Phil Power | Lessons of Great Depression and past pandemics come home to roost

Phil Power is founder and chairman of The Center for Michigan.

It’s now clear that, for most of us, the coronavirus epidemic is the worst crisis of our lifetimes – including possibly the Great Depression of the 1930s.

I wasn’t alive back then, but my parents were.  And they never forgot it.

Once, I found a box in their crowded attic – my mother was a diligent saver and a careful labeler.  “String: Too short to be saved”, read the label.  But there it was. Saved. 

Like most families, nothing was wasted.  Menus for the week were written out over the weekend so supplies could be bought on sale.  Leftovers from the previous night’s dinner were recycled into “soup pot soup” for the next meal.  

For a time, my parents kept bees and sold the honey as “Pooh Bear Honey.” That is until the book publisher sent them a cease and desist letter.  

My mother’s constant questions were: “How much does it cost?  Can we afford it?”  For years, my father drove an old black Ford Model A, which lacked a starting motor and had to be hand cranked.

When my entrepreneurial father had the bright idea to start a microfilm company, he asked my grandfather for financial help, only to be refused.  Tight for cash, my father took a job as a night watchman at the local funeral home, which brought in some money and enabled him to conduct his experiments in a dark room.  Eventually his brother, Frank, a doctor, grubstaked him for $500 to help start the company, a tidy sum in those days.  

Things were tough everywhere.  

My mother’s parents – he was a schoolteacher, she a housewife – lost everything they had when the Guardian National Bank in Detroit failed in 1933, during the “bank holiday” declared by Gov. William Comstock.   Eventually, they retired to a little house by the side of the road in Petersburg, a tiny town near Monroe.  They lived out of their garden, the chickens in the coop and milk from “Bossy” the cow.

My wife, Kathy, tells stories about her grandparents, the children of Norwegian immigrants, who lived on a little dairy farm near Beloit, Wisconsin.  Relatives from Chicago would drive up every week to collect a load of vegetables from the garden to take home and sleep outside in the heat under the trees. 

Some experts say the coronavirus recession will likely be long and deep – gross domestic product falling by maybe a quarter this year and unemployment hitting 30 percent.  

But pandemics are hardly unique in our recent history. The biggest, of course, was the Spanish Flu of 1918 to 1920, which killed more than died in World War I, maybe as many as 50 million worldwide. The Hong Kong Flu originated in China in 1968 and was spread worldwide by the newly developed world air travel industry.  An estimated 100,000 died in the United States and something like 1 million around the world.

AIDS and HIV have often led to the isolation and marginalization of those sickened.  By the end of 2018 together they had cost some 32 million lives worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.  

SARS, which broke out in 2002, made thousands ill, mostly in the Far East.  It’s one of a family of coronaviruses, of which COVID 19 is upon us today.  Swine Flu, an H1N1 virus, also in the category of COVID19, spread around the world in 2009-2010. 

Ebola, another virus, affected in 2013 mostly countries in West Africa and killed 11,300 people.  Even though the death rate was high, most Americans felt isolated from its spread, although periodic outbreaks still occur from time to time.

And, of course, the coronavirus outbreak has now spread worldwide, despite persistent (and sometimes limited) efforts to quarantine those taken ill.  International travel, trade and just contrary human nature, temporary disbelief, and delay all contribute to its frightening spread.

I’d guess pandemics like this will continue as a part of the human condition, regardless of government lockdown and regulations. “No wall is high enough to keep out the threats to our future, even for the mightiest countries,” says Ian Golden, an Oxford professor.

The old adage – “Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it” – might become a byword for our times.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Sat, 03/28/2020 - 11:19am

My dad, who grew up during the Great Depression, always said "the only good thing about the good old days is that they're gone."

Sat, 03/28/2020 - 1:18pm

No comparison. This writer is a fool. This economic crisis was willfully created by clueless bureaucrats in a 2-month-late response to a virus that will ultimately be hardly more deadly than a typical bad flu year, and a vast majority of the dead will be those already sick or those who are very, very old.

Nothing to learn here other than further distrust in the state and federal government. Oh, and realization that more than half of the people in this country think what they are told what to think by the media and bureaucrats - What perfect little peasants they are! The Kings are returning.

Andy Kelly
Mon, 03/30/2020 - 10:01am

Dear Anonymous,
I try to read comments to gage the awareness of the readership. When I came across your posting I immediately knew that your education has failed you. Use facts and examples to verify your claims otherwise your voice will just get lost in the myriad of falsities being purported.


Jerry Beasley
Mon, 03/30/2020 - 11:06am

There is no call for this kind of snarkiness. And "this writer" is not "a fool." The comparisons are legitimate; our cause for concern is real. Thank you for your wisdom, Phil Power.

