‘The very machinery of the American economy seemed to be coming to a stop. The rich and fertile nation, overflowing with natural wealth in its fields and forests and mines, equipped with unsurpassed technology, endowed with boundless resources in its men and women, lay stricken.”
Not so contemporary, this observation: Thus Arthur Schlesinger began his book about Franklin D. Roosevelt, describing the “crisis of the old order” that elected Roosevelt president in 1932.
In our malaise since the Great Recession, the new century’s version of the old one’s Great Depression, there is theoretically growth in the economy. But as the Federal Reserve and other agencies point out, growth is so slow it hardly dents the high unemployment rate.
The jobless aren’t as numerous as they were in 1933, when Roosevelt took office, but sometimes his inaugural’s denunciation of “fear itself” seems apt. While today’s jobless are beneficiaries of New Deal programs to cushion the impact of joblessness, they nevertheless suffer, and many have been out of work for a longer time than Americans have seen since Roosevelt was president.
Fortunately, today’s world does not have Communist Russia, or Adolf Hitler’s Germany or Benito Mussolini’s Italy, to beguile desperate workers with the allure of revolution. Still, in the 1930s many people were desperate and even archconservatives publicly denounced a society where men stole bread for their children’s sake.
It was a test of American society, not just its economy.
Schlesinger recounts how President Herbert Hoover tried to “jawbone” the economy with optimistic predictions that made people more cynical about their government. “He had rightly decided he could not indulge in a public pessimism that would only feed the panic,” Schlesinger wrote. “His fault lay not in taking an optimistic line, but in bending the facts to sustain his own optimism, and then in believing his own conclusions.”
The crisis of the old order was not only in economic theory. Hoover’s well-meant optimism bred a cynicism that undermined the confidence that the country had the means to respond to the crisis.
Today’s American leaders — including national and state officials with a platform from which to speak — should not seek to sugarcoat the bad news. If we should have learned one lesson from the Great Depression, it is the need for honesty about our situation and the costs of paying down our debts.