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The Great Depression was the most severe economic depression ever experienced by the Western world.
It was during this troubled time that the world’s most famous case of deflation also happened. The resulting aftermath was so bad that economic policy since has been chiefly designed to prevent deflation at all costs.
Setting the Stage
The transition from wartime to peacetime created a bumpy economic road after World War I.
Growth has hard to come by in the first years after the war, and by 1920-21 the economy fell into a brief deflationary depression. Prices dropped -18%, and unemployment jumped up to 11.7% in 1921.
However, the troubles wouldn’t last. During the “Roaring Twenties”, economic growth picked up as the new technologies like the automobile, household appliances, and other mass-produced products led to a vibrant consumer culture and growth in the economy.
More than half of the automobiles in the nation were sold on credit by the end of the 1920s. Consumer debt more than doubled during the decade.
While GDP growth during this period was extremely strong, the Roaring Twenties also had a dark side. Income inequality during this era was the highest in American history. By 1929, the income of the top 1% had increased by 75%. Income for the rest of people (99%) increased by only 9%.
The Roaring Twenties ended with a bang. On Black Thursday (Oct 24, 1929), the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 11% at the open in very heavy volume, precipitating the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression of the 1930s.
The Cause of the Great Depression
Economists continue to debate to this day on the cause of the Great Depression. Here’s perspectives from three different economic schools:
John Maynard Keynes saw the causes of the Great Depression hinge upon a lack of aggregate demand. This later became the subject of his most influential work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, which was published in 1936.
Keynes argued that the solution was to stimulate the economy through some combination of two approaches:
1. A reduction in interest rates (monetary policy), and
2. Government investment in infrastructure (fiscal policy).
“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” – John Maynard Keynes
Monetarists such as Milton Friedman viewed the cause of the Great Depression as a fall in the money supply.
Friedman and Schwartz argue that people wanted to hold more money than the Federal Reserve was supplying. As a result, people hoarded money by consuming less. This caused a contraction in employment and production since prices were not flexible enough to immediately fall.
“The Great Depression, like most other periods of severe unemployment, was produced by government mismanagement rather than by any inherent instability of the private economy.” ― Milton Friedman
Austrian economists argue that the Great Depression was the inevitable outcome of the monetary policies of the Federal Reserve during the 1920s.
In their opinion, the central bank’s policy was an “easy credit policy” which led to an unsustainable credit-driven boom.
“Any increase in the relative size of government in the economy, therefore, shifts the societal consumption-investment ratio in favor of consumption, and prolongs the depression.” – Murray Rothbard
The Great Depression and Deflation
Between 1929 and 1932, worldwide GDP fell by an estimated 15%.
Personal income, tax revenue, profits and prices plunged. International trade fell by more than 50%. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 25% and in some countries rose as high as 33%.
These statistics were only the tip of the iceberg. Learn about the full effects, the stories, and the recovery from the Great Depression in Part 2.
About the Money Project
The Money Project aims to use intuitive visualizations to explore ideas around the very concept of money itself. Founded in 2015 by Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals, the Money Project will look at the evolving nature of money, and will try to answer the difficult questions that prevent us from truly understanding the role that money plays in finance, investments, and accumulating wealth.