This Sounds Familiar

We must never forget that abject poverty is an inescapable reality for more than a billion people living on Earth today. The majority of us pray that civilization will learn to better manage and even overcome this ongoing social catastrophe. Meanwhile, most of humanity expects to better their own personal circumstances.

Recession, Depression, Famine

Humanity has suffered economic setbacks since the beginning of our kind. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors suffered when their food and water supply disappeared. They suffered when dangerous circumstances forced them to move to survive.

One biblical perspective on how to manage economic downturns is revealed in the Bible’s first chapter. In Genesis 41:1-2, the head of Egypt’s government dreams about famine, so he orders his government to accumulate a large measure of grain. That biblical government was able to provide for its people during a seven-year drought.

Compare and Contrast

Compare this approach with the beggar-thy-neighbor policies adopted by many nations in reaction to the depressions that began in 1873 and 1929. International trade was discouraged to encourage domestic employment. Discouraging trade caused negative consequences for all sides. Most economic historians agree that many beggar-thy-neighbor policies do more harm than good.

The biblical famine in Egypt lasted 84 months. The Great Depression that began in 1929 lasted 43 months. The Depression of 1873, sometimes called the Long Depression, continued for 65 months. The length and cause of recent economic downturns is controversial.

The causes of the Depression of 1873 included all of the usual suspects: a speculative bubble (railroads); the collapse of financial instruments (railroad bonds); and bank failures, leading to bankruptcy, default, unemployment, declining wages and price deflation. The New York Stock Exchange closed for 10 days in 1873. The industries that suffered most were manufacturing, construction and transportation.

Depression of 1873: 10 Facts

  1. Political stalemate became the order of the day. “More than once, Congress would find itself all but paralyzed as important bills shuttled back and forth between House and Senate, committees of conference failed, and special sessions became necessary. Given the political stalemate, new departures in national policy became unthinkable.”
  2. Idealism about the common opportunity shared by all Americans waned.
  3. The sense that a great divide existed between a handful of politically active rich and a majority of Americans grew.
  4. Voters turned against those in power.
  5. A few large corporations grew because the failure of many small businesses created a commercial void.
  6. One side of the political establishment hammered away on the theme that the suffering poor and unemployed were victims of their own “laziness and extravagance.”
  7. Some leaders diverted people’s attention from serious consideration of whatever was known about the causes of the downturn by providing them with scapegoats.
  8. The national effort to undo damage done to African-Americans by providing educational opportunities or the opportunity to work their own land was abandoned. Less than one decade after Emancipation, after 240 years of aggressive slavery, the message from national leaders to the South’s upper class was: “You’re in complete control of ‘them’ again. Do what you will. We will not interfere.” By 1890, the aspirations of millions of dark-skinned Americans were suppressed by that combination of violence and law variously called Jim Crow, segregation and “separate but equal.”
  9. “Can’t read, can’t write, but still on top if your skin is white.” Politicians played the race card to distract poor whites from the future their children faced in states that failed to support quality public education.
  10. A significant percentage of poor and middle-class white folks seemed to vote against their own interests. Many cuts in state spending focused on public education, which was described by some leaders as a luxury.

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