The Roaring 20s: A Time of Massive Economic Expansion

Remembering the Roaring 20s -

A Skeptic’s View of American History

Episode 16 The Roaring 20s Reconsidered

Mark Stoler PhD

Film Review

In one of Stoler’s better lectures, he describes the 1920s as a time of major economic expansion. During this period, the US experienced an explosion in industrial productivity, thanks to “scientific” factory management, a consolidation of commercial enterprises (eg creation of grocery and department store chains) and a shift from heavy industry to consumer goods (thanks to an expanding electrical grid).

Henry Ford made the automobile a consumer item, using an assembly line to cut the cost of production and enabling workers to buy their own Fords by paying them an unprecedented $5 a day. The explosion of new consumer products was accompanied by a surge in advertising that played on people’s psychological desires to get them to purchase products they couldn’t afford and didn’t need. (See about Edward Bernays, the father of the public relations industry.

According to Stoler the car became a focal point of the US economy, leading to a surge in demand for steel, rubber, electronics, concrete and roadside restaurants.

A crisis in agriculture also led to a rise in urbanization, with city dwellers outnumbering rural residents for the first time in US history.The industrialization of farming created a food surplus and drop in income for individual farmers.

The new mass media (radio and motion pictures) helped spread the new culture of urbanization.

Stoler mainly examines the presidency of Warren G Harding, who only served two years between 1921-23,* with only a brief glance at Coolidge and Hoover, who succeeded him. All three were Republicans.

Harding, who is remembered as one of the second most corrupt presidents owing to the Teapot Dome scandal, is also remembered as the first president to present Congress with a coherent federal budget.

Significant treaties and legislation approved during this period include

  • The National Origins Act, which (until the 1960s) totally excluded Asia immigration, and set severe quotas for eastern and southern European immigrants.**
  • The Dawes Plan (1924), which ended the diplomatic crisis with Germany (which had defaulted on its reparations payments) by arranging for private loans to the German government and negotiating a new reparations schedule.
  • The Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) outlawed war as an instrument of US of foreign policy.
  • The London Naval Arms Limitation Treaty (1930)

The 1920s also witnessed

  • The rise of a new Klu Klux Klan, attracting 3-5 million members (including many Northerners) in response to the migration of Southern blacks to Northern industrial cities. The new KKK would focus their attacks on Jews, Catholics and immigrants, as well as African Americans.
  • The start of Prohibition (the 18th Amendment approved in 1919 outlawed the production and sale of alcohol)
  • The granting of women’s voting rights ( in 1920 via the 19th Amendment)
  • The framing and execution of Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti (1921-27)

*Stoler defines cities as towns of over 2,500 people.

**Teapot Dome, which was the second biggest presidential scandal after Watergate, involved the secret leasing by the Harding administration of federal oil reserves at Elk Hills, California, and Teapot Dome, Wyoming.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy.

The 24-Hour Day, Anesthesia, Juries and Other Important Medieval Inventions

Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives

BBC Books (2007)

Book Review

The main purpose of this book is to challenge the prevailing notion that the Middle Ages was a period totally devoid of intellectual, technological, political or social advances. Focusing primarily on England, the authors cover the period between the 1066 Norman invasion and Henry VIII’s confiscation of the monasteries.

According to Jones and Ereira, among the substantive changes occurring in the Middle Ages are a massive increase in urbanization (in 1066 only 10% of the English population lived in towns or villages) and literacy (prior to 1066 only monks and priests were literate).

Prior to reading this book, I had no idea that despite taxes residents paid to the king and local monasteries, most medieval villages were totally self-governing. I was also surprised to learn that most medieval discoveries were made by monks, including Roger Bacon, a man who was 500 years ahead of Newton in discovering the refraction of white light into colors. Other medieval inventions include time standardization into a 24-hour day, the first mechanical clock, anesthesia, and strong acids, such as hydrochloric and sulfuric acid.

