Summer Reading on the Great Depression Guides Professor's Research Into Current Downturn
Weekly unemployment claims dropped in August, but millions of Americas remain out of work and our economic recovery could stop in its tracks if COVID-19 spikes again. Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently warned “this could be the worst fall, from a public health perspective, that we’ve ever had” if Americans do not follow prevention guidelines.
That’s why Joseph Blasi, the J. Robert Beyster Distinguished Professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR), bought 25 books about the Great Depression and the New Deal. He’s learning all that he can about that difficult period in our nation’s history in order to guide his research on the current economic downturn.
Blasi, who directs SMLR’s Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing, talked to Rutgers Today about his ambitious reading project and what he hopes to learn.
How did you pick the books?
I wanted a broad cross-section of books to see where the leverage for social, political, and economic change did and did not emerge. I selected some titles that give a broad overview of the Great Depression and the New Deal's attempt to address it. I have a few that focus on specific under-appreciated programs, like Federal Project Number One, which offered aid to writers, theatre companies, artists, and musicians. There are books that cover how the thought leaders of that era – both women and men – approached the crisis. And I chose several titles that examine racial justice issues during the Depression.
What are the major similarities and differences between then and now?
Millions of people lost their job in both crises. Strikes swept the country, wave after wave, during the Great Depression and we’re seeing that today with essential and low-wage workers demanding hazard pay and workplace protections. There were political disagreements then as now. But there are also stark differences.
The stock market has been going up, rather than down, in spite of the fact that so many people are out of work today and millions more have given up on finding a job due to COVID-19. The suffering was more evenly obvious in the Great Depression in terms of money and investments. The poignant stories of suffering helped seed a wide number of social movements including the call for Social Security.
What made the New Deal so impactful? Could the formula work today?
Infrastructure spending ballooned during the New Deal with the Tennessee Valley Authority, the stunning contributions to national parks, and the long highway system connecting Key West to Miami. We also had iconic re-employment programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and giant public works projects.
We will see if the infrastructure investments coming our way will rise to that level. I fear that the trillions of dollars in contracts that we eventually award will further concentrate wealth in America. We need some creative policies to address that.
Was the New Deal as celebrated then as it is now?
About half of the New Deal programs did not go well. Some failed because of a faulty premise, while others failed because they did not go far enough. It may surprise casual onlookers today to know that many progressives in that era believed FDR made too many compromises and stepped back from more thorough economic change. On the other hand, many conservatives at the time held the view that President Roosevelt was destroying our system of private property and our democracy, which he definitely did not do.
For my own research on how workers participate in the finances and decision-making of companies, the New Deal set the stage for a new era of labor-management relations in the United States. Years after the Depression, President Roosevelt and the Senate Republicans worked together on a bipartisan law that encouraged broad-based profit sharing in industry. I am wondering what kind of financial inclusion and fairness will emerge from the current situation and debate. These books are helping me to gauge that.
What's next after you finish your reading?
At that point, I will refer back to the notes I’ve jotted down to ask what I can learn for my own research here at Rutgers and my own interest in federal policy development. Then, I will come up with a few specific ideas that will impact how I spend the next year at Rutgers, what I will study, what I will do, and how I will think about where this COVID situation leads us.