It is commonly said that another depression will never occur. This is probably true, as long as "another depression" means a crude repetition of the thirties. However, crises can come in unfamiliar forms. The basic lesson from the Great Depression is that governments cannot permit massive collapses of banks or spending. The deeper lesson is that there are times when the world changes so much and events move so rapidly that even the well-informed do not know how to respond. This is the story of the depression. Now it seems preventable. Then, it was baffling. World War I made restoration of the prewar economic system difficult, maybe impossible. But that is what world leaders attempted because it was all they knew and it had worked. Only its collapse convinced them to try something different. Old ideas were overtaken and overwhelmed. It has happened before—and could again.Fast forward six years and the same Mr. Samuelson writes in today's Washington Post that things are different now than in 1929, but his closing paragraph doesn't exactly give me that warm fuzzy feeling:
The economy will get worse. The housing glut endures. Cautious consumers have curbed spending. Banks and other financial institutions will suffer more losses. But these are all normal symptoms of recession. Our real vulnerability is a highly complex and global financial system that might resist rescue and revival. The Great Depression resulted from the mix of a weak economy and perverse government policies. If we can avoid a comparable blunder, the great drama of these recent weeks may prove blessedly misleading.The use of the word "may" bothers me a lot.