1934 All Over Again

Many of you have no doubt seen this cartoon that appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1934. It is complex in a way that few contemporary cartoons are, but otherwise it could have been printed today: “Spend! Spend! Spend under the guise of recovery–Bust the government–Blame the capitalists for the failure.” Click to enlarge:

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I’d seen the cartoon before, but my wife hadn’t until a friend emailed it to her today. She thought it would be fun to see what Amity Shlaes, author of The Forgotten Man, her bestselling history of the depression, might have to say about the 1934 cartoon. So I wrote Amity to ask for a comment; here is her response:

Here’s a cartoon that’s been making the rounds lately. It really deserves a place on the walls of the Chinese central bank.

In the 1930s, as now, the spending increased so fast that everyone had what might be called an “illions” moment. Today we are moving from billions to trillions and can’t believe it. With the New Deal the country was moving from millions to billions for the first time. The same emotions — shock, and then quick acceptance, were evident then.

Writing of their infrastructure spending program, the Public Works Administration, and of the shock of the staffers at the PWA budget available to them, one New Dealer concluded:

“It is fair to say that not one of them was able to visualize how much money 3 billion 300 million dollars really was. Few people can even encompass such a sum within their imaginations. It helped me to estimate its size by figuring that if we had it all in currency and should load it into trucks we could set out with it from Washington for the Pacific Coast, shovel off one million dollars at every milepost, and still have enough left to build a fleet of battleships.” The New Dealer who came up with this image was Harold Ickes, the father of the Democratic strategist of today. Fairly soon Ickes and his PWA colleagues got used to the new spending scale.

That last is, I guess, an ominous fact.

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