Alexander J. Field on the 1930s

27 04 2011

Alexander J. Field, an economist at Santa Clara University, is the author of “A Great Leap Forward”. This book argues that the terrible years of the Great Depression actually set the stage for the post-World War II boom. Field was recently interviewed for Economix blog at the NYT.

Field states that:
In 1941, the U.S. economy produced almost 40 percent more output than it had in 1929, with virtually no increase in labor hours or private-sector capital input. Almost all of the increase in output per hour is attributable to technological and organizational advance. As I said in the title of my 2003 American Economic Review article, the 1930s were indeed the most technologically progressive decade of the century.


Field basically argues that a number of technological innovations emerged in the 1930s that paved the way for the tremendous prosperity of the post-war period. He writes that notable new products included the DC-3, a plane introduced in 1936 that revolutionized commercial aviation; television, developed with venture capital funding during the 1930s and rolled out at the 1939-40 World’s Fair; and nylon stockings, introduced in May 1940, with 63 million pair sold the first year.

Aviation and television were, of course, industries that employed vast numbers of people during the post-war boom. The US Route system of paved two-line highways, which was built mostly in the 1930s, also contributed to post-war prosperity, although it was eventually replaced by the Interstate Highway System, which had an even more revolutionary economic impact.

Route 66

Field does not deny that there was tremendous misery in the 1930s or that unemployment was sky-high. Rather, he argues that the foundations for post-war prosperity were laid during this period of terrible suffering.

Field’s book shows why we should feel some gratitude to the folks who lived through the Depression. Of course, many of us already felt gratitude to that generation, since that age cohort also fought the Second World War on our behalf.