Great Depression2

This essay has a total of 3612 words and 14 pages.


Great Depression2





Main Causes of the Great Depression
Paul Alexander Gusmorino 3rd : May 13, 1996
The Great Depression was the worst economic slump ever in U.S. history, and one which
spread to virtually all of the industrialized world. The depression began in late 1929 and
lasted for about a decade. Many factors played a role in bringing about the depression;
however, the main cause for the Great Depression was the combination of the greatly
unequal distribution of wealth throughout the 1920's, and the extensive stock market
speculation that took place during the latter part that same decade. The maldistribution
of wealth in the 1920's existed on many levels. Money was distributed disparately between
the rich and the middle-class, between industry and agriculture within the United States,
and between the U.S. and Europe. This imbalance of wealth created an unstable economy. The
excessive speculation in the late 1920's kept the stock market artificially high, but
eventually lead to large market crashes. These market crashes, combined with the
maldistribution of wealth, caused the American economy to capsize.

The "roaring twenties" was an era when our country prospered tremendously. The nation's
total realized income rose from $74.3 billion in 1923 to $89 billion in 19291. However,
the rewards of the "Coolidge Prosperity" of the 1920's were not shared evenly among all
Americans. According to a study done by the Brookings Institute, in 1929 the top 0.1% of
Americans had a combined income equal to the bottom 42%2. That same top 0.1% of Americans
in 1929 controlled 34% of all savings, while 80% of Americans had no savings at all3.
Automotive industry mogul Henry Ford provides a striking example of the unequal
distribution of wealth between the rich and the middle-class. Henry Ford reported a
personal income of $14 million4 in the same year that the average personal income was
$7505. By present day standards, where the average yearly income in the U.S. is around
$18,5006, Mr. Ford would be earning over $345 million a year! This maldistribution of
income between the rich and the middle class grew throughout the 1920's. While the
disposable income per capita rose 9% from 1920 to 1929, those with income within the top
1% enjoyed a stupendous 75% increase in per capita disposable income7.

A major reason for this large and growing gap between the rich and the working-class
people was the increased manufacturing output throughout this period. From 1923-1929 the
average output per worker increased 32% in manufacturing8. During that same period of time
average wages for manufacturing jobs increased only 8%9. Thus wages increased at a rate
one fourth as fast as productivity increased. As production costs fell quickly, wages rose
slowly, and prices remained constant, the bulk benefit of the increased productivity went
into corporate profits. In fact, from 1923-1929 corporate profits rose 62% and dividends
rose 65.

The federal government also contributed to the growing gap between the rich and
middle-class. Calvin Coolidge's administration (and the conservative-controlled
government) favored business, and as a result the wealthy who invested in these
businesses. An example of legislation to this purpose is the Revenue Act of 1926, signed
by President Coolidge on February 26, 1926, which reduced federal income and inheritance
taxes dramatically11. Andrew Mellon, Coolidge's Secretary of the Treasury, was the main
force behind these and other tax cuts throughout the 1920's. In effect, he was able to
lower federal taxes such that a man with a million-dollar annual income had his federal
taxes reduced from $600,000 to $200,00012. Even the Supreme Court played a role in
expanding the gap between the socioeconomic classes. In the 1923 case Adkins v. Children's
Hospital, the Supreme Court ruled minimum-wage legislation unconstitutional13.

The large and growing disparity of wealth between the well-to-do and the middle-income
citizens made the U.S. economy unstable. For an economy to function properly, total demand
must equal total supply. In an economy with such disparate distribution of income it is
not assured that demand will always equal supply. Essentially what happened in the 1920's
was that there was an oversupply of goods. It was not that the surplus products of
industrialized society were not wanted, but rather that those whose needs were not
satiated could not afford more, whereas the wealthy were satiated by spending only a small
portion of their income. A 1932 article in Current History articulates the problems of
this maldistribution of wealth:

We still pray to be given each day our daily bread. Yet there is too much bread, too much
wheat and corn, meat and oil and almost every other commodity required by man for his
subsistence and material happiness. We are not able to purchase the abundance that modern
methods of agriculture, mining and manufacturing make available in such bountiful
quantities14.

Three quarters of the U.S. population would spend essentially all of their yearly incomes
to purchase consumer goods such as food, clothes, radios, and cars. These were the poor
and middle class: families with incomes around, or usually less than, $2,500 a year. The
bottom three quarters of the population had an aggregate income of less than 45% of the
combined national income; the top 25% of the population took in more than 55% of the
national income15. While the wealthy too purchased consumer goods, a family earning
$100,000 could not be expected to eat 40 times more than a family that only earned $2,500
a year, or buy 40 cars, 40 radios, or 40 houses.

