Here's what happened to the US economy during the Great Depression. These are year-to-year changes in total US GDP (gross domestic product, or the sum of all economic activity in the country) during the Depression years:
- 1930: 8.6% decrease from 1929
- 1931: 6.4% decrease from 1930
- 1932: 13.0% decrease from 1931
- 1933: 1.3% decrease from 1932
- From 1934 until the end of World War II, the economy actually grew in every year but 1938
This doesn't go to say that we don't have serious problems to consider. Nobody likes to see other people being laid off, nor do we want to see legacy companies like the Detroit automakers going bankrupt. We still face massive economic hurdles to overcome -- the US has built up a colossal $10.7 trillion Federal debt, has a dangerously underfunded entitlement system, and spends too much on energy while building too many cities in the paths of natural disasters. That's not to mention the sizeable amount of money that private households spend on debt service.
But problems of all sorts are nothing new to humanity, and the quality and speed of a recovery depend, in part, upon human psychology. Fear and panic can make things worse, but rationality and determination can help accelerate a turnaround. Here are just a few tools at our disposal today that didn't exist during the Great Depression:
- Microwave ovens (first marketed in 1945)
- Passenger jets (first offered in 1952)
- Penicillin (discovered in 1928, but not synthesized until 1957)
- The Internet (first initiated in 1969)
- Mobile phones (which reached the public in the 1990s)
- Genetic engineering (the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003)
The connection between the technologies we possess and our capacity to escape our economic problems may not be obvious, but a simple set of parallels may be instructive:
- Would you rather fight World War I with a Sopwith Camel or an F-15?
- Would you rather get a cut from a barbed-wire fence or help with a flood rescue before or after the invention of the tetanus vaccine?
- Would you rather get lost in the woods with a compass or a GPS locator device?
We live in a world of broadband Internet, chemotherapy, and passenger-side air bags, and our libraries and computer networks contain the aggregated knowledge of everyone from King Solomon to Leonardo da Vinci to Albert Einstein. If we can't demonstrate the wisdom to get out of our problems with enough sobriety and confidence to show that a temporary economic slowdown is not the end of the world, then our forebears ought rightfully to be ashamed of us. And in the present, we should know well enough to realize that overheating our rhetoric only serves to worsen the plight of those who really are suffering because of lost jobs or shrinking incomes; the hospital patient doesn't need to hear "If you keep getting sick, you could die!" but rather needs words of encouragement and thoughtful attention from competent caregivers.