Economy & Budget

Was the Great Depression Good for Us?

“Everything was all right in those years, but only if you had a job.” ~ Grandmother of Amity Shlaes in The Forgotten Man

Can the worst of times also be the best of times? When we think of the Great Depression of the 1930s, we are quick to recall the soup lines, bank closings, dust bowls, bear markets, demoralizing despair, and the aftershocks — Nazi Germany, the New Deal, Keynesianism, and, some say, World War II. Today, as the current recession worsens, everyone fears the dreaded D and seeks desperate rescue measures.

But was the Great Depression all bad? Truth is, there’s a bright side to the gloomy Thirties — a lower cost of living, huge technological advances, new forms of entertainment, more leisure time, and a return to responsible social behavior.

It was the beginning of the five-day work week….the Golden Age of radio and film….the playing of social sports like bridge, Monopoly, and softball….leisure time to read books and dance the jitterbug….while scientists invented the electron microscope, FM radio, radar, the jet airplane, and network television….

Chicago economist Robert Lucas, Jr., once called the 1930s “one long vacation,” and social historian Frederick Lewis Allen exclaimed, “[T]he American imagination was beginning to break loose again.”

There’s an old Asian saying, “It is the irritation in the oyster that forms the pearl.” A few people couldn’t take the hard times and jumped out windows, but most people responded to the challenge. Adversity often brings out creativity and opportunities to learn and advance. The 1930s were no exception.

This is a summary of a full-length article called “Brother, Can You Spare a Decade?” that I wrote on the subject in the May issue of Liberty magazine. Since writing this controversial and politically incorrect article, I’ve been attacked and defended by friends and foes.

For example, Mike Sharpe, my academic publisher at M. E. Sharpe and a social Democrat, took strong exception to my article. He wrote:

“What Mark Skousen says in ‘Brother Can You Spare a Decade?’ is beside the point. Millions of people were jobless, hungry, and in despair during the Depression. The fact that songs were written or scientific discoveries were made doesn’t mitigate the suffering. Does the work of Socrates mitigate the effects of the tyranny that executed him? Do the discoveries of Galileo offset the Roman Inquisition? Do the works of Shakespeare compensate for the expulsion of the Jews from England? Does the first novel by an American black, Clotel, written in 1853, reflect well on slavery? Do the performances of Von Karajan under Hitler make Nazism enjoyable? Does “God Bless America” sung by Kate Smith during World War II make that war less of a tragedy? Skousen’s entire argument is a non sequitur, harmful to a true understanding of the effects of the Depression and by extension, the current recession. He should not make light of suffering.”

My response:

I’m reluctant to start a fight with the publisher of my books, but here goes:

My essay may well be irreverent, but it’s not irrelevant. Mr. Sharpe’s view is the traditional view. I don’t dispute it. There was a lot of real suffering during the Great Depression, and I mention the dark side of the 1930s at various times in the essay.

But what I do try to do is look at the positive things that came out of the Great Depression. Sharpe wants to ignore them. Yes, there was a lot of suffering, but there were times of joy, good times, and scientific advances in the midst of the depression.

I think we have to look at both extremes to find out what really matters, the bad and the good that came out of the Great Depression and today’s recession. Sharpe focuses on the suffering that goes on in a recession/depression, I focus on the positive effects of a downturn, such as the good things people are doing now (out of necessity): being more careful about what they spend, saving for a rainy day, not taking their job for granted, and sensing trouble rather than going along merrily trusting in the establishment, without thinking. What’s so bad about that?

Both views are important.

Sometimes I think we as a nation and as legislators are impatient. We want to avoid suffering at all times, and take pills if we sense even a slight headache. No one wants to be unemployed or fired from a job, but you know what? Lots of unemployed and fired people tell me later (a year or two after finding another job) that it was the best thing that ever happened to them. Not all, but many.

I conclude that a lot of good can come out of bad times.

What’s your view? Is the recession or depression good or bad for America?

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