Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Seventy-nine years ago this month the stock market crashed big, just a year after the election that won Herbert Hoover the Presidential election. The US economy seized up, and the Roaring Twenties died down to an asthmatic wheeze. Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929.

As Commerce Secretary in Calvin Coolidge’s Presidency, Hoover had gained visibility in ’27, through his quick, effective, and humane response to the Great Mississippi River Flood, which breached levees, swamped millions of acres, and made thousands of people homeless.

A pro-regulation, anti-laissez-faire Republican, President Hoover revoked private oil leases on government-owned land, closed tax loopholes for the wealthy, and unsuccessfully pushed for lower taxes for low-income Americans. He worked hard for Native American rights, reversing a long history of abuses—not least of all, he chose Charles Curtis, a descendant of Native people, raised on the Kaw reservation, as his Vice President.

By today’s standards he would probably be called a liberal—or, at the very least, a compassionate conservative.

Still, he supported volunteerism over government intervention to address the nation’s vexing social problems—as wealth accumulated into the hands of fewer and fewer of the privileged. To assuage Americans’ fears of losing jobs to immigrants, he forced half a million Mexicans to return to Mexico—accomplishing on a smaller scale (roughly one-fortieth) what right-wingers today dream of. Under his watch, the crash of the stock market became the single worst financial disaster in US history.

Strange and somehow funny, isn’t it, how, despite 80 years in between, the issues that have dominated the George W. Bush Presidency mirror—in distorted funhouse fashion—those that occupied the Hoover White House?

Bush, of course, is famously anti-regulation, pro-oil, and slow to respond to natural disasters. But it’s interesting how the issues facing these two Presidents cut across each other.

When the Great Depression struck, people who lost their homes built ramshackle shacks and erected tents, building neighborhoods of impoverished men, women, and children in public areas of the major US cities, from the Port of Seattle to Central Park in New York.

Charles Michelson, chief of publicity for the Democratic National Convention back then, dubbed the impromptu housing projects “Hoovervilles.”

Howard Zinn wrote of this period,

“A socialist critic would … say that the capitalist system was by its nature unsound: a system driven by the one overriding motive of corporate profit and therefore unstable, unpredictable, and blind to human needs. The result of all that: depression for many of its people, and periodic crises for almost everybody. Capitalism, despite its attempts at self-reform, its organization for better control, was still in 1929 a sick and undependable system.” (1)

This past spring, BBC News covered new tent camps—dubbed “Bushvilles”—popping up across the nation as a result of the rash of mortgage foreclosures. The parallels are, of course, startling.

Nobody wants a replay of the Great D, and it’s unfair to single out the Bush Administration for blame on problems that have been in the making bipartisanly for decades—though arguably Bush et al. have blithely pushed matters over the edge.

Bush’s “ownership society” seems to be crashing on our never-too-terrorized-to-go-shopping heads.

(1) Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: Harper, 2003.

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