Yeah, We Had a Ball in the Thirties

I’ll see your 2015 and raise you a 1936

Some time ago, Al Jazeera America carried an item by David Cay Johnston with the jaw-dropping revelation that “Americans fared better after the Great Depression than today.” I should mention that Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize winning former investigative reporter for the New York Times who now teaches business, tax and property law of the ancient world at Syracuse University’s Law School, so that’s all you need to know right there. I mean, there’s nothing more ancient, let alone interesting, for most people than the Dirty Thirties, because you can usually check that decade out by watching most movie channels.

But like Mark Twain’s one-upping Richard the Third, there’s one way I’ve got young Dave beat: it’s summed up in that ancient response, “Vas you dere, Charlie?”

Early on in his article, David Cay makes the point that if you look at the period 2008-2014, as compared with the like period 1930-1936, you can make a case for the Great Recession being harder to take than the Great Depression. Or you might conclude: what was so great about the Great Depression? (Except for Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck, both of whom have been overdone.)

“An overwhelming case can be made,” writes the ancien NYT reporter, now an ancient Syracuse law professor, “that the vast majority of Americans are worse off. Indeed, coming out of the Great Depression eight decades ago, the vast majority fared vastly better than most people have coming out of the Great Recession.”

Having come out of both at different rates of speed, I have to tell you that he sure opened my eyes. In my naivety, I had thought we had it pretty rough back in the Dirties. Like I say I “came out of the Great Depression” eight decades ago because I was born just before the Wall Street Crash, and I never realized before how good we had it.

“It may be jarring to hear,” Johnston jars on, “that the vast majority of Americans, the 90 percent, enjoyed bigger income gains in the 1930s than in recent years, but that is what the data shows.”

I have to agree. In the Thirties, my father was the high school principal in our little Alberta town and he was hauling down $900 a year, which actually means that my fat-ass family was part of the 1%, because most people were on welfare, which they called “relief,” and they received $9 a month, or $108 annually. So I may be comparing apples and oranges. Anyway, in 1936 Dad petitioned the school board for a raise and they made it an even $1,000. That’s 100 bucks each and every month, except for July and August, when school let out, and we were supposed to stop eating.

During July and August, I guess we acted more like the 90%. (Actually, Dad was a writer in his spare time, and usually in July and August, he’d bat out a short story or two for Western Romance or Pulp Detective, and he’d get maybe 20 bucks. Not to draw too long a bow, Dad had a New York agent he’d connected with in the 1920s when we lived in Fort Lee on the Jersey side, and the agent got 10% off the top, so the $18 net was just as good as collecting relief for two months.)

By comparison, Johnston’s data would probably show you that a typical high school principal today making 150 grand or whatever would never have the nerve to ask for an additional 15 big ones. In fact, during Dubbleya’s administration, he/she would be lucky not to be left behind. Pretty bleak, increase-wise, these days. You can’t argue with statistics, especially in the hands of a researcher like David Cay Johnston.

By the way, relative to today, there was no need for food stamps in 1936. Well, not at first, maybe. I remember going into my friend Squint’s house at dinner time – I was about eight and so was Squint. His mother invited me for dinner, and I noticed they were having flour and water as their principal entrée. For breakfast, Squint said they usually had dry oatmeal, just for variety. I passed, with thanks to Squint’s mother. Because being part of the 1%, I wasn’t that hungry.

But like Johnston said, things back then got better faster than they did in the years following 2008. We had relief trains that used to pull onto a siding every six months or so, loaded with salted smoked whitefish from Great Slave Lake, and free apples from the Okanagan Valley in B.C. After a month or so in the summer in a closed boxcar, neither apples nor whitefish smelled that great, but it was free. And you have to admit there’s nothing for a balanced diet like fruit and seafood.

Right here I should add a qualifier. Johnston refers to Americans, whereas I’m talking about the Canadian dustbowl, but having visited the Dakotas, Kansas and so on, I can tell you we were all in the same boat.

