffs, badly hurting US businesses that exported their goods. This led to a chain reaction of tariff increases which fragmented the world economy. 

    In the United States, Herbert Hoover was the president, and he tried to control the situation, however, he helped little. One of the major problems was that with deflation, the currency that you kept in your pocket could buy more goods as the prices went down. The other was that there had been no oversight in the stock market or other investments, and with the collapse, many of the stock and investment schemes were found to be either insolvent, or outright frauds. Unfortunately, many banks had invested in these schemes, and this precipitated a collapse of the banking system in 1932. With the banking system in shambles, and people holding on to whatever currency that they had, there was minimal cash available for any activities that would cause positive change. 

    In Germany unemployment increased drastically, fuelling widespread disillusionment and anger. Promising to fix the situation, Adolf Hitler took over the government there in 1933. 

    Likewise, many Americans were disillusioned with their system of government, believing that Hoover's policies had driven the country to ruin. (Shantytowns populated by unemployed people at the time were often dubbed "Hoovervilles" to highlight the President's fading popularity). During this period, several alternative and fringe political movements saw a considerable increase in membership. In particular, a number of high-profile figures embraced the ideals of Communism, though this would subsequently be used against them during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Radio speakers such as Father Charles Coughlin saw their listening audiences swell into the millions, as they sought for (and often found) easy scapegoats to blame the country's woes upon. 

    Roosevelt's "New Deal" in the USA

    In 1932 the United States elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt to replace Hoover as president. With unemployment near twenty five percent of the workforce, he initiated a number of government programs to increase liquidity and provide jobs, which jointly are called the New Deal. Some believe that these actions helped bring the country out of the depression--though there is considerable controversy over the extent to which this is true--and provided some of the infrastructure, including roads that are still in use today. Roosevelt's first major action happened on his first full day in office on March 5, 1933 when he declared that a "bank holiday" would go into effect the next day that would close all United States banks and freeze all financial transactions in order to stop the run on bank deposits. When banks were finally allowed to open on March 13, depositors found that they would never again be allowed to withdraw the gold that they had deposited. This confiscation of wealth substantially reduced the rate of bank closures, and allowed the government to finance further "New Deal" programs. The United States Congress went to work on its first 100 days of enacting New Deal legislation on March 9, 1933. 

    Because the US was still in a state of depression when it entered World War II, the New Deal's success is still debated. Much of the debate is centered around when to measure the success from or what constitutes success. Those who measure success as return to the economic levels of 1928 argue that the new deal was a failure. In 1928, the level of Gross National Product (GNP) was at 100 billion, and Consumer Goods purchased was at 80 billion. By 1933, when Roosevelt took office, the economy had shrunk to a GNP of 55 billion and CGP of 45 billion. Some argue, that the American economy had probably hit an economic peak around 1928, and that it would be unreasonable to return to those levels. By 1939 the US GNP had risen to 85 billion with a CGP of 65 billion. 

    For those who view the New Deal as a failure, the reasons are open to debate. Some argue that the inherent instability of a market economy caused such a bad depression that even the well-chosen interventions of the New Deal could not correct it quickly. Others argue that because this longest depression in US history was also marked by the greatest degree of government intervention in US history, although this claim is highly contentious. 

    It is known that Roosevelt's New Deal programs were initially struck down by the Supreme Court, so that his initial interventions in the economy were all halted. During this time the economy was on a slow improving trend. After the Court began to uphold his interventionist legislation, the economy took a sharp downward dip, which has been called a depression within a depression, from which it was only slowly recovering when the US entered WWII. Thus it is claimed by some that his intervention delayed the economic recovery that had been underway. 

    The Influence of the World War 

    Many believe that it was government-induced World War II spending that restarted world-wide economic expansion, but this is at best only partly true. Germany and Italy had "recovered" prior to WWII by making massive military and infrastructure investments. The US moved to full employment during WWII through massive military investments, but also by shifting a very large percentage of the potential work force into the military. While this was necessary, it meant the US economy had not returned to natural market conditions, and when the war ended a period of readjustment was necessary when millions of soldiers returned home. One of the purposes of the G.I. Bill was to ease this transition. In countries such as France, England and the Netherlands, of course, the war caused tremendous harm, rather than being a source of economic revival. While war is always profitable to particular businesses, it causes social and economic dislocations that outweigh any stimulus effects it might have. It is interesting to note that in a single generation popular opinion went from viewing war as the cause of the Depression to being the cure for the Depression, in both cases with dubious causality. 

    The End of the Great Depression

    By this time, business had been reinforced by government expenditures as a consequence of depression and the war. Between 1929 and 1933 unemployment soared from 3 percent of the workforce to 25 percent, while manufacturing output collapsed by one-third. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs tried to stimulate demand and provide work and relief for the impoverished through increased government spending. The philosophy behind this was belatedly provided by the British economist John Maynard Keynes. Between 1933 and 1939, federal expenditure tripled, and Roosevelt's critics charged that he was turning America into a socialist state. But the cost of the New Deal pales in comparison with World War II. In 1939, federal expenditure was $9 million; it had increased tenfold by 1945. And war spending financially cured the depression, pulling unemployment down from 14 percent in 1940 to less than 2 percent in 1943 as the labor force grew by ten million. The war economy was not so much a triumph of free enterprise as the result of government deficit spending stimulating economic activity. 

     

    This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License, which means that you can copy and modify it as long as the entire work (including additions) remains under this license. See http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html for details. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Great_Depression