People are asking a very chilling question these days: How bad will it get? Ask that question just about anywhere, and most people will probably know you’re referring to the global economic crisis. While the corporate media persist in dismissing it as a recession, countless people have nervously looked over their shoulders into the past, asking questions about the greatest of economic yardsticks, the Great Depression.
Many people stupidly insist that the Great Depression could never happen again, rejecting the conventional wisdom that history repeats itself. They think the people who manage our economy learned some valuable lessons from the Great Depression. Laws and policies were enacted to ensure that it never happens again.
Sorry to burst their bubble, but the abandonment of certain laws and policies is frequently cited as a major cause of our current crisis. Moreover, the people who manage our economy our corrupt; they really don’t care about laws or the public good.
At any rate, I began brainstorming a list of major issues that are likely to have a major impact on our current crisis. It turned into a comparison between Great Depression I and Great Depression II (aka “recession” for corporate media fans).
I doubt that I’m the first to discuss any one of these issues. However, I’ve never seen them all listed together in a comparison of this nature. This exercise has been very educational - and quite scary.
This list is by no means exhaustive. I simply limited it to the ten most obvious and/or most important items I could think of.
A footnote 1 represents conditions, situations or issues that have worsened since the First Great Depression. A 1? represents items that I think have worsened, though I haven’t yet verified it. A footnote 2 represents issues or terms that didn’t even exist during Great Depression I.
|1. Population Growth1
3. Corporate Corruption1?
4. Public Corruption1?
|6. World War II vs Iraqistan1
8. Peak Oil2
And here are the details...
Compare the United States’ population figures for 1930 (when the Great Depression began), 1940 and 2000:
1940 - 131,669,275
2000 - 281,421,906
The population more than doubled between 1940 and 2000. It reached 300 million in 2006 and is still growing. The 2006 population of California alone was 36,457,549, more than a quarter of the national population in 1940.
In other words, the government will have to care for more than twice as many people as it did during the Great Depression if the economy collapses again.
Remember Hurricane Katrina?
The United States was still a largely agricultural nation in the 1930’s. Thus, many people were partially self-sufficient during the Great Depression.
But times have changed. A continuing exodus of farmers to cities has helped transform the U.S. into a nation with millions of people crowded into sprawling cities and suburbs. In the event of a major economic collapse, a higher percentage of hungry people (including farmers turned urban cowboys) would be dependent on government welfare.
(Sorry, I haven’t yet obtained any statistics on the percentage of the population who are farmers.)
I’m not certain if the situation is worse today than it was during the 1930s, but how much worse could corporate corruption be than it is today? And when I say “corporate corruption,” I’m including such corporate subsidiaries as the government and media.
Corporate interests have more power than ever before. They have super computers and vast databases with reams of information about every U.S. citizen, from our addresses to our buying habits to our medical records. They have fantastic gizmos that allow them to spy on us, even monitoring our phone calls and e-mail.
If we factor in government, then corporate corruption is almost certainly worse than it was in the 1930’s. Big Business has long trumped private citizens in the halls of government, but my perception is that government made a real effort to help the public during the Great Depression (even if government corruption helped bring about the depression in the first place). Many people rank Franklin D. Roosevelt as one of the greatest of U.S. presidents, largely because of his handling of the Great Depression.
Conservatives like to characterize Roosevelt as a dirty socialist. But, even though they despise his policies, I don’t think they generally paint him as corrupt. Compare Roosevelt to Obama, whose middle name could be “Corporate Bailout.”
Frankly, I can’t imagine how we can truly fix the economy - or any other major problem - without first bringing corrupt corporations to bay. And if you want specifics, look no further than Obama’s justly reviled corporate bailouts and corrupt political appointments. I’m not the only conspiracy theorist to suggest that he’s deliberately sabotaging the economy.
No, I’m not suggesting that every U.S. citizen is working for Exxon or Microsoft. I’m using the term corruption here in the broadest sense. Just as a leaky gasket can be said to be corrupt, so can society be thought of as corrupt when it doesn’t function the way it should.
