Nothing Can Be Surer,
But In The Meantime, We Ain’t Got Fun
By Michael Maynard
December 29, 2013

Nothing can be surer, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and we ain’t having fun.

Before the Great Depression, there was an 18 month economic depression following World War I  in 1920-1921. The unemployment rate increased from 5.2% to 11.7%. The US Department of Commerce estimated that the Gross National Product shrunk by 6.9% in this time. There was also extreme deflation – the Commerce Department estimated that prices fell by 18% and wholesale prices by 36.8% – the greatest price decline since the Revolutionary War. This period was the precursor of The Great Depression which stated  in 1929.

However, following this mini-depression came The Roaring Twenties, a time of great economic growth, cultural change and personal consumption.

“The 1920’s were an age of dramatic social and political change. For the first time, more Americans lived in cities than on farms. The nation’s total wealth more than doubled between 1920 and 1929, and this economic growth swept many Americans into an affluent but unfamiliar “consumer society.” People from coast to coast bought the same goods (thanks to nationwide advertising and the spread of chain stores), listened to the same music, did the same dances and even used the same slang! Many Americans were uncomfortable with this new, urban, sometimes racy “mass culture”; in fact, for many–even most–people in the United States, the 1920’s brought more conflict than celebration. However, for a small handful of young people in the nation’s big cities, the 1920’s were roaring indeed.”


The US-UK Unemployment Rate from 1920 to 1929

What were the great changes of The Roaring Twenties?

Technological: The greater advent of the use of new technologies in every day life, such as automobiles, telephones and electricity.

Cultural: The introduction of “talkies”, the replacement of silent pictures, led to the growth of Hollywood and downtown movie theaters. Jazz music became popular with the flappers at the dance clubs of the era.

Sexual: The 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 giving women the right to vote. This period was when women started in greater numbers to pursue careers outside of the home and having greater freedom to express their sexuality, especially through fashion, as the flappers at the top of the page show.

Literary: Hemingway and Faulkner wrote novels and short stories critical of the greed and consumerism of the times. Faulkner wrote “The Sound and The Fury” about the collapse of a Southern aristocratic family in 1929. In “The Sun Also Rises”, Hemingway describes this time as “The Lost Generation”. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” , the seminal book about The Jazz Age was published in 1925.

• Racial: During the 20’s was the time of The Harlem Renaissance”, the rise of Black Nationalism movement led by Martin Delany and Marcus Garvey. Garvey formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association with the goal of creating  – one grand racial hierarchy –  uniting blacks throughout the world.

If written today, the life and times of Jay Gatsby could have been the life and times of Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, Willard Romney, The Koch Brothers and the rest of the 1%:

“The Great Gatsby,” which was published in 1925, is a work of brilliant, fine-tuned clairvoyance—it sounded the death knell for a generation that was still alive. Beside the book’s intrinsically romantic qualities (and a doomed romance is often even more popularly romantic than one that works out), it reveals how Prohibition—which became the law of the land in 1919—infected the American character and offers a dim view of the financial markets that foreshadows the 1929 crash. The book is a cautionary tale that was offered to readers who, at the time, sought no caution. In the retrospective post-Depression view, however, “The Great Gatsby” all made perfect sense, its iridescent beauty and poetic fancy appearing as no more than a bright and floating bubble that, as everyone knew, had catastrophically burst. It’s easy to be cautionary after things go to hell; Fitzgerald saw, and warned of, hell breaking through the collective illusion of paradise.”

As always, the more things change, the more they stay the same. What were the causes of the Great Depression that followed the Roaring Twenties?

First, American firms earned record profits during the 1920s and reinvested much of these funds into expansion. By 1929, companies had expanded to the bubble point. Workers could no longer continue to fuel further expansion, so a slowdown was inevitable. While corporate profits, skyrocketed, wages increased incrementally, which widened the distribution of wealth.

The richest one percent of Americans owned over a third of all American assets. Such wealth concentrated in the hands of a few limits economic growth. The wealthy tended to save money that might have been put back into the economy if it were spread among the middle and lower classes. Middle class Americans had already stretched their debt capacities by purchasing automobiles and household appliances on installment plans.

