It’s imperative that readers get reacquainted with the politics and economics of that terrible episode in American history.
BY LAWRENCE W. REED
Ninety years ago this very month—August 1929—most stock investors thought they’d never had it so good. By November, they thought they’d never had it so bad. They were pretty much right on both occasions, though things would get a lot worse before they got better. Amid today’s gyrating stock market and increasing talk of recession, let’s refresh ourselves on the momentous events of nine decades past.
What Caused the Crash?
Sparked by tax cuts from the Harding and Coolidge administrations (a good thing) and the Fed’s low-interest rates/easy money policy (a bad thing), the curtain was about to come down on the Roaring ‘20s by August 1929. The Fed reversed itself months before and had been jacking up rates. The smartest investors were beginning to bail, sensing that a 180-degree shift in monetary policy might be the same as pricking an overblown balloon.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average reached a high of 381.17 on September 3, 1929. It bounced up and down for the next six weeks but generally drifted lower. In what Time magazine’s Jennifer Latson labeled “The Worst Stock Tip in History,” famed economist Irving Fisher pronounced that “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”
In advance of many 90th anniversary dates related to the Great Depression, I urge readers to get reacquainted with the politics and economics of that terrible episode in American history.
Then to Fisher’s chagrin, the last week of October brought “Black Thursday” and one massive sell-off after another, as ordinary investors joined the plunge. The Dow cratered at a mere 41 in July 1932, representing about 11 percent of the market value of less than three years before. The 1929 high would not be surpassed for a quarter-century.
The history of the Great Crash and subsequent Depression provides a sad litany of policy blunders in Washington. Altogether, they needlessly caused and prolonged the pain; roller coaster monetary policy, sky-high tariff hikes, massive tax increases, government-supervised destruction of foodstuffs, gold seizures, price-fixing regulations, soaring deficits and debt, special favors to organized labor that stifled investment and boosted unemployment.
For an accessible overview of all that, and more, see my essay, “Great Myths of the Great Depression,” available in multiple formats. Caution: It’s not pretty, and some parts of the story will absolutely shock you. But the lessons to be learned are legion.
In advance of many 90th anniversary dates related to the Great Depression, I urge readers to get reacquainted with the politics and economics of that terrible episode in American history. Aside from my essay cited above, the pages of FEE have featured many superb analyses over the years.
For example, economist Mark Skousen wrote “The Mysteries of the Great Depression Finally Solved“; Germinal G. Van penned “The Gold Standard Didn’t Create the Great Depression, the Federal Reserve Did“; Theodore Phalen, Deema Yazigi, and Thomas Rustici authored “The Smoot-Hawley Tariff and the Great Depression“; Ivan Pongracic wrote “The Great Depression According to Milton Friedman,” and Richard H. Timberlake gave us “Gold Policy in the 1930s.”
Selections from Robert Higgs
The award for “most prolific” among our authors on this subject goes to historians Robert Higgs and Burton W. Folsom. Here’s a selection from Higgs:
Selections from Burton Folsom
Burton Folsom’s book, New Deal or Raw Deal is a classic but don’t overlook these essays he wrote for FEE:
As We Remember
Ninety years after it began, myths and misconceptions about our most calamitous economic episode abound. Fortunately, recent scholarship is slowly changing that. The simplistic, error-filled assumption that free markets failed and government rescued us—once conventional “wisdom”—no longer gets by unquestioned.
FEE has proudly been a very important engine of that enlightenment.
Lawrence W. Reed is President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow, and Ron Manners Ambassador for Global Liberty at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). Reed served as president of FEE from 2008-2019 after serving previously as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s. Prior to becoming FEE’s president, he served for 20 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. He also taught economics full-time from 1977 to 1984 at Northwood University in Michigan and chaired its department of economics from 1982 to 1984.
He holds a B.A. in economics from Grove City College (1975) and an M.A. degree in history from Slippery Rock State University (1978), both in Pennsylvania. He holds two honorary doctorates, one from Central Michigan University (public administration, 1993) and Northwood University (laws, 2008).
He is the author of the book Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction, and Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism.
Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.