Lessons for a Depression: A Conversation with Historian Eric Rauchway

Historians in the News
tags: Great Depression, New Deal, Economic Policy

A professor at the University of California, Davis, Rauchway is one of the leading historians of the Great Depression and the New Deal. He is the author of Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal (2018), The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace (2015), and The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction (2008), among other titles. Prior to joining the faculty at UC Davis in 2001, he was University Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Oxford.

The following conversation on the comparisons between the Great Depression and our current pandemic-induced economic decline, Franklin Roosevelt’s democratic principles, and the role of a competent government in preventing authoritarianism has been edited for length and clarity.

Joe Waters: Let's start with the current moment. There are lots of analogies made between our current economic reality and the Great Depression. Are they warranted and do we need a new New Deal?

Eric Rauchway

Eric Rauchway: Well, I would separate those two things out. I think in the first case, there are some reasons to look at comparisons between the current moment and the Great Depression because the reported unemployment rate is at a level we haven't seen since the Great Depression. There are lots of ways to count unemployment, but since we've been counting it in a fairly consistent way, roughly since the end of World War II, it's never been this high. So we have soaring unemployment and that's coupled with tremendous income and wealth inequality. That was certainly the case in the late 1920s and early 1930s, at the time of the Great Depression.

I’d add that the apparent robustness of our economy in recent years has masked some underlying problems where middling and poorer people never really recovered from the previous crisis. That was true in the Great Depression as well. In those days, it was family farmers who'd never really recovered after World War I and who accounted for a very large section of society. I think today it is also true that an awful lot of people never really recovered from the 2008-2009 recession.

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