The unprecedented prosperity of the 1920s was suddenly gone, the Great Depression was upon the nation, and breadlines became a common sight.

There were fundamental structural weaknesses in the American economic system. Banks operated without guarantees to their customers, creating a climate of panic when times got tough. Few regulations were placed on banks and they lent money to those who speculated recklessly in stocks.

Sound eerily familiar?

The current concentration of wealth is virtually the same as it was in the period of The Great Depression. The facts are frightening.

  • The top 1% own more than 40% of the nation’s wealth.
  • The bottom 80% own 7% of the nation’s $54 triilion in wealth.
  • The wealthiest 400 have as much wealth as the poorest 150 million people do.
  • 47 million receive  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance ( the program for food stamps) through SNAP
  • 1.3 million lost their unemployment benefits  (average $1,666 per month) as of yesterday (12/28/2013)

I am greatly concerned that the combination of wealth inequality combined with the growing meanness in the country will lead to political instability and possible insurrections. Public workers have seen their pensions disappear and are joining the ranks of the poor. There are strikes by fast-food industry workers over getting paid a living wage, not the minimum wage of  $7.25, which was last set in 2009.  In 35 states it is better to receive welfare than to work for a minimum wage job. In 13 states, welfare pays more than $15 per hour. 

Unlike many on the right-wing, I do not believe that most people want to receive public assistance. I have seen the look of humiliation in a mother’s eyes when paying for groceries with food stamps. I do not believe we are a nation of “takers”, as Willard Romney and Paul Ryan would have you believe.

But when there are 3 unemployed job applicants for every available job. there should be cause for great concern.  When 3 out of every 5 new jobs pay less than $14 per hour, less than public assistance in 15 states, there is a fundamental economic problem. There is plenty of work to be done in this country — building new roads, fixing creaky bridges, improving the transportation infrastructure, creating the next generation telecommunications networks — but not the political will because that political will is being controlled by the 1 percent who own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.

There is a growing anger and a sense that we could go from the Great Recession to the next Great Depression, despite the unemployment rate dropping.

The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, understood this anger about politics and wealth very well.

“REVOLUTIONS arise from inequalities, numerical or qualitative–from a numerical mass claiming an equality denied them, or from a minority claiming a superiority denied them. A revolution may result either in a complete change of polity, or only in a modification of the existing one. An oligarchy is less permanent than a democracy, owing to factions within the oligarchical body.

In all revolutions, the conditions which leads up to them is the desire of the many for equality, and the desire of the minority for effective superiority. The purposes with which they are set on foot are profit, honour, or avoidance of loss or dishonour. The inciting occasions are many; jealousy of those who have wealth and honour, official arrogance, fear of the law or of its abuse, personal rivalries, failure of the middle class to maintain a balance, race antagonisms, antagonism of localities, and others.

In democracies, revolutions are due mainly to demagogic attacks on wealth, leading the wealthy of combine, and they result in the establishment of an oligarchy or of a tyranny, a ‘popular’ military chief seizing the power for himself; or sometimes in replacing a moderate by an extreme democracy”.

Yes the truth is that men’s ambition and their desire to make money are among the most frequent causes of deliberate acts of injustice.”

No,  too many of us are not having fun.  Being unemployed and not being able to find a job is not fun. Watching your life savings dissipate is not fun. Seeing your children become hungry is not fun. Even those of us in the middle class are very worried about what will happen to us if there is the next Great Depression. And we ain’t having fun, either.

Columnist/Journalist/Writer/Book Editor Co-Founder/CEO of Azimuth Partners, high tech consulting firm for 30+ years. Former columnist for the Washington Post/Newsweek syndicate.

2 Comment on “Nothing Can Be Surer, But In The Meantime, We Ain’t Got Fun

  1. Pingback: They Are So Derivative | MICHAEL A. MAYNARD

  2. Pingback: The Right Way, The Wrong Way And The Third Way: The Battle For The Future Of The Democratic Party (And The Country?) – Updated | MICHAEL A. MAYNARD

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