By Doug Casey
Prices dropped radically because billions of dollars of inflationary currency were wiped out through the stock market crash, bond defaults, and bank failures. The government, however, somehow equated the high prices of the inflationary '20s with prosperity and attempted to prevent a fall in prices by such things as slaughtering livestock, dumping milk in the gutter, and enacting price supports. Since the collapse wiped out money faster than it could be created, the government felt the destruction of real wealth was a more effective way to raise prices. In other words, if you can't increase the supply of money, decrease the supply of goods.
Nonetheless, the 1930s depression was a deflationary collapse, a time when currency became worth more and prices dropped. This is probably the most confusing thing to most Americans since they assume—as a result of that experience—that “depression” means “deﬂation.” It's also perhaps the biggest single difference between this depression and the last one.
Prices could drop, as they did the last time, but the amount of power the government now has over the economy is far greater than what was the case 80 years ago. Instead of letting the economy cleanse itself by allowing the ﬁnancial markets to collapse, governments will probably bail out insolvent banks, create mortgages wholesale to prop up real estate, and central banks will buy bonds to keep their prices from plummeting. All of these actions mean that the total money supply will grow enormously. Trillions will be created to avoid deﬂation. If you ﬁnd men selling apples on street corners, it won't be for 5 cents apiece, but $5 apiece. But there won't be a lot of apple sellers because of welfare, nor will there be a lot of apples because of price controls.
Consumer prices will probably skyrocket as a result, and the country will have an inﬂationary depression. Unlike the 1930s, when people who held dollars were king, by the end of the Greater Depression, people with dollars will be wiped out.
The world was largely rural or small-town. Communications were slow, but people tended to trust the media. The government exercised considerable moral suasion, and people tended to support it. The business of the country was business, as Calvin Coolidge said, and men who created wealth were esteemed. All told, if you were going to have a depression, it was a rather stable environment for it; despite that, however, there were still plenty of riots, marches, and general disorder.
The country is now urban and suburban, and although communications are rapid, there's little interpersonal contact. The media are suspect. The government is seen more as an adversary or an imperial ruler than an arbitrator accepted by a consensus of concerned citizens. Businessmen are viewed as unscrupulous predators who take advantage of anyone weak enough to be exploited.
A major financial smashup in today's atmosphere could do a lot more than wipe out a few naives in the stock market and unemploy some workers, as occurred in the '30s; some sectors of society are now time bombs. It's hard to say, for instance, what third- and fourth-generation welfare recipients are going to do when the going gets really tough.
THE WAY PEOPLE WORK
Relatively slow transportation and communication localized economic conditions. The U.S. itself was somewhat insulated from the rest of the world, and parts of the U.S. were fairly self-contained. Workers were mostly involved in basic agriculture and industry, creating widgets and other tangible items. There wasn't a great deal of specialization, and that made it easier for someone to move laterally from one occupation into the next, without extensive retraining, since people were more able to produce the basics of life on their own. Most women never joined the workforce, and the wife in a marriage acted as a “backup” system should the husband lose his job.
The whole world is interdependent, and a war in the Middle East or a revolution in Africa can have a direct and immediate effect on a barber in Chicago or Krakow. Since the whole economy is centrally controlled from Washington, a mistake there can be a national disaster. People generally aren’t in a position to roll with the punches as more than half the people in the country belong to what is known as the “service economy.” That means, in most cases, they're better equipped to shuffle papers than make widgets. Even “necessary” services are often terminated when times get hard. Specialization is part of what an advanced industrial economy is all about, but if the economic order changes radically, it can prove a liability.
THE FINANCIAL MARKETS
The last depression is identified with the collapse of the stock market, which lost over 90% of its value from 1929 to 1933. A secure bond was the best possible investment as interest rates dropped radically. Commodities plummeted, reducing millions of farmers to near subsistence levels. Since most real estate was owned outright and taxes were low, a drop in price didn't make a lot of difference unless you had to sell. Land prices plummeted, but since people bought it to use, not unload to a greater fool, they didn't usually have to sell.
This time, stocks—and especially commodities—are likely to explode on the upside as people panic into them to get out of depreciating dollars in general and bonds in particular. Real estate will be—next to bonds—the most devastated single area of the economy because no one will lend money long term. And real estate is built on the mortgage market, which will vanish.
Everybody who invests in this depression thinking that it will turn out like the last one will be very unhappy with the results. Being aware of the differences between the last depression and this one makes it a lot easier to position yourself to minimize losses and maximize profits.
So much for the differences. The crucial, obvious, and most important similarity, however, is that most people's standard of living will fall dramatically.
The Greater Depression has started. Most people don't know it because they can neither confront the thought nor understand the differences between this one and the last.
As a climax approaches, many of the things that you've built your life around in the past are going to change and change radically. The ability to adjust to new conditions is the sign of a psychologically healthy person.
Look for the opportunity side of the crisis. The Chinese symbol for “crisis” is a combination of two other symbols—one for danger and one for opportunity.
The dangers that society will face in the years ahead are regrettable, but there's no point in allowing anxiety, frustration, or apathy to overcome you. Face the future with courage, curiosity, and optimism rather than fear. You can be a winner, and if you plan carefully, you will be. The great period of change will give you a chance to regain control of your destiny. And that in itself is the single most important thing in life. This depression can give you that opportunity; it's one of the many ways the Greater Depression can be a very good thing for both you as an individual and society as a whole.