Perspective – Liberty Magazine – May 2009
Brother, Can You Spare a Decade?
by Mark Skousen
Few things other than a New Deal can be more painful than an economic depression. But few eras were more vital and enjoyable than the private side of the last one.
One of the rare books in my financial library is “I Like the Depression,” by Henry Ansley, the “Jackass of the Plains.” This amusing little volume was published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1932, and the price was a buck fifty.
Ansley, a newspaperman from Amarillo, Texas, described a prosperity in the 1920s that wasn’t that great. He burned candles at both ends, became a financial hotshot, and ultimately overextended himself. Then the depression hit: “Good-by twin beds, frozen salads, indigestion, credit and swelled head. Hail to the old-fashioned nightgown, buttermilk, sow bosom [a kind of food], comfort and cash.” He lost his job but found happiness by rediscovering leisure, friends, and neighborliness. Hard times taught him the value of a dollar and not to take things for granted: “My dog is my pal again; my wife my lover and my Dad my advisor.”
Ansley’s book was never a bestseller, but it started me thinking. Can the worst of times also be the best of times? The history books are replete with the evils of the 1930s — soup lines, bank closings, Hoovervilles, dustbowls, bear markets, demoralizing despair. It’s all been retold countless times, in such books as Milton Meltzer’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” and most recently Amity Shlaes’s “The Forgotten Man.” The Great Depression brought us Nazi Germany, the New Deal, Keynesianism, and, some say, World War II.
Not surprisingly, everyone from Wall Street to the halls of Congress is worried that the current recession will turn into the dreaded D, and has seized on desperate rescue measures. But was the Great Depression all bad? Did anything good come out of the 1930s? I started doing some research and was amazed to find a bright side to the gloomy ’30s — a lower cost of living, great new inventions and other technological advances, new forms of entertainment, more sports and reading, and a return to sober social behavior.
Start with leisure. Henry Ansley describes the free time he had during the depression. Indeed, millions of Americans had a lot more leisure time. Before the depression, almost everyone worked a six-day week. In the 1930s, the five-day work week became commonplace. “Spread the work!” was the rally cry. By 1937, wage earners in 57% of all manufacturing companies enjoyed a five-day week. Saturday was now a free day, and the Saturday rush hour was replaced by the Friday rush hour.
As a result, there was a tremendous increase in sports and leisure-oriented jobs. People began getting out into the sun and open air and taking a greater interest in golf, tennis, skiing, roller skating, and bicycling. Softball became a national pastime; by 1939, there were nearly half a million teams and 5 million players of all ages throughout the country. Expensive private club golf courses withered, but inexpensive public courses grew. Miniature golf was all the rage in the early ’30s. Bobby Jones became the first and only person to win the Grand Slam of golf in 1930. And black athletes became national idols for the first time, Joe Louis in boxing and Jesse Owens in track and field.
Americans traveled more. House trailers became a very big business. Camping, canoeing, and other inexpensive outdoor activities increased in popularity. People took their cameras with them, and photography became a craze of remarkable dimensions. Americans took tons of pictures with their small German cameras. Life and Look — big, glossy picture magazines — became popular.
Dancing, all the rage in the ’20s, continued to rage in the ’30s. Americans would dance their way out of the depression! Young people everywhere danced the swing, the jitterbug, and the boogie woogie to the music of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Louie Armstrong.
Indoors, parlor games such as bridge and the ingenious “Monopoly” were popular. People read more, and circulation at local public libraries increased. Kids loved comic books, especially “Superman,” the world’s first comic book superhero. Books “condensed” by Reader’s Digest saved time and money. There was an intense interest in epic novels — Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth,” A.J. Cronin’s “The Citadel,” Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” — as well as such how-to books as Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” (1937, with 17 printings right away).
In the same year, Lin Yutang, the Chinese-American Taoist, published “The Importance of Living,” which was to become especially popular among libertarians. It encouraged Americans to stop worrying and start “letting go.” One chapter was entitled “The Art of Loafing.” “I am quite sure,” Lin wrote, “that amidst the hustle and bustle of American life, there is a great deal of wistfulness, of the divine desire to lie on a plot of grass under tall beautiful trees of an idle afternoon and just do nothing.” Whether fortunately or unfortunately, in their own opinion, millions of Americans got to live Lin’s upbeat message of idleness.
Idleness — and its companion, entertainment. People wanted to forget their troubles, and radio and motion pictures provided an escape. Radio really came of age during this period, with up to 80 million listeners on some evenings. There was a lot more to radio than FDR’s fireside chats. It was the way to hear worldwide news bulletins, good music, and such half-hour comedies as “Amos ’n’ Andy,” the first syndicated program, and “The Jack Benny Show.” In the late 1930s, NBC was carrying broadcasts of symphony orchestras, especially its own orchestra, conducted by the immortal Arturo Toscanini, to 10 million listeners every week. And who can forget the night of Sunday, October 30, 1938, when Orson Welles broadcast his version of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds”?
Hollywood blossomed during the ’30s. In one decade, the motion picture industry went from silent films to talkies in Technicolor. Films brought the American public together as never before. Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, John Wayne, Mickey Rooney, and Clark Gable were welcome alternatives to Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin, and other demagogues of the era. Many considered Shirley Temple a gift from God during the gloomy de-pression. The motion picture event of 1938 was the first full-length animated cartoon, Walt Disney’s “Snow White.” The same year saw one of the first films in Technicolor, the blockbuster “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” starring Errol Flynn. A burst of classic award-winning films came out the next year, including “The Wizard of Oz,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and the greatest of all epic films, “Gone With the Wind.”