American voters demonstrated their stupidity, apathy and arrogant selfishness by electing George W. Bush twice. And any liberals who think they’re superior to conservatives should consider such derelict Democrats as Al Gore, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton. Or check out liberal Seattle, where honest politicians are as scarce as Martians.
Some have suggested that the Great Depression was caused, at least in part, by ordinary people who borrowed and spent money with abandon during the Roaring 20s. Similarly, several generations of Americans, beginning with the baby boomers, have been spoiled by a binge of peace and prosperity few other nations could even dream of. The lessons of thrift that were burned into the psyches of veterans of the First Great Depression have been replaced by the maxim greed is good.
Few people would doubt that there’s a shortage of apathy, stupidity, arrogance and greed in the U.S. But are Americans really more stupid than people were during the original Great Depression?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. I wasn’t alive during the Great Depression, and I haven’t really done much research on apathy and stupidity in the 1930s. I simply have the perception that half a century of prosperity - combined with the world’s most ferocious propaganda machine - has nurtured a generation of Americans that has become a global embarrassment.
A couple other issues I’d like to address here are criminals and the mentally ill. Again, I don’t profess to be an expert on either topic in the present millennium, let alone the 1930s. But, once again, I have the perception that both problems are much worse today.
Think about the generations of drug dealers and drug addicts this nation has spawned in recent decades. And I’m not referring to marijuana. Think about crack babies and crystal meth. And think about the army of white collar criminals Corporate America has spawned.
Once again, I’m no expert on mental illness. However, it seems logical to assume that the causes include broken homes, child abuse, pollution and maybe even the food we eat. I’m guessing that mental illness was a much smaller problem during the Great Depression than it is today.
So what’s the point? In the face of a crisis, people need to pull together. But imagine standing in a line full of con artists, mentally ill and laid off yuppies waiting for a food bank run by some corrupt corporate conglomerate to open. And how can we hope to reform our government when people don’t even know how to vote?
Obviously, I’ve engaged in a lot of conjecture on this topic, inspired in part by what I see here in Seattle. I’ll modify it as I do more research and (hopefully) get some feedback from people who can share some information or ideas with me.
Let me start with a disclaimer: I know little about America’s current infrastructure, let alone the nation’s infrastructure during the Great Depression. This section is largely based on the table below, taken from America’s Infrastructure Report Card (American Society of Civil Engineers). So is this honest and accurate reporting or propaganda? I don’t know.
|Public Parks and Recreation||C-|
|America’s Infrastructure GPA: D
Estimated 5 Year Investment Need: $2.2 Trillion
However, the general claim that our infrastructure is in bad shape rings true in my ears. Let me give you a few examples.
The transportation system here in Seattle is a national joke. It can probably be best described as an eternal boondoggle.
Seattle’s public schools are another national disgrace. Effectively owned and run by corporate interests, they’re so corrupt, it’s virtually impossible to properly maintain schools, let alone properly educate students. In fact, public education across the nation has been effectively privatized. My research has uncovered scandal after scandal from coast to coast.
Energy? Considering America’s reputation for energy conservation and the corporate interests we’re dealing with here (e.g. Exxon), nuff said.
Levees? Think about Hurricane Katrina.
As I recall, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Great Depression era New Deal program is perhaps best known for its massive infrastructure investments. So what has Obama’s stimulus circus done for the infrastructure?
Infrastructure may not be as glamorous or exciting a topic as global warming or war, but it’s something that affects our daily lives. If you drink water, use electricity, drive a car or have children in a public school, you should care about infrastructure.
Reality Check: The corporate interests that control America’s infrastructure don’t care about maintenance or upgrades. They’re more concerned with making quick profits. That means less maintenance. They might even sabotage the infrastructure if they thought they could make a quick buck off of such a stunt. Consider the banksters who received massive bailouts after they mismanaged the nation’s financial institutions.
