Much has been made recently of comparisons between the Great Depression of 1929 and the current economic crisis all the way to the point of framing President-elect Barack Obama as the twenty-first century’s FDR. Only time will truly tell if the analogy will be borne out (no pun intended), but there are good reasons to be skeptical.
The photograph below is one of a number of similar images that appeared in on-line stories and slide shows at a number of major newspapers this past weekend, reporting on “Black Friday”—the so-called “traditional” beginning of the Christmas shopping season.
This photograph shows hundreds of shoppers lining up at 4:30 a.m. at an Office Depot near a mall in the Washington D.C. area, though comparable scenes were more commonly displayed at places like Macy’s and Wal Mart. And while the visual tableau depicts an orderly line of consumers (or are they “utility maximizing rational individuals”?), the opening of the doors at 5:00 a.m. here and elsewhere unleashed a rabid feeding frenzy of consumerist gluttony (and one more for good measure). At a Wal Mart in Long Island, a riotous mob of 2,000 shoppers broke down the doors to the store and trampled a worker to death, all in the interest of saving $20.00 on a 50″ HDTV. And to put it all in perspective, Wal Mart anticipated the problem by hiring extra security and directing the behavior of its shoppers with a posted sign:
Such behavior, whether that of rational calculating individuals or greedy and riotous consumers—or mindless and insensitive store managers—stands in marked contrast with the pictures most often affiliated with the Great Depression—the world that gave us “Black Thursday.”
The difference, of course, is stark and pronounced. Then unemployed citizens lined up for free food (provided by civic organizations of one sort or another) to satisfy their most basic physical hunger; today we line up as consumers to purchase mass produced items (provided by global capitalism) that satisfy a different, fundamentally psychic hunger. Then the government developed public works projects designed to enhance our national infrastructure and to provide employment for those most in need; today the government pumps hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy in order to “ease credit markets” (its own version of the “Blitz Line Starts Here” sign) and to encourage consumption. And we are surprised when citizens accumulate debt by spending on credit rather than saving for a rainy day—or worse, trample and kill fellow citizens to purchase luxury items. Indeed, we actually wonder how we got into the current economic crisis.
It may well be too late to turn back the clock to a time when being a good citizen and being a good consumer were separate identities, but if the soon-to-be President Obama is to live up to the comparison to FDR he is going to need to help Americans to understand the difference between the two, as well as the implications for our national character of the relationship between Black Thursday and Black Friday.
Photo Credits: MIchael Williamson/Washington Post; Fariella/News; Unknown/National Archives