“Those at the apex of the economy,” David Cay rightly points out, “are enjoying a much larger — and growing — share of national income.”

Well, right again Dave. Although, as I’ve illustrated, my Dad as one of the few plutocrats in our town got a 10% raise after six or seven years, while the reliefers wouldn’t have dared to ask.

Dave kind of bogs down when he gets around to wage increases in this past decade as compared to the Thirties. So he backs off a bit and compares now to the Seventies, in place of the Thirties. This is a little easier going, but his figs are still impressive.

“… the average hourly pay of $20.13 last year was smaller than in 1972 and 1973. Back then, the inflation-adjusted hourly average was about 6 percent higher. In other words, people in 2013 worked 52 weeks to make what they would have made in 49 weeks back in 1972 and 1973.”

I think the former New York Times reporter nailed it again. (Although I’ll let it pass that if we’re talking about the same hourly worker, by 2013 he would be 40 years older than he was in the Seventies, and might not want to work for 52 weeks.)

But let’s get back to Johnston’s main thesis about the 1930s and how things got better faster. Let’s put the hypothetical case that Squint’s father Herman was unemployed in 1930 because he was a farmer and his crop got hailed on, devoured by grasshoppers and what was left blew away in a dust storm. So his hourly wage rate in that year was zero. Then, fortunately, in 1936, he got a job as a teamster on a construction job excavating a new church basement (the churches even then had a bit of money.) His hourly wage was 25 cents. As Johnston’s thesis bears out, increasing from nothing to 25 cents in just six years is a huge increase by 2013 standards. Of course the job only lasted six months, but that isn’t the point. We’re talking INCREASES in an historical context.

Then of course, encouraged by World War II and general prosperity among bankers, arms manufacturers and improved technology, in 1939 there was a bumper wheat crop, but by this time Herman didn’t own any land, let alone any crop. But he did get a job stooking somebody else’s wheat field for 50 cents an hour, which further bears out Johnston’s keen analyses. Show me an hourly worker today, say in an auto plant, who got a wage increase of 100% between 2011 and 20114.

One of David Cay Johnston’s most telling arguments concerning then and now, is how the increase in medicare costs has deprived today’s workers, vis-à-vis the Thirties, which until now everybody including me had considered Dirty.

“Part of the reason wages and salaries are smaller on average today than more than 40 years ago,” writes Johnston, “is the rising cost of health care. In 1972 health care spending came to 7.2 percent of the economy; last year it was 17.7 percent, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services report.”

Well criminey, let me tell you about our healthcare in the Thirties. Doc Day, our local and country doctor who covered about 100,000 square miles in his gut-sprung 1936 Chevy, WAS our health care and he didn’t charge anything. At least he never sent out a bill in about 50 years. Oh, you might pay him with a cream check or give him a chicken or a couple of dozen eggs, in the case of a difficult delivery or setting a broken leg. But Doc just didn’t care – he had a ranch populated by white-faced Herefords and money wasn’t a question. In fact, I guess compared with most people, Doc was one of those 1%-ers. He also owned the hospital, a three story house on Main Street, and he carried all that overhead, too.

Give you an example. My family’s total medical requirements through those years? My younger brother and sister were both delivered by Doc, my brother Jack had an appendectomy once and I had my tonsils out, which was kind of de rigueur in those days for kids my age. I don’t know whether my father ever actually paid Doc anything. He probably did. But it was a barter economy. For instance, Dad on one occasion helped Doc shingle the rook of his garage, and in fact fell off the hip roof of that building with an open bottle of Johnny Walker in his hands – and didn’t spill a drop. That impressed Doc so much, he most likely wouldn’t have had the nerve to send Dad a bill for medical services.

So you can see how accurate Johnston is when he says things are rougher today than they were in the Thirties. I ‘ve got to concur.

Who am I to go up against an investigative reporter from the New York Times?

Bill Annett writes four newsletters: The Canadian Shield, American Logo, Beating the Street, and The Oyster World. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Bill.