Through such a period of imbalance, the U.S. came to rely upon two things in order for the
economy to remain on an even keel: credit sales, and luxury spending and investment from
the rich.

One obvious solution to the problem of the vast majority of the population not having
enough money to satisfy all their needs was to let those who wanted goods buy products on
credit. The concept of buying now and paying later caught on quickly. By the end of the
1920's 60% of cars and 80% of radios were bought on installment credit16. Between 1925 and
1929 the total amount of outstanding installment credit more than doubled from $1.38
billion to around $3 billion17. Installment credit allowed one to "telescope the future
into the present", as the President's Committee on Social Trends noted18. This strategy
created artificial demand for products which people could not ordinarily afford. It put
off the day of reckoning, but it made the downfall worse when it came. By telescoping the
future into the present, when "the future" arrived, there was little to buy that hadn't
already been bought. In addition, people could not longer use their regular wages to
purchase whatever items they didn't have yet, because so much of the wages went to paying
back past purchases.

The U.S. economy was also reliant upon luxury spending and investment from the rich to
stay afloat during the 1920's. The significant problem with this reliance was that luxury
spending and investment were based on the wealthy's confidence in the U.S. economy. If
conditions were to take a downturn (as they did with the market crashed in fall and winter
1929), this spending and investment would slow to a halt. While savings and investment are
important for an economy to stay balanced, at excessive levels they are not good. Greater
investment usually means greater productivity. However, since the rewards of the increased
productivity were not being distributed equally, the problems of income distribution (and
of overproduction) were only made worse. Lastly, the search for ever greater returns on
investment lead to wide-spread market speculation.

Maldistribution of wealth within our nation was not limited to only socioeconomic classes,
but to entire industries. In 1929 a mere 200 corporations controlled approximately half of
all corporate wealth19. While the automotive industry was thriving in the 1920's, some
industries, agriculture in particular, were declining steadily. In 1921, the same year
that Ford Motor Company reported record assets of more than $345 million, farm prices
plummeted, and the price of food fell nearly 72% due to a huge surplus20. While the
average per capita income in 1929 was $750 a year for all Americans, the average annual
income for someone working in agriculture was only $27321. The prosperity of the 1920's
was simply not shared among industries evenly. In fact, most of the industries that were
prospering in the 1920's were in some way linked to the automotive industry or to the
radio industry.

The automotive industry was the driving force behind many other booming industries in the
1920's. By 1928, with over 21 million cars on the roads, there was roughly one car for
every six Americans22. The first industries to prosper were those that made materials for
cars. The booming steel industry sold roughly 15% of its products to the automobile
industry23. The nickel, lead, and other metal industries capitalized similarly. The new
closed cars of the 1920's benefited the glass, leather, and textile industries greatly.
And manufacturers of the rubber tires that these cars used grew even faster than the
automobile industry itself, for each car would probably need more than one set of tires
over the course of its life. The fuel industry also profited and expanded. Companies such
as Ethyl Corporation made millions with items such as new "knock-free" fuel additives for
cars24. In addition, "tourist homes" (hotels and motels) opened up everywhere. With such a
wealthy upper-class many luxury hotels were needed. In 1924 alone, hotels such as the
Mayflower (Washington D.C.), the Parker House (Boston), The Palmer House (Chicago), and
the Peabody (Memphis) opened their doors25. Lastly, and possibly most importantly, the
construction industry benefited tremendously from the automobile. With the growing number
of cars, there was a big demand for paved roads. During the 1920's Americans spent more
than a $1 billion each year on the construction and maintenance of highways, and at least
another $400 million annually for city streets26. But the automotive industry affected
construction far more than that. The automobile had been central to the urbanization of
the country in the 1920's because so many other industries relied upon it. With
urbanization came the need to build many more apartment buildings, factories, offices, and
stores. From 1919 to 1928 the construction industry grew by around $5 billion dollars,
nearly 50'.

Also prospering during the 1920's were businesses dependent upon the radio business. Radio
stations, electronic stores, and electricity companies all needed the radio to survive,
and relied upon the constant growth of the radio market to expand and grow themselves. By
1930, 40% of American families had radios28. In 1926 major broadcasting companies started
appearing, such as the National Broadcasting Company. The advertising industry was also
becoming heavily reliant upon the radio both as a product to be advertised, and as a
method of advertising.
Continues for 7 more pages >>




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    yy Since the introduction of narcotics in the United States, American society has felt the effects of drug use in all aspects of daily living. As drug use heightened to new levels in the 1980\'s the Bush Administration chose to declare a "war" on drugs. Never before in our history had crime been combated with war. This war led to the militarization of the United States\' tactics for overcoming illegal drug use in the U.S. Instead of choosing to combat drug use by putting greater effort into redu