Edit 2023: Looking back five years later, what’s missing from this piece is consideration of the Great Depression’s international consequences: the collapse of international financial and economic coordination, the switch away from the gold standard to multiple incompatible financial standards, and upsetting the balance of power between the bankers of different nations. These were major transitions and also contributed to the outbreak of World War II. This puts the Great Depression into a different category from other financial disasters such as 1873 or 2008, even if the domestic material effects may have been comparable.
The dominant narrative holds that the Great Depression was a uniquely horrible event, consisting of economic collapse and human suffering on a scale far beyond anything in contemporary experience. I suspect this may be substantially exaggerated, and the Depression may have been much less bad than is popularly supposed—say, not much worse than the 2008 depression and its aftermath, relative to what came before. (This is still very bad.)
There is a motive for such an exaggeration. The tale of the New Deal vanquishing the Great Depression and preventing its recurrence is a key piece of the founding mythology of the contemporary American regime. This story justifies not only the welfare state, but also the Federal Reserve and other financial regulations, all of which are vital to the current system. The worse the Great Depression was, the stronger these justifications become; as such, champions of the status quo would benefit from painting the Great Depression as a unique horror, for the same reasons that they benefit from painting the Nazis as a unique horror. (The Nazis, while horrible, were not unique.) Of course, the presence of this motive does not prove deception, but it does make me suspicious.
The stories used as justification for the Great Depression’s unique horror are all explainable by other means. In popular culture, the most common (now slightly anachronous) is grandparents of Boomers and Gen Xers who lived through the Depression and came out extremely frugal, hoarding disposable packaging and old shoes because they felt a need to keep every object of value. While this attitude reflects material poverty by modern standards, I think this is because of increasing industrialization and technologically-driven material abundance, rather than because of a temporary financial collapse. If you go back to, say, the 1870s, then all but the very wealthy would have hoarded and reused metal pins, cloth scraps (note that the link offhandedly dates the practice to the late 1800s, then has a lengthy section on its usage during the Depression decades later), and much else that is considered trash by today’s standards. This trend has continued, and today Millennials are generally less prone to hoard worn furniture, old computers, and other mid-value objects than their parents.
The Depression is also associated with the Dust Bowl collapse and emigration, which was a catastrophe contemporaneous with, but separate from, the Great Depression. When farmland literally blows away in the wind, this is not because of stock markets or employment rates, and is properly classified as a natural disaster rather than an economic event. However, the only contemporary memory of this event comes from The Grapes Of Wrath, in which Steinbeck uses the suffering caused by climate change to justify union power. As a result, the Dust Bowl is bound up with economic policy in the popular imagination.
There are also the stories of shantytowns, the camps where otherwise homeless people would erect crude shelters on parks or vacant land. I know of maybe half a dozen of these in Oakland and Berkeley today, and I don’t exactly have my finger on the pulse of my local community, so I find it hard to take this as a sign of the Depression’s unique horror. (I will also irresponsibly speculate that the presence or absence of shantytowns in cities depends more on police policy than on the economy, so long as the economy hasn’t fully solved the problem of scarcity.)
Of course, explaining away these stories is not a full proof that the Great Depression was less dire than is popularly supposed. Such a proof would require a full investigation of the relevant statistics and primary sources. This would be a huge undertaking, since I’m not willing to take most econometric analysis at face value in cases of this type. Economists can be among the most vocal defenders of the status quo. Many are more interested in pushing an ideological agenda than in reporting truth, as I saw firsthand during my brief career in that field. While I would be somewhat surprised if the data was literally falsified, I think it’s likely that much of the analysis is heavily skewed. In spite of the difficulty, I think such an investigation is warranted, and I hope to get around to it someday. Until then, I remain skeptical of the dominant narrative.