Comparative Roaring ’20s

This should be the first and last holiday season requiring us all to socially distance from one another. Apparently, we will have a cornucopia of vaccines and treatments available for mass distribution early next year. If so, then 2020 may mark the beginning of the Roaring 2020s, as I’ve discussed in previous articles. Let’s compare the current situation to the one before and during the Roaring 1920s:

  • World War I. Recall that the years leading up to the Roaring 1920s included World War I from July 28, 1914 through Nov. 11, 1918. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was about 40 million, with estimates ranging from around 15-22 million deaths and about 23 million wounded military personnel—ranking World War I among the deadliest conflicts in human history.
  • Spanish flu. That was followed by the Spanish flu pandemic from February 1918 through April 1920. It infected 500 million people—about a third of the world’s population at the time—in four successive waves. The death toll is typically estimated to have been somewhere between 17 million and 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.
  • Depression of 1920–21. There was a severe deflationary recession in the US, the UK, and other countries beginning 14 months after the end of World War I. It lasted from January 1920 to July 1921. How depressing! The Great War (as it was called back then) and the pandemic of 1918-20 killed between 32 million and 72 million people. That was followed by a global depression (as recessions were called back then). No one at the start of the decade could have anticipated the technology-led revolution of the Roaring 1920s or the resulting prosperity of that period. Thanksgiving during 1920 must have been extremely depressing indeed.
  • The high-tech revolution of the 1920s. As I reviewed in my Aug. 12 article, the 1920s was a decade of amazing technological innovations. Some of them sped up activities that were too slow when done by horses and automated activities that required lots of workers. Assembly lines required fewer workers, and their productivity increased. The revolution allowed for a greater division of labor. The focus was mostly on brawn. The automobile produced on assembly lines revolutionized transportation. The bulldozer did the same for construction. The standard of living improved dramatically for everyone as electric grids provided clean, bright light without emitting smoke. Urban water networks supplied clean water, and sewer systems removed waste without the pungent odors of chamber pots and outhouses. Telephones allowed people to converse with distant friends. National food brands proliferated, as did restaurants. Department stores and mail order retailers provided goods to a rapidly growing consumer market. Penicillin was discovered.
  • The trade wars of 2018-19. The 2020s were preceded by a trade war between the US and China. President Donald Trump started and escalated it during 2018 and 2019. The Biden administration is likely to deescalate the resulting Cold War. Nevertheless, as a consequence of both ongoing tensions between the two countries and the pandemic, manufacturers are likely to move more of their operations and supply chains to the US. That could be inflationary. More likely is that some of the technological innovations discussed below will boost productivity and reduce energy and transportation costs.

The pandemic of 2020. So far, the Covid-19 virus has killed 1.5 million people worldwide including 276,000 in the US. That’s a terrible outcome, but nowhere near the Spanish flu’s lethal toll. The biotech revolution is likely to deliver effective vaccines against the Covid-19 virus this time.

The high-tech revolution of the 2020s. Today’s “Great Disruption,” I like to call it, is increasingly about technology doing what the brain can do, but faster and with greater focus. Given that so many of the new technologies supplement or replace the brain, they lend themselves to many more applications than did the technologies of the past, which were mostly about replacing brawn. Today’s innovations produced by the IT industry are revolutionizing lots of other ones, including manufacturing, energy, transportation, healthcare, and education. My friends at BCA Research dubbed it the “BRAIN Revolution,” led by innovations in biotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. That’s clever, and it makes sense.

The current pandemic seems to be speeding up the pace at which these and other technologies are proliferating. I believe that productivity growth has been heading toward a secular rebound during the post-pandemic Roaring 2020s. Even before the Great Virus Crisis (GVC), companies had been moving to incorporate into their businesses a host of state-of-the-art technologies in the areas of computing, telecommunications, robotics, artificial intelligence, 3-D manufacturing, the Internet of Things, among others. The GVC is accelerating that trend as companies rethink how to do business ever more efficiently in the post-pandemic era. See my September 2 article.

One major difference. The one major difference between the 1920s and the early 2020s (post the Nov. 3 election) is the political persuasion of the presidency. During the 1920s, the White House was occupied by two very conservative Republican presidents: Warren G. Harding (March 4, 1921–August 2, 1923) and Calvin Coolidge (August 2, 1923–March 4, 1929). Coolidge advocated smaller government and laissez-faire economics.

Andrew Mellon was secretary of the Treasury from Mar. 9, 1921 through Feb. 12, 1932. One of his achievements was the Revenue Act of 1926, which reduced the top marginal rate to 25%. In addition to cutting taxes on top earners, the act raised the personal exemption for federal income taxes, abolished the gift tax, reduced the estate tax rate, and repealed a provision that had required the public disclosure of federal income tax returns.

The incoming Biden administration has promised to raise numerous taxes including on corporations and on taxpayers earning more than $400,000 annually. I remind the incoming administration that trickle-down economics works both ways: Higher taxes on the rich and on corporations inevitably trickle down to everyone else.

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