Posts Tagged ‘Great Depression’

 

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post about lynchings in the United States, and as part of the research for our Tale of Two Depressions course, I discovered that the inspiration for Lewis Allan’s “Strange Fruit,” later made famous by Billie Holliday, was the 1930 lynching of two black men in Marion, Indiana.

 

127MiltPriggee_Cagle

This semester, we’re once again teaching A Tale of Two Depressions. And, as in previous offerings of the course, we often touch on and return to the theme of the American Dream.

The students in the course get the clear sense that the definition of the American Dream changed during the 1920s (during the transition from small-town rural life to factories in the big cities) and that the First Great Depression turned that dream into a nightmare for most Americans. A new American Dream was, of course, created during the New Deals and the postwar period but began to unravel from the mid-1970s onward (as wages stagnated and the distribution of income and wealth became increasingly unequal).

What about now, six years into the Second Great Depression?

Well, a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts [pdf, ht: ja] documents the fragile financial situation of many U.S. households outside the top 1 percent—and thus how far American workers are from even imagining, let alone achieving, the American Dream.

Consider the following facts:

Household incomes are dramatically volatile: in 2011, about the same percentage of Americans (a bit more than 20 percent) had to endure a 25-percent decrease in income over a two-year period as a similar increase in income. (One of the consequences is that a large percentage—a third, according to one study—who suffered a loss in income still not recovered financially when their income was measured 10 years later.)

Household spending has declined and stayed down: since the start of the recession in 2007, American households have tightened their purse strings, reducing spending by almost 9 percent. Further, the typical rebound in expenditures following recessionary periods has not occurred since the end of the latest recession. (In contrast, during the 22 years before the start of the downturn, household expenditures grew 16 percent, with 69 percent of that growth [11 percent] occurring between 1990 and 2006.)

Household spending is extremely unequal: in 2013, the top quintile’s annual spending on housing alone ($30,901) outpaced what the middle quintile spent on housing, food, and transportation combined. (In turn, the middle quintile spent nearly as much on housing as those at the bottom spent in total across these categories.)

Most households are in a precarious financial situation: Almost 55 percent of households are savings-limited, meaning they cannot replace even one month of their income through liquid savings (money in cash, checking accounts, and savings accounts). Just under half of households are income-constrained, meaning they perceive that their household spending is greater than or equal to their household income. And 8 percent are debt-challenged, which means they report debt-payment obligations that are 41 percent or more of their gross monthly income. As it turns out, seventy percent of U.S. households face at least one of these three challenges, and more than a third face two or even all three at the same time.

Clearly, the current recovery has represented a reversal of fortunes, after a short but dramatic dip, for a small minority at the top. But, for the American working-class, there has been no recovery. They find themselves as far—many of them, even farther—from the American Dream as they were before the crash of 2007-08.

 

*The title is a bit of a private joke. Many years ago, before email existed, I told someone by telephone the title of my upcoming talk at American University on the role of mathematics in economics. I planned to begin my presentation with a discussion of Descartes’ dream. As I walked across campus and saw the posters announcing my talk, I realized the wording of my title had been transformed. So, as we walked into the seminar room, one graduate student turned to me and asked: “Professor, what does Dr. Who have to do with the mathematization of economics?”

wealth ratio

Credit Suisse [pdf] appears to celebrate the growth of wealth, in the United States and around the world, during the last few years.

But the investment giant also sounds an alarm concerning the growth in the ratio of wealth to income:

For more than a century, the wealth income ratio has typically fallen in a narrow interval between 4 and 5. However, the ratio briefly rose above 6 in 1999 during the dot.com bubble and broke that barrier again during 2005–2007. It dropped sharply into the “normal band” following the financial crisis, but the decline has since been reversed, and the ratio is now at a recent record high level of 6.5, matched previously only during the great Depression. This is a worrying signal given that abnormally high wealth income ratios have always signaled recession in the past.

bilde-113

The argument behind our course, A Tale of Two Depressions, was not that the depression of the 1930s and the one today are exactly the same but, instead, that we might learn a lot more about each depression by comparing it to the other.

David Cay Johnston offers a different perspective. In his view, the majority of Americans actually fared better in the midst of the First Great Depression than they’re doing today.

