Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How big is the Fiscal Cliff Drop Off? Comparing today's recession to The Great Depression

The other night I saw Ken Burns’ Documentary on PBS about the Kansas Dust Bowl. In 1933, during the Great Depression, huge black clouds dumped layers of sand and dust over everything and everyone, killing cattle with famine and people with dust pneumonia.  Moving east it dumped four million tons of prairie dirt on Chicago.
     Watching, I was reminded of living through that awful time in Cleveland. My bootlegging father had been murdered in a turf war with the Mafia, leaving my mother with two children to raise during the Great Depression. A young widow, she worked in the Engineering Department in the City Hall. The City of Cleveland was so broke it paid its employees in “script” which was like Monopoly play money. On payday my mother would put me in the car, drive to the grocery store, and send me in to ask if they took script. I was 8 years old. Too humiliated to go in herself she waited in the car at the curb. The answer was usually “no” so she would drive to another store and another until I came back to the car with the good news that that store actually took script. Then she would go in and buy groceries.
     Some have compared the Depression to the 2009 Recession, but there is no parallel. Unemployment went from 3% in 1929 to 25% after the Wall Street Crash. Fully half of Cleveland workers were jobless. There were long soup lines. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost nearly 90% of its value. Scores of people were killing themselves.
     Potatoes were a penny a pound. You could feed a family for a week on five dollars. Cars cost $500 and had a terrific rumble seat that opened in the back.  Rent for a three-room apartment was $60 a month. Movies cost a dime.
     Rightly or wrongly President Herbert Hoover was blamed. The shanty towns of tents people had to live in were called Hoovervilles. Food dished out in soup lines was called Hoover Stew; Hoover blankets were newspapers; Hoover Wagons the broken down cars that were pulled by mules.
     But it was a better America. We were like family looking out for each other, united in our mutual struggle and shared experience. There was not the bitter personal and political polarization that exists today or the abyss between the rich and poor or Washington’s political paralysis. Even Al Capone opened a soup kitchen.
     Surely we never want to return to those heartbreaking and dangerous years. But perhaps we can learn something from them.

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