The ’30s was the era of the first great horror films, “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and “King Kong.” For a dime, Americans could go to the Saturday matinee and see double features of cowboys, adventurers, and gangsters. The silver screen brought us science fiction, serial thrillers and the Singing Cowboy (Gene Autry). The theater was filled with humor — Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges. Americans would laugh their way out of the depres-sion! There were reasons why Chicago economist Robert Lucas, Jr., called the 1930s “one long vacation.”
Alvin Hansen and other Keynesian economists developed their “stagnation thesis” in the late 1930s, arguing that the United States was indefinitely stuck in an economic rut. They claimed that there was no new technology, no new frontier to drive the American economy. They ignored the tremendous economic progress that took place throughout the depression — the invention of plastics, artificial fibers, plywood, the 2-cycle diesel engine, and lighter, tougher steels.
Ernst Ruska and Max Knoll invented the electron microscope in 1932. Howard Armstrong created FM radio in 1933. Wallace Carothers manufactured nylon, and Robert A. Watson-Watt discovered radar in 1935. Hans Pabst von Ohain developed the jet engine in 1937 and the first jet airplane in 1939. Chester Carlson originated xerography in 1938. Igor Sikorsky made the first practical helicopter in 1939. Several people, including Philo T. Farnsworth and Isaac Shoenberg, developed television in the 1930s. CBS and NBC began broadcasting TV during this decade.
Manufacturers weren’t idle in getting new technology to market. New household products included electric mixers, pop-up toasters, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and irons. For the first time, consumers enjoyed sliced bread and packaged frozen foods. Union Pacific came out with fancy new streamlined, air-conditioned trains. Mass-market automobiles could now accelerate to 60 mph, carrying passengers along new highways with underpasses and cloverleafs. The dirigible, a new form of air transportation, appeared in 1936 (but disappeared with the fiery destruction of the Hindenberg a year later). The Douglas DC3 came out in 1936, traveling at 200 mph, compared to the 1932 passenger airplane speed of 110 mph. Coast-to-coast travel in overnight air sleepers was now possible. New ocean liners, such as the Queen Mary, appeared in a crowded New York harbor. Everyone came to witness the building of the 102-story Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Center (the only skyscraper group to rise in the 1930s). And who could not marvel at the Golden Gate Bridge, opened to traffic on May 28, 1937?
Social historian Frederick Lewis Allen, author of “Only Yesterday” (1931), a bestselling history of the 1920s, summed it up best when he wrote in a sequel, “Since Yesterday” (1940), “the American imagination was beginning to break loose again.” At the end of the decade, the New York World’s Fair had as its theme “The World of Tomorrow.”
Society and Economics
The depression brought about a change in American social trends. People attended church more. Many retreated from the sexual revolution of the roaring ’20s. The mood was more somber and prudent, even after Prohibition was repealed in December 1933. (By the end of the decade, Alcoholics Anonymous was founded.) There was greater approval of marriage and family life. The divorce rate dropped sharply, by 23% from 1929 to 1932, though so did the marriage rate and the birth rate — possibly because marriage and children cost money.
Not all economic news was bad. The most favorable statistic was the decline in the cost of living. During the period 1929–32, retail prices dropped by an average 24%, wholesale prices by 31%, farm prices by 51%, and raw commodity prices by 42%. Of course, wages, salaries, dividends, and other forms of income declined as well, but for those who kept their jobs and held onto their assets, the loss of nominal income was offset by sharply lower prices for all consumer products. “Everything was all right in those years,” said a woman quoted in Amity Shlaes’ book, “but only if you had a job.”
Unemployment reached 25% and higher in some regions at the depths of the depression, causing enormous hardship for millions of Americans. But see it in another light: three out of every four people were employed in the worst parts of the depression. Total employment rose after 1932, reaching 90% by the end of the decade. In a sense, the Democrats were right: happy days were here again!
Businesses adjusted to the new deflation by downsizing, cutting costs, and implementing labor-saving devices. Even the farming industry mechanized. By 1936, despite persistent unemployment, real national output had nearly recovered to pre-depression levels. Auto sales exceeded all previous years except 1928–29. The steel industry was operating at close to capacity. Even the building industry was climbing briskly. Miami was having its best season since the collapse of the Florida land boom. The race tracks were crowded, lavish debutante parties flourished in the big cities, and the night clubs were full.
For bulls and bears alike, the 1930s was the most fantastic period in stock market history. Stock prices collapsed between 1929 and 1932, losing an average 88%, but industrial, rail, and utility stocks all shot up from their lows in the summer of 1932, anticipating the end of hard times. Few bull markets have ever equaled the rocket performance of the summer of 1932, when the rails tripled within eight weeks and the utility averages doubled. Wall Street went on a rampage for the next four years. The Dow rose 67% in 1933, 4% in 1934, 38% in 1935, and 25% in 1936. After a sharp 32% correction in 1937, the market re-sumed its upward trend until war broke out in Europe in September, 1939. There were also plenty of speculative opportunities on the long side of gold and other natural resource stocks during the ’30s. In sum, the bulls, not just the bears, had plenty of chances to make money in the 1930s.
There’s an old saying, “It is the irritation in the oyster that forms the pearl.” The Great Depression was an irritation that most people didn’t expect. A few people couldn’t take the hard times and jumped out of windows, but most responded to the challenge. Adversity often demonstrates the virtue and creativity of humankind. Bad news often creates good news and opportunities to learn and advance. The 1930s were no exception.
Mark Skousen is the author of Economic Logic, now available in its second edition.