Indeed, coming out of the Great Depression eight decades ago, the vast majority fared vastly better than most people have coming out of the Great Recession, which officially ended on June 30 six years ago.

It may be jarring to hear that the vast majority of Americans, the 90 percent, enjoyed bigger income gains in the 1930s than in recent years, but that is what the data show.

The data also indicate tandem increases in both want and wealth, with the vast majority worse off in 2013 than in 2009, while those at the apex of the economy are enjoying a much larger — and growing — share of national income.

Read the rest of Johnston’s essay for his survey of the data on jobs, earnings, and inequality in comparing the two eras.

Men Waiting Outside Al Capone Soup Kitchen JNS.FoodGiveaway2

Our course, A Tale of Two Depressions, is now over (except, of course, for the final exam).

Here’s a link to the additional materials (songs, news stories, cultural responses, etc.) we made available to the students.

Here’s a link [pdf] to some of the charts we compiled to compare the first and second Great Depressions.

And, finally: maybe someday we’ll be able to offer this as a history course instead of current events.

American-Dream

The American Dream has been a prominent theme of our Tale of Two Depressions course this semester. We have had the opportunity to trace both the changing content and contours of that dream and the periods, as after 1929, when it quickly turned into a nightmare.

But, as we know, a new American Dream was invented in the postwar period, the so-called Golden Age of American capitalism, which—while unevenly distributed (for example, in the Jim Crow South and northern inner cities) and openly contested (for example, in the Port Huron Statement and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom)—held sway at least in some pockets. Such as Detroit:

Decades ago, car workers lived the quintessential American Dream: they pursued stable, well-paying, union-backed jobs, often straight out of high school. They were able to build a middle-class life and provide the promise of something better to their children.

Now, once again, as the BBC [ht: ja] explains, that dream has turned into a nightmare:

Times have changed.

Now jobs are scarce, and people feel shame in being unprepared for the current labour market.

“Unemployed auto workers, factory workers, they have a lot of regrets about the past,” he said.

“A lot of workers are internalising, ‘You succeed on your own merits and your own abilities, and if you fail, you’re to blame’,” [Victor Tan] Chen says.

He isn’t alone in seeing this pattern.

Experts tell the BBC that job seekers in the US are now, more than ever, blaming themselves for being out of work, due in part to misconceptions about what it takes to succeed in America.

What reinforces such an American Nightmare is a self-help industry that is the modern secular version of our grounding myth—which, as Helaine Olen explains, is “the idea that diligent efforts and thrift demonstrated both godliness and virtue — and would result in worldly success.” Belief in self-help easily becomes self-blame. And, of course, an attempt to blame the victims of the Second Great Depression for their own plight.

Viewed through this prism, you can think of the constant simmering anger in our culture as the road rage of self-help culture. Fearing the humiliation of failure, we aggressively lash out at others who prove the self-help nostrums a lie.

This could be the reason that many, including Republican members of Congress, blame the long-term jobless for their own plight, and cut off their unemployment checks. We say those who fell prey to predatory lending weren’t misled, but were greedy.

According to the tenets of self-help, the victims of the American economic collapse need not a helping hand, but a kick in the pants.

Bors-4-3-14

It just so happens, in the midst of the march to war over Ukraine, this week we’re teaching Berkeley in the Sixties and The Port Huron Statement in the Tale of Two Depressions course.

In 1962, the Students for a Democratic Society were concerned about the effects of “a half-century of accelerating destruction,” especially the policy of nuclear deterrence.

