Causes of the Great Depression

The Great Depression has become one of the most misunderstood events in U.S. history. Many people believe the free market to be culprit that caused the incredible economic downturn, that the government didn’t do enough to stop it, and that it was largely President Hoover’s fault for not intervening enough into the economy. Today, to my best ability, I hope to dismiss these false assumptions.

Herbert Hoover was elected President of the United States in 1928, and from the beginning it was clear he was not a supporter of laissez-faire, nonintervention economic policies. Hoover preferred regulation, government involvement, and over the course of his presidency he greatly expanded the role of the federal government in the economy. During his presidential campaign he spoke of helping the agriculture industry by raising tariffs and discouraging agriculture imports.

Hoover’s intervention began in 1929 with the Mexican Repatriation, leading to the “voluntary and involuntary” migration of approximately half a million Mexicans. The reasons primarily being high unemployment in the U.S. and the incentives welfare created for Mexicans. Rather than look at the root reason for the Mexicans wanting to be here (jobs and welfare), Hoover ignored the cause and instead only dealt with the effect; not too far off from the immigration policies the U.S. has employed with Mexico ever since. The Mexican exodus would last through 1937.

The Repatriation was not too unreasonable compared to the other policies put into action by Hoover. On June 17, 1930, the President signed into the law the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. The Act raised tariffs on more than 20,000 goods imported into the U.S. to historically record levels. Prior to the bill’s passing, 1,028 American economists signed a petition urging Congress and President Hoover to not support or pass the act, explaining that it would force consumers to pay higher prices on countless items.

The reasoning behind the bill was that it would encourage people to buy American products, by greatly increasing the prices of imported goods. It was also assumed that it would lead to greater revenue for the federal government. This turned out to be terribly misguided thinking, as it led to slice American imports by 66% and exports by 61%, between 1929 and 1933. Exports declined sharply because many countries increased their own tariffs on American goods in particular, as a result of Smoot-Hawley, leading to a period of reduced trade and economic isolationism and protectionism.

There is a good possibility that the passage of Smoot-Hawley may have played a good sized part in the collapse and decline of the stock market starting in 1929. As the Wall Street Journal explains:

Though many associate the Great Depression with the stock market crash on Oct. 29, 1929, the market actually rallied during the six months following Black Tuesday, while the defeat of Smoot-Hawley appeared likely. The market turned south again in April 1930 as those hopes of defeat gradually dimmed.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average sank a full 8%, from 250 to 230, over just two trading days in June 1930, in direct response to the Senate’s passage of Smoot-Hawley and Hoover’s announcement that he would sign it. Exacerbated by other flawed governmental policies, an international trade war continued to drive the market down until the Dow hit a low of 41 on July 8, 1932, having lost 89% of its value from its September, 1929 high.

The initial and continuing effects of the bill certainly did not help revive the U.S. economy as originally intended. This was not the end of the list of legislation, signed into law by Hoover, heightening government interference in the market.

As a result of the faltering economy, revenue from the corporate tax dropped to $550 million in 1932 from $1.1 billion in 1930, and income tax revenue fell to $370 million from $1 billion over the same period. This made way for a growing budget deficit of more than $2 billion in 1932. In response to the government’s financial problems, Congress enacted the Revenue Act of 1932, which Hoover signed into law on June 6, 1932.

Among other things, the Revenue Act increased the top income tax rate to 63% from 25%, doubled the estate tax, increased corporate tax rates nearly 15%, and added new and increased excise taxes on goods such as tires, lubricating oil, refrigerators, chewing gum, soft drinks, electricity, and many other items.

Government looked at its revenue problem in 1932 and seemed to see increased taxes as the only solution. Cutting the increased federal programs and spending, for some reason, did not appear to be a viable option. Rather than even considering the federal government might be unnecessarily involved in areas that it shouldn’t have been, creating new taxes and increasing current ones was seen as the only reasonable solution.

Amazingly, Franklin Roosevelt actually attacked the President on this issue while campaigning, explaining that Hoover had spent money in a “reckless and extravagant” manner that the U.S. had never before seen. John Nance Garner, Roosevelt’s running mate in 1932, said Hoover was “leading the country down the path of socialism.” While these accusations may very well have been true, it is laughable to compare these words coming from Roosevelt and Garner, to the New Deal policies they implemented once in power. The New Deal that the Roosevelt administration pushed and championed was nothing more than a continuation and escalation of the policies pursued by Herbert Hoover, the same ones Roosevelt had blasted while on the campaign trail.

Both Hoover and Roosevelt tried to push economic beliefs and theories that helped prolong and worsen the Great Depression. They both believed the federal government should manipulate the economy, and stimulate it out of a correction through spending, and government involvement. The two presidents subscribed to the same flawed, short-term focused, interventionist, Keynesian belief in economics. The failure of their philosophy is evident in the performance of the economy during the period in which they tried their shenanigans. The country’s unemployment rate in 1939, despite all the efforts from Hoover and Roosevelt, was still higher than it was in 1931.

The free market does not come without its own flaws. Humans are not perfect, but with a free market system it is the individuals making the calls; not an elevated, select few who regulate and control society. In whatever economic model you choose, humans will always be behind the system.

It is not through more laws, regulation, and intervention that we find the right path to a prosperous society. Only by learning freely from our mistakes and failures can we expect to grow stronger, smarter, and more sustainable over the long-term.

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