Anonumous is Wrong
Wed, 04/01/2020 - 9:01pm

You could not be more wrong! The Great Depression was willfully created by clueless bureaucrats, not this Wuhan Downturn. It was the government that caused a normal business recession to turn into a depression- the reckless expansion of the money supply by the Federal Reserve in the 1920s followed by a sharp restriction of the money supply in the 1930s brought on a crash, and added to this was the poorly thought out policy of big-government Hoover and FDR of raising taxes in the late 1920/1930s, and also the anti-capitalism policies of FDR that were pushed in favor of a big government/big labor/big business corporatism approach- all of these caused the Recession of 1930 to turn into a Great Depression that even double-dipped in 1937.

Let's not be confused here- meddling bureaucrats caused the Great Depression, not this one.

Sat, 03/28/2020 - 6:45pm

Modern Americans have very little conception of what tough really is or what constitutes a crisis. Thanks for the reminder.

Tue, 04/07/2020 - 6:04pm

Matt, get back to us in two weeks.

Jim Wright
Sun, 03/29/2020 - 8:10am

If we're remembering history, from my youth through, perhaps middle age, the newspapers and televised news always reminded us of that sign on Harry Truman's desk, 'The Buck Stops Here'. Quite a contrast with, 'I'm not responsible for anything.'

jeannette faber
Sun, 03/29/2020 - 4:14pm

Interestingly, the Spanish" flu originated in our state of Kansas, with the deployment of US troops being a major factor in the spread. This was during WWI, and countries involved in the war did not want the enemy to know the terrible death rate of the disease, so the numbers were kept secret. Spain, a neutral country, was the exception, and made known the awful statistics in that country. Hence the moniker Spanish.

Barry Mehler
Sun, 03/29/2020 - 4:58pm

Yes, we have had many pandemics and for decades community health professional and biologists have been raising concern over our overuse of antibiotics and total lack of preparations for a pandemic we should have known was on the way. Everyone in the field knew that this was possible. Yet, instead of preparing a robust defense, we have done nothing but strip our health care system down to the bone. Now we will pay for our reckless disregard with the lives of our fellow citizens.

blair mcgowan
Sun, 03/29/2020 - 9:53pm

My understanding is that global warming and climate change will create crises of a much larger and more horrendous magnitude. Any cooperation we learn in responding to this pandemic will be a starting point for responding to world-wide environmental degradation.

Mon, 03/30/2020 - 9:13am

How sad we are in this position . We have a president who is not responsible for anything. If you voted for him I am sorry. You will hopefully get another chance. It is not all his fault but he must take some responsibility for where we are at now. Stay safe this is not a hoax. Peace R.L.

Diana Kern
Mon, 03/30/2020 - 9:51am

Thank you for this piece. Just yesterday I was in a Google Hangout meeting online with my fellow baby boomers - all in our late 50's and early 60's. We all said this is the worst crisis of our lifetime. As we continue to navigate being right in the middle of this crisis one wonders what we Americans will look like/behave like after we are on the other side?

John Q. Public
Mon, 03/30/2020 - 4:48pm

I think, as crises go, for anyone born after 1955 this one comes in third place--at best. Of course, how you measure it depends on your values so you're as correct as I am. We still haven't recovered from what I consider the worst, and death from a virus may well be preferable to a couple of more decades living as we do.

Tue, 04/07/2020 - 6:18pm

To Phil Power, thank you for your thoughtful article.

All the small business owners I know have been trying every day since last Friday to apply, without luck, for a small business loan under the Paycheck Protection Program designed to keep employees working. Our bank is Comerica.

Can you write a story about this, find out which companies are actually getting loans, if any? The president goes on TV every evening claiming small businesses are getting these loans. We don't believe it because we can't even apply, let alone get the loans. I think the system might be either not working or crashing the way the launch of Obamacare was.

This is extremely frustrating, especially given the official propaganda, not to mention the president's harsh critique of the Obamacare rollout. Soon so many small businesses will have to permanently close and many employees will lose their jobs.

If this is not your beat, can you please refer this investigation to someone? Time is of the essence. Thank you

Tue, 04/07/2020 - 6:21pm

BTW we have an account with Comerica. I can't imagine how hard it must be for all the small businesses that don't have bank accounts.

George Hagenauer
Fri, 04/24/2020 - 10:07am

Note we need to quit comparing this to the flu- this seems to be a far different virus though I am not a medical doctor. Indications are from recent articles is that it causes over clotting that attacks the lung and other organs. This is not a case of the sniffles but something really different and which is why we need to be careful. The key here is testing so we can open and then if need be shut down parts of the state. Also I would expect limitations on travel between opened and unopened areas of the state. An interesting question is why is Canada doing better than us? Looking at their data they are like Germany definitely outperforming us especially as related to deaths. The yseem to have a better handle on testing as well .