It remains the most destructive war in history, yet World War II was an economic miracle for the U.S. It helped lift the nation out of a depression as millions of people found employment manufacturing weapons and other war supplies. With much of Europe in ruins, the U.S. had little competition, and business continued to boom after WWII.
But what war could rescue us from Great Depression II? We’re already bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan (and perhaps Pakistan and Yemen), and those wars have actually damaged the economy, not helped it. Remember, we’re living in an era of privatized military operations and bloated, no-bid military contractors.
In the meantime, the United States’ economy is being ravaged by a different kind of war, as corporate interests work round the clock to turn the country into the world’s premier banana republic. At the same time, there’s new competition, including China, India and Brazil.
When World War II ended, many thousands of draftees returned as heroes who quickly found jobs and were generally reabsorbed by society. Today’s military consists of volunteers, many, if not most, of them right-wingers and the unemployed, not to mention an army of private contractors (aka mercenaries). With actual unemployment already well over 10%, returning military personnel are an economic (and societal) drain, not an asset, and private contractors may be even worse. Discerning individuals are eyeing them with alarm as the U.S. continues its experiment with fascism.
But could another global war stimulate the economy? Possibly, but it could also extinguish it. Weapons have become more powerful and diverse. Even if no nation resorted to nuclear weapons or biochemical warfare, World War III could still be an environmental nightmare. Think about the depleted uranium that has caused birth defects to mushroom in Iraq, the oil spills of the first Gulf War or the lingering impact of bomb craters and Agent Orange on Vietnam.
The U.S. didn’t suffer alone during the Great Depression; it plunged the entire world into an economic crisis. Yet we had many allies during World War II, from which the U.S. emerged a hero.
It isn’t likely that the U.S. would be so popular during World War III. Who would ally with Team America - Russia? China? Latin America? Any nation in the Middle East or Central Asia?
In fact, there’s no guarantee that the U.S. would even win World War III. A few freedom fighters operating inside the U.S. could be incredibly destructive. In the meantime, George W. Bush gave nations around the world abundant motivation to develop weapons that might offer protection from the biggest bully on the block.
In summary, anyone who thinks another global war will rescue the United States from its economic nightmare is a fool.
Even without corporate corruption, globalization alone would probably force the U.S. economy to downsize. I’m using the term globalization here in the broadest sense. Advancing technology and new political and economic alliances are changing the world around us. Millions of jobs and entire industries have already been outsourced to other nations (along with insourcing, as championed by Microsoft), and the practice continues.
Globalization also has an environmental component. Environmentalists have long warned that the U.S. and other industrialized nations can’t consume natural resources at the present rate forever. With China and other nations now clamoring for their share of the spoils, something has to give.
Fossil fuels alone could torpedo the economy. The term peak oil refers to the idea that global oil reserves may be more than half exhausted, even as demand continues to rise. Even if this isn’t true, the most accessible reserves have obviously been over exploited. In other words, remaining fossil fuel reserves will be more difficult to extract and process and therefore more expensive.
Political problems further affect the global oil supply. The top four importers (to the U.S.) are Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Venezuela, each supplying over one million barrels a day. Iraq ranks sixth in importance. Saudi Arabia and Iraq, of course, are located in the troubled Middle East. In the meantime, the U.S. has been antagonizing Iran, another major oil exporter - and a nation that largely controls the Straits of Hormuz, though which tankers carrying Middle Eastern oil pass.
Venezuela is leading the Latin American revolution against U.S. imperialism, with President Hugo Chavez waging war against foreign corporations that have long exploited his country. As a result, the U.S. is now paying higher prices for Venezuelan crude. Chavez has also used oil as a weapon, threatening to cut off supplies if the U.S. attacks Venezuela. Mexico, which has long withered under U.S. corruption and exploitation, might eagerly fall in line behind Venezuela.
The icing on the cake: The oil industry is utterly corrupt. (Is there a corporation on the planet more maligned than Exxon?)
The Great Depression was more than an economic nightmare. For millions of people living in the southern Great Plains, it was an environmental disaster known as the Dust Bowl. Remember the maxim that history repeats itself as you research that amazing event.
