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The Financial Crisis of 1929 Reexamined: The Role of Soaring Inequality


  • Jon D. Wisman


The financial crisis of 1929 that triggered the Great Depression has been endlessly studied. Still there is little consensus regarding what caused it. This article claims that wage stagnation and exploding inequality fueled three dynamics that set the stage for a financial crisis. First, consumption was constrained by the smaller share of total income accruing to workers, thereby restricting investment opportunities in the real economy. Flush with greater income and wealth, the elite flooded financial markets with credit, helping keep interest rates low and encouraging the creation of new credit instruments, some of which recycled the rich's surplus assets as debt to those less well off. Second, greater inequality pressured households to find ways to consume more in order to maintain their relative social status, resulting in reduced household saving, greater household debt, and possibly longer work hours. Third, as the rich took larger shares of income and wealth, they gained relatively more command over everything, including ideology. Reducing taxes on the rich, favoring business over labor, and failing to regulate newly evolving credit instruments flowed out of this ideology.

Suggested Citation

  • Jon D. Wisman, 2014. "The Financial Crisis of 1929 Reexamined: The Role of Soaring Inequality," Review of Political Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 26(3), pages 372-391, July.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:revpoe:v:26:y:2014:i:3:p:372-391 DOI: 10.1080/09538259.2014.915153

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Rosenberg, Nathan, 1963. "Technological Change in the Machine Tool Industry, 1840–1910," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 23(04), pages 414-443, December.
    2. Pivetti, Massimo, 1992. "Military Spending as a Burden on Growth: An 'Underconsumptionist' Critique," Cambridge Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 16(4), pages 373-384, December.
    3. J. Paul Dunne & Ron Smith & Dirk Willenbockel, 2005. "Models Of Military Expenditure And Growth: A Critical Review," Defence and Peace Economics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 16(6), pages 449-461.
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