Deterrence advocates, all of them prepared at least to threaten mass extermination, advance arguments of several kinds. At one pole are the minority of open partisans of preventive war —who falsely assume the inevitability of violent conflict and assert the lunatic efficacy of striking the first blow, assuming that it will be easier to “recover” after thermonuclear war than to recover now from the grip of the Cold War. Somewhat more reluctant to advocate initiating a war, but perhaps more disturbing for their numbers within the Kennedy Administration, are the many advocates of the “counterforce” theory of aiming strategic nuclear weapons at military installations — though this might “save” more lives than a preventive war, it would require drastic, provocative and perhaps impossible social change to separate many cities from weapons sites, it would be impossible to ensure the immunity of cities after one or two counterforce nuclear “exchanges”, it would generate a perpetual arms race for less vulnerability and greater weapons power and mobility, it would make outer space a region subject to militarization, and accelerate the suspicions and arms build-ups which are incentives to precipitate nuclear action. Others would support fighting “limited wars” which use conventional (all but atomic) weapons, backed by deterrents so mighty that both sides would fear to use them — although underestimating the implications of numerous new atomic powers on the world stage, the extreme difficulty of anchoring international order with weapons of only transient invulnerability, the potential tendency for a “losing side” to push limited protracted fighting on the soil of underdeveloped countries. Still other deterrence artists propose limited, clearly defensive and retaliatory, nuclear capacity, always potent enough to deter an opponent’s aggressive designs — the best of deterrence stratagems, but inadequate when it rests on the equation of an arms “stalemate” with international stability.

As we know, history is repeating itself, as “the world alternatively drifts and plunges towards a terrible war when vision and change are required.”

Thus, we would do well to consider Stephen Cohen’s argument that the American media are misrepresenting Putin and Russia.

The degradation of mainstream American press coverage of Russia, a country still vital to US national security, has been under way for many years. If the recent tsunami of shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory articles in leading newspapers and magazines—particularly about the Sochi Olympics, Ukraine and, unfailingly, President Vladimir Putin—is an indication, this media malpractice is now pervasive and the new norm.

There are notable exceptions, but a general pattern has developed. Even in the venerable New York Times and Washington Post, news reports, editorials and commentaries no longer adhere rigorously to traditional journalistic standards, often failing to provide essential facts and context; to make a clear distinction between reporting and analysis; to require at least two different political or “expert” views on major developments; or to publish opposing opinions on their op-ed pages. As a result, American media on Russia today are less objective, less balanced, more conformist and scarcely less ideological than when they covered Soviet Russia during the Cold War.

And we should remember that Senator John McCain’s shameless denunciation of President Obama, as responsible for a “feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America’s strength anymore,” was delivered in a speech the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most powerful foreign policy lobby in Washington. As John Hickman explains,

McCain fulminated about Russian annexation of Crimea and possibly of the Russian speaking eastern half of Ukraine. Yet he was speaking to an audience that had endorsed the annexation of the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, and endorses the ongoing annexation of the West Bank. Hypocrisy more complete would be difficult to conceive.

American journalists allow politicians like McCain to get away with such nonsense because many fear reporting anything critical about either Israel or the Israeli lobby. They are also captives of the news frames constructed by official sources in Washington. For the Crimean Crisis the consensus news frame is that Russian behavior is a violation of a strong post Second World War international norm against territorial annexation. The historical reality is that the norm has been frequently and successfully violated: Poland annexed East Prussia, East Brandenburg, Lower Silesia, and Pomerania; Russia annexed Bessarabia and Bukovina; India annexed Goa, Daman and Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli; India and Pakistan partitioned Kashmir; Indonesia annexed West Irian; Ethiopia annexed Ogaden; Turkey annexed northern Cyprus; Morocco annexed Spanish Sahara, and Israel annexed the majority of Palestine. Yes, of course some sort of justification could be offered for each of these events. There are always justifications. What is important but ignored in the outrage currently being performed about Crimea is that “the world community” did not protest strongly or effectively.

The consensus news frame also excludes reference to the complexities of Russian and Soviet history. When reporters deploy the propagandistic phrased like “Ukraine’s Crimea” they ignore the fact that Russian sovereignty over the peninsula predates American possession of the Mississippi Valley and ignores the rather artificial transfer of sovereignty over the peninsula from Russia to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev, at a time when both Russia and Ukraine were part of the same country (the Soviet Union). Forget about sympathy for the difficulties faced by ethnic Russian minorities in the post-Soviet near abroad.

Between the irresponsible pandering of politicians and the cockeyed international news coverage it seems likely that many will be deceived by a simplistic narrative of Ukrainian nationalist good guys and Russian bad guys. What a pity that it always seems to take so long to realize we are being failed by our political and news media leaders.

In both cases, the march to war was prepared by simplistic narratives produced and disseminated by feckless media and politicians.