BUSINESS
12/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Daniel Gross: Why All Those Great Depression Analogies Are Wrong

It's difficult to avoid the comparisons between the current sad state of financial affairs and the Great Depression. "This is not like 1987 or 1998 or 2001," Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain said at a conference on Nov. 11. "We will in fact look back to the 1929 period to see the kind of slowdown we are seeing now." Time depicted President-elect Barack Obama on its cover as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And in Washington, the buzz is all about what the new team will do in its first 100 days. What's next? Show trials in Moscow?

All this historically inaccurate nostalgia can occasionally make you want to clock somebody with one of the three volumes of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s history of the New Deal. The credit debacle of 2008 and the Great Depression may have similar origins: Both got going when financial crisis led to a reduction in consumer demand. But the two phenomena differ substantially. Instead of workers with 5 o'clock shadows asking, "Brother, can you spare a dime?" we have clean-shaven financial-services executives asking congressmen if they can spare $100 billion. More substantively, the economic trauma the nation suffered in the 1930s makes today's woes look like a flesh wound.

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