Women enjoyed more rights and had more careers open to them between 1066 and 1400 than they did 500 years later during the Victorian era.

For me, the most significant development in the period described was the codification of “common law” and “juries.” Initially juries were members of the local community required to assist in prosecuting criminals by compiling evidence. Henry I (1068-1135) was the first monarch to grant his magistrates the authority to judge civil matters in the name of the Crown. Prior to his reign, victims of kidnappings, rapes, thefts and murders (ie their surviving families) could only file suit in royal courts against perpetrators in courts run by royal magistrates.

Henry I also introduced trial by jury, in which local juries gained the authority to determine innocence or guilt, in addition to assembling evidence.

A Film About Economic Relocalization

economics of happiness

The Economics of Happiness

Helena Norberg-Hodge (2012)

Film Review

The term “economic relocalization” describes a global movement of loosely knit grassroots networks working to strengthen local and regional economies and systems of food and energy production. Most of the last eight years of my life have been focused on grassroots relocalization activities.

What I like best about Economics of Happiness is learning I am part of a global movement. I hate the title, which suggests the film concerns some kind of airy-fairy New Age spirituality. It doesn’t.

The 2011 film, narrated by Helena Norberg Hodge, is based on her 1991 book Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh and her 1993 film by the same name. The book and both films draw their inspiration from the nearly forty years Norberg-Hodge spent living and working in Ladakh, a small Himalayan region in the India-controlled (and disputed) state of Jammu and Kashmir. Economics of Happiness includes local footage from the 1993 film, as well as substantial documentary footage relating to the world’s current economic crisis and impending ecological crisis (stemming from catastrophic climate change and mass extinctions).

The Psychological Devastation of Globalization

The film opens with the same narrative Norberg-Hodge recounts in her earlier Ancient Futures film. We are shown the “before” image of Ladakh, a rich thriving culture in which residents live in large spacious homes, enjoy generous leisure time and have no concept of unemployment. Then we have the “after” image where, thanks to globalization, cheap (government subsidized) food, fuel and consumer goods have flooded the region and destroyed residents’ traditional livelihoods. Previously pristine communities face rising levels of air and water pollution, while Ladakhi teenagers face continual bombardment with pro-consumption messages.

It’s heartbreaking to see the psychological effect of all this. Most young Ladakhi have come to regard themselves as backwards and poor, while the communities they live in face rising racial tensions, juvenile delinquency and epidemic levels of major depression.

The Destructive Nature of Urbanization

The film goes on to sketch the mechanics of globalization, stressing the deregulation that forces small self-contained regions like Ladakh to open their markets to foreign goods, which quickly supplant local products. Norberg-Hodge paints an even uglier picture of urbanization, an inevitable result of forcing millions of small formers off their land. She stresses that city living is vastly more resource intensive than rural lifestyles. All city residents rely on food, energy and water transported from some distant source. They burn up additional fossil fuels transferring their waste as far away as possible. She stresses that most city residents go along with the massive ecological and social devastation they produce because it occurs on the other side of the world. Thus they don’t see it.

Rebuilding Local Communities and Economies

The solutions Norberg-Hodge offers for all these problems are similar to those proposed by an increasing number of dissident (non Wall Street) economists. First and foremost we must acknowledge that humankind has exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity – that the corporate drive for continual economic growth must end. Secondly people of conscience need to opt out of the corporate economy to facilitate the creation of more efficient and environmentally accountable regional and local economies.

Norberg-Hodge also sees the process of rebuilding local communities as a remedy for what she describes as the “crisis of the human spirit.” She blames this pervasive spiritual crisis on the demise of community engagement that has accompanied globalization and urbanization.  Although the process is most striking in remote regions like Ladakh, where it occurred suddenly, nowhere in the developed or developing world has escaped it.

The film ends on an extremely optimistic note, with numerous examples of international and community organizations supporting people in reclaiming their lives from multinational corporations.

Economics of Happiness can be rented (and watched online) from the filmmakers for $5