Their Party Crashed. Ours May Too.
- By Robert S. McElvaine, Washington Post
The task facing business in the 1920s was replacing the work ethic with a consumption ethic. If the American people were to be made into insatiable consumers, traditional values would have to be undermined and reversed. The means of accomplishing this? Advertising. The Mad Men of the '20s made over the traditional wisdom of "Waste not, want not" into the essential message of the consumption economy: "Waste and want." Bruce Barton of Barton, Durstine & Osborn, for instance, famously portrayed Jesus as the ultimate advertiser and businessman in his 1925 bestseller, "The Man Nobody Knows."
But wanting isn't enough. If the masses are going to be able to buy what they've been persuaded to want, they have to receive a sufficient share of total income to do so. Yet the opposite happened in the '20s. President Calvin Coolidge and his Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, drastically reduced taxes on the highest incomes. Meanwhile, anti-union policies produced less income for worker-consumers. The share of total national income going to the very richest grew enormously, peaking in 1928, just months before the economy began to contract in the summer of 1929. The top 10 percent of American earners then were getting 46 percent of total income.
Providing large tax cuts for the richest was precisely the wrong policy. To stimulate consumption, taxes should have been cut at lower income levels. Cutting taxes on higher incomes stimulated speculation instead. Sound familiar?