Why “Great Depression” – Causes and Personal Recollections

Those of us long in tooth have difficulty understanding why folks these days worry so much about an economic recession. The Great Depression of 1930-34 that we lived through was a genuine wide-wasting foot-stomping calamity.

The historic designation of “great” – as in large — is totally inadequate. It was a defining event that totally rearranged our concepts of government, social responsibility and employer-employee relations.

United States population at that time was 123 million, a little less than half that of today. Fortune Magazine estimated that 34 million men, women and children (28 percent) were without any income what so ever. In the absence of unemployment compensation programs, the federal government had no way of determining actual figures.

Average weekly pay for those who had jobs was $16.21. Purchasing power of money was three times that of today, but pay was less than today’s government-mandated minimum wage.

Five thousand banks failed during the Great Depression. More than 237,000 families were evicted from their homes. Two million men were “bumming around” the country at any given time searching for work.

Many cities patrolled the roads to prevent transients from seeking work where long-term residents were jobless. Those that sneaked by were arrested -a practice that was ineffective because men broke windows or accosted strangers in order to get a meal and bed in jail.

Every city had a “soup kitchen” where long lines of hungry people – mostly men – waited. Women with children went to the head of the lines.

Shantytowns of scrap lumber and tents — without water or sewers — sprang up in wasteland near cities. They were called Hooverville’s after President Herbert Hoover who took office in 1929 as the world economy collapsed.

Laid off workers formed labor unions to bargain “job security.” My first assignment as a high school newspaper reporter was to cover the bitter 1936 “sit-down strike” at General Motors factories in Flint, Michigan.

Personal Recollections

I was a nine-year-old boy at Flint, when the Depression was heralded by the stock market crash of 1929.

Men abandoned their families to the charity of working relatives, 60 cents a day in city welfare and once-a-month handouts of surplus farm products. Farmers were in equally dire straits because foreign markets had collapsed. A devastating three-year drought compounded their miseries.

It is with great pain that I recall those days. My father abandoned my mother, me and two younger sisters. Once in awhile we got a $5 bill in a letter from him without message or return address.

Fortunately there were three uncles nearby with jobs who helped us out. Mother waited tables for a dollar a day plus tips – 50 cents on a good night.

I peddled handbills and caddied at a golf course on weekends. My right shoulder today is an inch lower than my left as a result of toting a golf bag before my growth stopped.

We lost our home, moved to cheap rent places, then attic apartments. Mother gave up her possessions for back rent. She would not “go on welfare.” That was a disgrace.

Finally – when we were really starving – she went to the “surplus depot” and brought home a peck-sa ck of dried peas. For ten days we had nothing but pea soup for breakfast, dinner and supper. I still hate pea soup. For more details, please visit these sites:- www.bunnydirectories.com

Finally the landlord ordered us to leave – he needed money also — and kept Mother’s cherished piano for back rent. She never played again.

We moved our beds into the basement of an uncle’s home, and his family set us at their own meager table.

My mother, maternal grandmother and three aunts pooled resources. Our rented house was crowded – but home.

Our meals were sparse, yet we all laughed when we read in a discarded newspaper the menu for prisoners at the county jail. They had the same meal that day – not much – as we were eating.

A morning ritual was everyone assembling to make cardboard inserts for shoes whose soles had worn through. By the end of day the inserts would be worn through also.

The point of this depressing tale is that it was not unusual back then. Today’s generation cannot comprehend the demoralizing impact that a deep, economic depression has on a nation — thank God.

Stock And Tariffs

It is popularly believed that the Great Depression was caused by the spectacular stock market “crash” of 1929. In fact, root causes of the economic collapse were complex.

Stock markets have little effect on the overall economy. Buyers of common stock, for the most part, buy and sell to each other. After an initial sale of stock, issuing companies receive no benefit from resales by others. At that time, less than one percent of adult Americans held common stocks.

Traders in stocks continuously monitor economic developments to try and ascertain future trends. Buy low, sell high. Collectively they are remarkably good forecasters.

Nevertheless, the financial panic here and abroad at the time is instructive. A cogent analysis is that by Jude Wanniski in “The Way the World Works.” He formerly was associate editor of the Wall Street Journal and now heads his economic consulting firm, Polyconics.

American workers and farmers geared up to supply the Allies in the First World War. The U.S. government loaned money to France and England. The latter bought armaments and food in great quantity because their farm systems were disrupted.

International purchases in those days were made in gold. By 1929, the U.S. had gathered 80 percent of the world supply. Foreign buyers of American goods had only a small supply of gold available for overseas purchases. This scarce commodity went up in price for foreign customers as it became even scarcer.

After the war, European farmers and workers resumed full production. They began underselling American products. The Congress, with full approval of presidents, imposed tariff taxes on imported wheat and corn to protect American farmers.

Tariff taxes seemed to work so well, Congress imposed them on 200 additional commodities. Industrial and farm profits started to rise. Gold coins were a common currency.

Foreign countries imposed tariffs of their own in retaliation. But Americans didn’t seem to notice. The spiral toward a worldwide economic depression had begun.

Stock Market Crash

With U.S. profits rising, “irrationally exuberant” investors rushed to buy common stocks. There was very little bank regulation. Loans to buy stocks that were soaring were easily available with just 10 percent cash and the other on 90 percent “margin.” Banks joined the mania by investing their depositors’ money in high-flying sure-thing stocks.

As stocks doubled in market value, they were re-invested on margin in a race to become millionaires. The phenomenon was occurring in real estate. The “Florida Land Boom” roared ahead in the same manner. That decade is remembered as the “Roaring Twenties.”

Amateur market traders didn’t notice that professional “bear” investors were beginning to “sell short” — that is, contracting to sell stock for a lower price at some future date.

Only the bears sensed the ultimate, depressing effect of tariffs – higher cost of imported raw materials and less profit on sales abroad.

Hoover and a new Congress took office in March 1929. The stock market hit its then-record high of 800 on Aug. 5 (8,000 today, 11,000 not so long ago). However, quarterly reports of key industries began to show profit declines.

Congress, ignorant of impending market correction, threw gasoline on the fire by scheduling debate on a new tariff bill sponsored by Sen. Smoot and Rep. Hawley. The commodity targeted was carbide, a critical ingredient in the manufacture of industrial products.

It was apparent that the new tariff bill would pass. Republicans and Democrats were of the same mind. Hoover ran on support for tariffs to protect American farmers and workers. Democrats made high tariffs a plank in their campaign platform.

Bears raced for the exits. The stock market experienced its heaviest sell-off in its history on Thursday, Oct. 24. The New York Times bannered the story: “Worst Stock Market Crash Stemmed By Banks; 12,894.650-share Day; Leaders Confer; Find Conditions Sound.”

Brokers called clients to cover the margin loss to “protect their investments.” Many stockholders scraped up enough cash to cover losses.

The market rallied a bit on Friday. Federal Reserve bank trustees met all weekend and decided they needed to do nothing. The market gained a little more on Monday, but not enough to be reassuring.

When the market opened Tuesday, Oct. 29, all overnight orders were to “sell at market.” The telegraphic tape of sales quickly fell two hours behind. Telephone calls to brokers were unanswered.

A crowd of stockowners gathered on Wall Street and steps of the old U.S. Treasury building outside the Stock Exchange — waiting for scraps of information hustled out by infrequent messengers.

The Times headline blared: “Stocks Collapse In 16,410,030-day.” The date has gone down in history as “Black Tuesday.”

In four days of trading, the Dow-Jones Industrial stocks had fallen to just 8 percent of their pre-crash values. The country’s Gross National Product value fell from $104 billion, to $41 billion.


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