The Great Depression was caused by a stock market crash and parallel banking crisis in which millions lost their savings. This in turn caused demand to plummet, unemployment to surge and prices to collapse. Today’s contraction is wholly different. It is caused by the decision of multiple governments forcibly to close large sections of their economies down in response to a pandemic. The shock is not so much to demand, though that may come if we don’t get a move on in opening up our economies again, as supply.
The importance of the New Deal in getting the US out of the Great Depression is in any case much exaggerated. We’ll ignore the fact that in today’s money, it was hugely bigger than the miserable £5bn of additional infrastructure spending Mr Johnson announced this week. Rather more important in restoring US growth was stabilising the banking system, coming off the gold standard, and reversing the ill-judged protectionism of the previous administration.
Even Keynes didn’t think that Roosevelt’s New Deal ended the Great Depression: “It is, it seems, politically impossible for a capitalistic democracy to organise expenditure on the scale necessary to make the grand experiments which would prove my case – except in war conditions,” Keynes remarked of it.
Growth did indeed start to come back, but it later stalled again after Roosevelt ramped up taxes to pay for it all, including the 1935 “soak the rich” Revenue Act, which raised the marginal rate of tax on millionaires to 75pc. It wasn’t really until the economic dynamo of the Second World War came along that full employment was restored. Once it had come off the gold standard, Britain by contrast had a rather good Thirties, enjoying the fruits of a number of new, high growth, consumer led industries.
That today’s Tory leadership should cite FDR as an inspiration demonstrates just how far to the Left it has drifted in attempting to rediscover its “one nation” roots. Just as Blair shifted the Labour Party to the Right in reaching out to prosperous, metropolitan types, correctly figuring that the Left had nowhere else to go, so too does Johnson appear to be doing the same the other way around in answering the demands of his new Brexit voting, “Red Wall” constituents. Thatcherism it is not.