No WPA today, but I got some pictures

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

I have to say, I’m in awe. Of course a bunch of photographers who I assume are all dead now deserve some credit. As do Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti. The new site is beautiful, even if I do say so myself.

I have (mostly) changed the color scheme in the Danland theme and rather than use the theme’s supplied photographs, I went prowling through the Library of Congress (see the article on EarthWiki and click on the photographs for more information) for photographs of people who, unlike a certain Speaker of the House, had reason to cry.

I should let Howard Zinn tell this part:

The stock market crash of 1929, which marked the beginning of the Great Depression of the United States, came directly from wild speculation which collapsed and brought the whole economy down with it. But as John Galbraith says in his study of that event (The Great Crash), behind that speculation was the fact that “the economy was fundamentally unsound.” He points to very unhealthy corporate and banking structures, an unsound foreign trade, much economic misinformation, and the “bad distribution of income” (the highest 5 percent of the population received about one-third of all personal income.

A socialist critic would go further and 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: permanent 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.

After the crash, the economy was stunned, barely moving. Over five thousand banks closed and huge numbers of businesses, unable to get money, closed too. Those that continued laid off employees and cut the wages of those who remained, again and again. Industrial production fell by 50 percent, and by 1933 perhaps 15 million (no one knew exactly)—one-fourth or one-third of the labor force—were out of work.1

It sounds a lot like today. I haven’t really been able to track this down, but I keep hearing that if the Bureau of Labor Statistics was measuring unemployment as it was a few decades ago, the unemployment rate would be more like 25 percent. Shadow Government Statistics puts it somewhere between 20 and 25 percent (precisely where is hard to tell without an expensive subscription).2 Gallup puts what it calls “underemployment” at 19.2 percent.3 That makes my own calculation of 13.15 percent seem rather conservative (which it is intended to be).4

But there is a difference between now and the Great Depression. Then, the United States government recognized that something had to be done, that unfettered capitalism had gotten out of hand, that the situation was a bit more serious than as George W. Bush put it,

“There’s no question about it. Wall Street got drunk — that’s one of the reasons I asked you to turn off the TV cameras — it got drunk and now it’s got a hangover,” Bush said at a private fundraiser for Republican congressional candidate Pete Olson. “The question is: How long will it sober up and not try to do all these fancy financial instruments?”5

And of course, the answer to Bush’s question was that it wasn’t very long at all before Wall Street was back to roaring profits employing many of the same practices that had caused the problems in the first place. And meanwhile, what no one on Wall Street or within the Beltway apparently cares about is Main Street.

There’s no Works Progress Administration—under whose auspices the photographs that grace this site‘s front page were taken—in sight for today’s unemployed. As much as it is needed.6 7 8 9 Instead, as Zinn put it,

Clearly, those responsible for organizing the economy did not know what had happened, were baffled by it, refused to recognize it, and found reasons other than the failure of the system. Herbert Hoover had said, not long before the crash: “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.” Henry Ford, in March 1931, said the crisis was here because the average man won’t really do a day’s work unless he is caught and cannot get out of it. there is plenty of work to do if people would do it.” A few weeks later he laid of 75,000 workers.10

It’s hard to tell much difference between Ford’s remarks in 1931 and Diane Feinstein’s comment in 2010 that,

“We have 99 weeks of unemployment insurance,” Feinstein said. “The question comes, how long do you continue before people just don’t want to go back to work at all?”11

People keep trying to tell me that Feinstein isn’t a “real Democrat.” But the hard cold fact of the matter is that this former mayor of San Francisco—the same city that now-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi represents—may be conservative by San Francisco standards but is well within the mainstream of her party.

A few days ago, I wrote of the hubris of “progressives who assumed they could make progress within a thoroughly corrupt political system.”12 Those of us who cling to delusions that this political system can be redeemed are perhaps even more a part of the problem than the Tea Partiers on the right.

We don’t have WPA-sponsored photographers prowling the country recording people’s suffering today. And you won’t find the conglomerate television and cable network news camera crews doing in-depth interviews with those the bankers hung out to dry. But their suffering is nonetheless real. And the divide now is between those who recognize reality and work towards a solution and those who continue to play establishment games.

This site is here for those who want to be part of the solution.

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