In his New York Times column Saturday, Joe Nocera discovers the Great Depression and, as the headline accurately declares, "The 1930s Sure Sounds Familiar." Well, to Nocera at least. There's the lousy economy, there's the Occupy Wall Street movement (the bonus marchers' Hooverville, says Nocera), there's Bernie Madoff (Ivar Kreuger), there's even Casey Anthony (the Lindbergh kidnapping). And, of course, there's this lurch toward austerity.
Nocera seems to get most of this social and cultural parallelism from paging through Frederick Lewis Allen's popular history of the 30s, Since Yesterday, published in 1940. Anyone who went to school in my era -- a long time ago (impossibly long from the perspective of Zuccotti Park) -- had to read some Allen, mostly his most famous book, Only Yesterday, about the 20s, in your basic introductory U.S. history class. Allen was a Harper's editor and one of the earliest "popular" historians, of which we now have an entire industry. He was writing what was later to be called "consensus American history," rationalizing the disasters and divisions and emphasizing the triumph of an American spirit that transcended class and race -- a school that has long been submerged in academia but remains a popular trope. He was also writing while depression still retained its grip, and he was, to say the least, not exactly an expert economic historian.
Nocera unerringly reaches for the kind of consensus sentiment that made Allen so popular, if increasingly ignored in academia, "Despite the miseries of the Depression and the recurrent fears of new economic decline and of war, the bulk of the American people had not yet quite lost their basic asset of hopefulness...a nation tried in a long ordeal had not yet lost heart."
One might ask of Allen in 1940: how did he know? Did he ask anyone outside his relatively narrow social set? Or was it just a feeling he had?
Allen was, and remains, extremely readable. But in going back to Allen, charming as he could be, Nocera blithely seems to dismiss generations of hard historical labor on Great Depression issues that remain knotty and difficult. Some of these are basic: what were the true causes of the slump? (Ben Bernanke at Princeton did a lot of work in this area.) What role did the Keynesian revolution have on the New Deal? (A lot, but later.) How did we finally slay the beast? (World War II, but how, and why, did it not return?) Scholars have looked at the hard politics of the New Deal and Rooseveltian liberalism; at the fissures and splits within the country and within the New Deal. And they've had far more history to explore. Some tremendous work has been done. What happened to the New Deal, and how did that evolution -- long after Allen wrote Since Yesterday -- alter our view of the 30s? This is particularly the case with a subject Allen has very little understanding of: macroeconomics. (Nocera, in an aside, says that Allen "implicitly" agrees with the notion that FDR -- our Obama -- should have done more, not less, in terms of government spending. What's the "implicitly"? Could it be that Allen was really clueless on these matters and would rather write about Hoovervilles and kidnappings?)
So why is Nocera turning to Allen? Well, as he writes, it's "a reminder of why history matters." The 30s, in short, reminds him of now. But again Nocera gets himself mired in Allen's soft and taffy-like sociology. Ivar Kreugar might seem like Bernie Madoff, but Kreugar brought down a whole global economic infrastructure, including banks, while Madoff hurt some wealthy investors (and the Ponzi scheme charge, as even Nocera seems to understand, is complicated with Kreugar). It's a little insulting to the desperate bonus baby veterans in the 30s to compare them with the Occupy Wall Street crowd who have settled in Zuccotti voluntarily and seem to be well provisioned, with lots of social media at hand; the bonus marchers had a very specific set of demands, as well, which certainly isn't a characteristic of OWS.
Nocera also seems surprised that big business did reasonably well in the Great Depression. Well, all things are relative; they did better than smaller businesses that really suffered. But the economy in the 20s had been highly concentrated, far more than today; and that concentration only deepened with the slump and continued into the 50s. Compared to then, today's economy, for all its problems, is much more dynamic, fluid and balanced between large and small. This was an industrial economy, with enormous economies of scale. Size begat size. Corporate credit was scarce; consumer credit was hard to find and difficult to access; and there was no venture capital, private equity or debt financing with any leverage (although Kreugar's empire collapsed under vast leverage). Large corporations controlled patents and dominated R&D; there was nothing remotely comparable to Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurs were deeply suspect.
In short, the 30s were radically different from 2011 in a hundred different ways. Yes, both periods were shaken up by economic dislocation. It's not to diminish current woes to say that 9% unemployment is a lot different than 25%, or that a world struggling to cope with a rising China and a splintering Europe is a lot different than one dominated by rising fascism, Nazism and communism. And a world (still) with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not to say bank deposit insurance, is a far cry from one that lacked any safety net to speak of and that was prone to destructive bank runs driven by fear and anxiety.
This is the second piece in a week or so in which a Times columnist has tried to ransack the Great Depression for current purposes; David Leonhardt did it last weekend, which I commented on. In both cases, there's an attempt to create a false equivalence between these two economic dislocations. Yes, it is important to know what's occurred historically; and it's vital to see the commonalities. But looking carefully only makes it more difficult to draw easy and simple comparisons. The more you know, the more you realize how foreign is the past, how many differences there are and how uncertain and complex remains the present. And when you turn to a popular book from 1940 to make your case, you're in trouble.