Which isn’t to say that Great Depression II will magically produce Dust Bowl II. However, a great variety of environmental problems are nipping at our heels, and they’re already affecting the economy. Global warming alone is already making the Dust Bowl look like a picnic, and its impact on agriculture is but the tip of the iceberg.
The First Great Depression originated in the U.S. and contributed to the rise of fascist dictators, including Adolf Hitler. Amazingly, the U.S. emerged as a hero for its role in defeating Nazi Germany.
The Second Great Depression has similarly evolved into a global economic crisis. But this time around, the U.S. may have a harder time winning friends. After all, the contemporary world leader who most resembled Hitler in many people’s minds was George W. Bush - and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between Bush and his successor, St. Obama.
Together, Bush and Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama are responsible for the torture, rape and murder of countless thousands of people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, with Obama expanding his horizons in Yemen and Latin America. Millions more have been wounded, lost relatives or been left homeless.
It’s no surprise that the U.S. military machine has pissed off a lot of people, inspiring a new generation of freedom fighters, generally labeled insurgents or terrorists by the corporate media. Though there’s nothing new about revenge/justice/accountability, the term blowback - defined by Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary as “an unforeseen and unwanted effect, result, or set of repercussions” - originated in 1973.
If you guessed this word refers primarily to acts of vengeance against the United States, Inc., you’re right; the term blowback reportedly originated within the CIA.
George Bush made hating America an international hobby. Obama may have duped millions into believing he’s the anti-Bush, but the veil is being stripped away by his war crimes and blatant support of corporate corruption. Another attempted coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez could elevate anti-American sentiment to new heights. Remember - there’s an enormous Hispanic population inside the U.S., along with many Pakistanis and Middle Easterners. With the economy going down the toilet, the U.S. could soon become the world’s most fertile breeding ground for the people who have become fashionably known as terrorists.
But blowback isn’t limited to acts of violence. It could be as passive as a general strike or a former ally refusing to cooperate with the U.S. It could be as beneficial as an international boycott of Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Corporation...er, Foundation.
Please note that I’m not saying the current global economic crisis will be worse than the original Great Depression. What I’m saying is that it could be worse - much worse.
The likelihood of an even worse economic crisis is hard to gauge. I tend to agree with those who are warning of a W-shaped crisis, with the economy once again worsening after the current period of recovery. Except I’m not convinced that we’re even in a period of recovery; my perception is that the economy is continuing to deteriorate, period. I think there’s a very good chance that the economy could essentially collapse - let’s say a 25% chance or better.
Philosophically speaking, one might argue that the current crisis is already worse than the Great Depression. After all, the Great Depression ended, while, reading between the lines, economists seem to be telling us that the current “recession” could be with us for a long, long time - perhaps for the rest of our lives.
The ten issues I listed above can generally be summarized as corporate interests exploiting a world struggling to cope with overpopulation and complex socio-political and environmental issues. Or, to put it another way, they represent class struggle in an increasingly complex world, with Exxon, Haliburton, Microsoft, Obama and Bill Gates representing the oligarchs and Hugo Chavez rallying the serfs and peasants. I believe that most, if not all, of these issues can be solved - but not until we wage war against corporate corruption...and win.
Since I first published this article on the Great Depression II blog (January 19, 2010), things have only gone dowhill. The Gulf Coast oil spill and Japan’s nuclear meltdown have taken a toll on the environment and economic stability. The United States appears ever more reduced to a war economy as we sow destruction in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Libya. Not surprisingly, other nations are banding together to fight back. China has even developed a missile designed to sink aircraft carriers.
As I write this (July 14, 2011), the economic news is dour, to put it mildly. The unemployment rate has reportedly increased for the third straight month. Obama and his bankster administration are offering no relief at all; they’re only making things worse.
The problems facing us are not limited to the ten issues I listed. I’d love to hear your comments. You can post on the Comparing Depressions blog page, if you like.