Future Tense

What the Great Depression Can Teach Us About Responding to COVID

 Joe Biden sits underneath a portrait of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office.
President Joe Biden could take some inspiration from his predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt on COVID. Doug Mills - Pool/Getty Images

We know a lot about COVID, and we know almost nothing about COVID. We don’t understand why cases in Great Britain rose to a rapid peak, then suddenly declined, then stopped declining and are for the moment moderately increasing. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has become a national poster boy for COVID what-me-worryism, but we still don’t understand why Florida has a bigger COVID outbreak driven by the delta variant than the many other states with lower vaccination rates and similarly lax suppression policies. Nor do we understand why Florida is suffering hospitalization levels worse than those seen in previous waves when half the population, and the large majority of old people in the state, are vaccinated. We don’t know exactly what “long COVID” is or who’s likely to get it. We don’t know how effective masks are, or how effective mask mandates are (and those are different questions). Most of all, we don’t know the future—what happens next as we make our way through the Greek alphabet.

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We’ve been here before. Many previous threats to the social order displayed similar characteristics. During the Great Depression, for instance, an economic disease raged uncontrollably across the world. Sound banks and businesses disintegrated overnight as panic struck their depositors and customers. Fertile farms became arid and uninhabitable as dust bowls swept across entire states. Families stopped having children, and adults died younger, often from malnutrition. The basic institutions of civilization wilted before the rapid spread of fear and suffering.

When he inherited this crisis in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt did not understand its causes nor how it would end. Historians still debate these questions today. Roosevelt assembled a “brains trust” to advise him on how the country could react effectively, recognizing how much remained unknown.

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Limited knowledge discouraged simple solutions. Through his frequent “fireside chats” on the radio, Roosevelt spoke forthrightly to the American people about the challenges they faced. He predicted more sacrifice, not less, but he also offered an authentic commitment to try and help. “I know that when you understand what we in Washington have been about,” Roosevelt explained, “I shall continue to have your cooperation as fully as I have had your sympathy and help.”

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What was Roosevelt about? He leveled with Americans about their suffering and the long, difficult road ahead. He promised to address their needs through what he called frequent “readjustments” of policy. He and his advisers experimented with new policy ideas, as seemed appropriate for the changing circumstances of the country. Some of these policies, including the creation of federal deposit insurance and social security, seemed to work well. Others, especially the destruction of surplus farm products, did not achieve their goals. The point was to assess the needs of the public at a given moment, react intelligently to help as many people as possible, and then evaluate what worked and what didn’t.

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“You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses,” Roosevelt warned. The president earned the faith of suffering Americans by reacting to their needs. The New Deal developed in an iterative fashion, with contradictions, inefficiencies, and zig-zags. That was its genius. Instead of planning for the unknown, Roosevelt was acquiring new information, experimenting, and slowly learning to adjust most effectively to the challenges of each moment.

Scholars have called this “incrementalism,” and it unleashes policy creativity through rapid responses to evolving challenges. Each response builds on the last, to address the evolving problems a little better. Incrementalism escapes the inertia of institutions and partisanship by rejecting set ideologies and rigid plans.

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Roosevelt was the spokesman for his administration’s incremental response to the Great Depression, but the real action occurred in states, counties, and towns across the country. Every New Deal program was administered locally. The “men on the ground” who ran the programs worked closely with the citizens they served and the governing bodies closest to them—including school boards, city councils, and county courts. Decentralization allowed maximum adjustment to the diverse needs of people in different places. Authority may have flowed from the top, but information bubbled up from below. That feedback made possible the kind of flexibility that functioning government requires, especially in a rapidly evolving crisis.

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It’s natural, in times of distress, to look for a strong leader who will “stay the course.” And that’s a great quality—if you know what the course looks like, or that there is a course. But what if the fog is so thick you can’t see the road? Then you want leaders who will stay on their feet. That’s a different skill, requiring sensory awareness, and responses that are decisive but measured, so you can nimbly keep your balance when your foot hits an unseen obstacle.

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As it became clear that Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment and National Recovery Acts benefited larger producers and neglected ordinary farmers and workers, he altered course and experimented with policies to purchase public lands and protect worker rights through the Farm Security Administration and the Wagner Act. A contemporary pundit might complain that Roosevelt had flip-flopped. But would it have been better to stick to a policy that wasn’t working, for the sake of consistency?

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Incrementalism doesn’t mean a lack of boldness. (Timidity was something FDR was rarely accused of.) In the current crisis, the U.S. government undertook Operation Warp Speed – a big, expensive, spectacularly successful moonshot. But remember: for every vaccine saving lives today, there are treatments Operation Warp Speed spent millions on that absolutely tanked, and were swiftly abandoned. That’s not waste – that’s common sense.

COVID is our Great Depression moment. Millions of citizens are suffering, and the most powerful governments do not have magic solutions. That doesn’t license us to throw up our hands and pretend the crisis is behind us—that only makes it far worse.

What we can do is admit to the limits of our knowledge and embrace incrementalism. Our institutions should carefully assess the situation for their constituents each day and tweak policy as needed to help keep people safe. State and federal institutions should support local autonomy with resources, data, and legal authority. As local institutions react each day, we should assess what works and do more of that. We should also admit what does not work, and then move in a different direction rapidly.

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Our schools, for instance, are run by a patchwork of local governments and boards. That’s a weakness when it comes to decisive, unified action, but a strength when it comes to information.  We’re running a gigantic experiment about youth transmission; it’s not very well-controlled, to be sure, but we can still get information out of it. Some districts. like Madison, Wisconsin, have upgraded air filters in schools; some have imposed vaccination requirements on staff; some have brought students back without major mitigation efforts. The results are flowing in, bottom to top. If we learn, for instance, that air filtration makes a decisive difference, the federal government can move swiftly to fund purchases and upgrades of those systems more broadly to keep schools open; that’s the kind of thing that can only happen top to bottom. And if, having done that, we find out that good local results aren’t generalizing to national success?  Then we write off that approach and move on to the next.

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Incrementalism can be difficult to embrace in a partisan moment when everyone wants to affirm their side’s slogans. Admitting that the slogans do not apply is the first important step. The COVID-19 crisis is too complex for any cloistered 21st-century brains trust to figure it out. What we can do is turn our vast energies to the needs of people, acquire better knowledge, and undertake what Roosevelt called “bold, persistent experimentation.” As he told an audience at Oglethorpe College in 1932: “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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