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We must remember the Great Depression

DeenBess Sherman

Deena Bess Sherman

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Updated: November 27, 2012 10:29AM

As we prepare for Halloween, I’ve been thinking of Samhain (pronounced Sow’en) — Halloween’s precursor — celebrated for thousands of years as time to prepare for winter, end the year, and honor the dead. It’s a time when the veil between the living and dead is the thinnest. Spirits, memories, and gratitude for those who have gone before are strong and present.

As I read obituaries of those born early in the 20th century, I fear the loss of their memories. For them, the excesses of the 1920s, the stock market crash, and especially its aftermath were experiences, not something from history books. We owe it to them to learn the lessons of those years and use them to form our own future.

In the 1920s Wall Street speculators bought stocks on borrowed money and became spectacularly rich. Their recklessness crashed the economy. When that bubble burst in 1929, what followed in the 1930s was unemployment rates that reached 30 percent and people literally starving in the streets.

So what did that generation do? It drafted legislation to respond to Wall Street gamblers and the excesses of the investing class without discouraging legitimate capital investment. Social Security was enacted to provide a safety net for retirees. Investments were made in things for the common good — roads and highways, airports, libraries, electrification of rural communities, and public education. The rich paid more in order to provide the rest of the country some bootstraps with which to pull themselves up. Americans were willing to sacrifice, work together, and come out of adversity stronger.

What happened in the 21st century has been very different. When a similar financial bubble burst during George W. Bush’s presidency, we teetered on the edge of another depression. President Obama pulled us back from that ledge, but instead of being thanked, has been criticized for not doing it fast enough — in spite of reviving the stock market and stopping the hemorrhage of jobs.

Rather than demanding shared sacrifice and greater financial regulation, we have allowed the very wealthiest Americans to insulate themselves by putting their “wealth defense industry” into full gear. Armies of lawyers, accountants, and especially public relations specialists have worked round the clock to maintain the obscene wealth of a few (usually in offshore accounts) at any cost. Astoundingly, they’ve convinced many of us to go along with it! They run candidates who want to turn Social Security into a voucher program and say “let Detroit go bankrupt.”

By allowing corporations the same “free speech” as individuals, we’ve seen incredible sums of money flow from large corporations to Washington in order to buy politicians and influence legislation that would allow them to continue Wall Street’s reckless behavior, while destroying the environment to pad their profits.

One of the main things that helped America build a strong middle class after last century’s crash was collective bargaining. But this time around we’re seeing constant union busting and the shipping of jobs overseas. At this rate, we will return to the days of the robber barons where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few and the rest of us can all take minimum wage jobs with no benefits or security.

So as you dress up this Halloween as a flapper or hobo, stop for a moment to remember those chapters in American history. We need to look to the lessons of the past to find our best future. We owe it to ourselves and those who walked this road before us to wake up and remember how a previous generation chose a very different path.

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