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David Kennedy

Echoes from history on a bad economy


David Kennedy's scholarship has been described as good old-fashioned history. Simply put, Kennedy says history is storytelling. And when Kennedy tells a story, it's worth noting. His book about the Great Depression, Freedom from Fear, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for History. Kennedy was a recent lecturer at the Sun Valley Writers' Conference and is the guest for the Dec. 23 edition of Dialogue on Idaho Public Television. Kennedy says he was initially inspired as an undergraduate student when he took a course on the American character.

Is there an American character?

I think there's a bundle of things that have to do with the porous, disarticulated, free, open character of our society, which is among the reasons why the West is so often taken to being the most characteristic of American regions that distinguish us from other societies.

We've had more space in which to operate, both metaphorical and physical space. We've had more choices in our lives and as a society. Sometimes the choices we face are delusory. We think we have a choice but we don't, but we indulge ourselves in that fantasy nonetheless. So, actually, I'm trying to write a large synthetic book about this, and one of the titles I'm playing with is The Americans: A Choosing People.

With your book on the Depression, what did you feel you could bring new to the table?

So what I thought I could do somewhat fresh ... was to focus less on "What were historical antecedents of the Great Depression or the New Deal and World War II?" and more on "What were their consequences?"

People point to the New Deal almost in distaste, saying this is what set us on our way to bloated government. Is that fair?

No, I don't think that's fair. I think the New Deal has become kind of a talisman or a marker for political argument. And its historical reputation has thereby been tremendously distorted. One of the points I try to make is how modest were the set of New Deal reforms that were put in place in the 1930s, and how scrupulously careful the New Dealers were to do minimum possible disruption to inherited laws, inherited ways of doing business, inherited institutions.

So for example, we have one of the very few old-age pension systems in the world that is self-financed entirely out of employer and employee contributions. In almost all the other countries that we compare ourselves with normally, those kinds of programs were funded out of general treasury revenues. And Roosevelt insisted, "No, that is not an American system."

Where are we relative to that period?

When Franklin Roosevelt took office in the spring of 1933, the Great Depression was almost four years old. When Barack Obama took office ... the Great Recession, if we date it from the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September of 2008, was only a few months old. So if we really want to compare the two crises at comparable points in their respective cycles, the fall of 2010 is comparable roughly to the fall of 1931. And September 1931 is when Great Britain goes off the gold standard and then the world begins to understand that this crisis ... is unprecedented, greater in scope and scale and velocity and likely duration than anything anybody has ever seen.

Kind of depressing.

It is, and it is not depressing. I believe that a lot of policy makers in both the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration actually knew some history and took some lessons from the history of the Great Depression. They absorbed the lesson that government can't stand by and hope that a crisis on this scale will correct itself, that there has to be some very vigorous counterpunch from the public sector.

You are deeply concerned that there is a chasm between civilian and military life in this country that didn't exist during WWII.

In World War II we took 16 million people into service, most of them draftees, in a country of roughly 130 million people. Something like 11 or 12 percent of the populace was in the armed forces. Today, less than 1 percent of the populace is in the armed forces.

It was impossible for this society to ignore what the military was being told to do, asked to do, how it was being used. We felt it. We felt it in our homes, we felt in our economy.

Today we don't. The military is engaged on the front line and they're giving blood and life and effort and service and civilian society hardly feels it. We can deploy the military as a society without breaking a sweat.