DOMINO THEORY The financial meltdown is the Depression parallel everyone notices. The more frightening parallel is everything else.

It has now been almost five years since the bursting of the housing bubble, and four years since the onset of the recession. There are 6.6 million fewer jobs in the United States than there were four years ago. Some 23 million Americans who would like to work full-time cannot get a job. Almost half of those who are unemployed have been unemployed long-term. Wages are falling—the real income of a typical American household is now below the level it was in 1997.

We knew the crisis was serious back in 2008. And we thought we knew who the “bad guyswere—the nation’s big banks, which through cynical lending and reckless gambling had brought the U.S. to the brink of ruin. The Bush and Obama administrations justified a bailout on the grounds that only if the banks were handed money without limit—and without conditions—could the economy recover.

We did this not because we loved the banks but because (we were told) we couldn’t do without the lending that they made possible. Many, especially in the financial sector, argued that strong, resolute, and generous action to save not just the banks but the bankers, their shareholders, and their creditors would return the economy to where it had been before the crisis. In the meantime, a short-term stimulus, moderate in size, would suffice to tide the economy over until the banks could be restored to health.

The banks got their bailout. Some of the money went to bonuses. Little of it went to lending. And the economy didn’t really recoveroutput is barely greater than it was before the crisis, and the job situation is bleak. The diagnosis of our condition and the prescription that followed from it were incorrect. First, it was wrong to think that the bankers would mend their ways—that they would start to lend, if only they were treated nicely enough. We were told, in effect: “Don’t put conditions on the banks to require them to restructure the mortgages or to behave more honestly in their foreclosures. Don’t force them to use the money to lend. Such conditions will upset our delicate markets.” In the end, bank managers looked out for themselves and did what they are accustomed to doing.

Even when we fully repair the banking system, we’ll still be in deep trouble—because we were already in deep trouble. That seeming golden age of 2007 was far from a paradise.

Yes, America had many things about which it could be proud. Companies in the information-technology field were at the leading edge of a revolution. But incomes for most working Americans still hadn’t returned to their levels prior to the previous recession. The American standard of living was sustained only by rising debtdebt so large that the U.S. savings rate had dropped to near zero.

And “zerodoesn’t really tell the story. Because the rich have always been able to save a significant percentage of their income, putting them in the positive column, an average rate of close to zero means that everyone else must be in negative numbers.

(Here’s the reality: in the years leading up to the recession, according to research done by my Columbia University colleague Bruce Greenwald, the bottom 80 percent of the American population had been spending around 110 percent of its income.) What made this level of indebtedness possible was the housing bubble, which Alan Greenspan and then Ben Bernanke, chairmen of the Federal Reserve Board, helped to engineer through low interest rates and nonregulationnot even using the regulatory tools they had. As we now know, this enabled banks to lend and households to borrow on the basis of assets whose value was determined in part by mass delusion.

The fact is the economy in the years before the current crisis was fundamentally weak, with the bubble, and the unsustainable consumption to which it gave rise, acting as life support. Without these, unemployment would have been high. It was absurd to think that fixing the banking system could by itself restore the economy to health. Bringing the economy back to “where it wasdoes nothing to address the underlying problems.

The trauma we’re experiencing right now resembles the trauma we experienced 80 years ago, during the Great Depression, and it has been brought on by an analogous set of circumstances. Then, as now, we faced a breakdown of the banking system. But then, as now, the breakdown of the banking system was in part a consequence of deeper problems.

Even if we correctly respond to the trauma—the failures of the financial sector—it will take a decade or more to achieve full recovery. Under the best of conditions, we will endure a Long Slump. If we respond incorrectly, as we have been, the Long Slump will last even longer, and the parallel with the Depression will take on a tragic new dimension.

Until now, the Depression was the last time in American history that unemployment exceeded 8 percent four years after the onset of recession. And never in the last 60 years has economic output been barely greater, four years after a recession, than it was before the recession started. The percentage of the civilian population at work has fallen by twice as much as in any post-World War II downturn. Not surprisingly, economists have begun to reflect on the similarities and differences between our Long Slump and the Great Depression. Extracting the right lessons is not easy.

Many have argued that the Depression was caused primarily by excessive tightening of the money supply on the part of the Federal Reserve Board. Ben Bernanke, a scholar of the Depression, has stated publicly that this was the lesson he took away, and the reason he opened the monetary spigots. He opened them very wide. Beginning in 2008, the balance sheet of the Fed doubled and then rose to three times its earlier level. Today it is $2.8 trillion. While the Fed, by doing this, may have succeeded in saving the banks, it didn’t succeed in saving the economy.

Reality has not only discredited the Fed but also raised questions about one of the conventional interpretations of the origins of the Depression. The argument has been made that the Fed caused the Depression by tightening money, and if only the Fed back then had increased the money supplyin other words, had done what the Fed has done today—a full-blown Depression would likely have been averted. In economics, it’s difficult to test hypotheses with controlled experiments of the kind the hard sciences can conduct. But the inability of the monetary expansion to counteract this current recession should forever lay to rest the idea that monetary policy was the prime culprit in the 1930s.

The problem today, as it was then, is something else. The problem today is the so-called real economy. It’s a problem rooted in the kinds of jobs we have, the kind we need, and the kind we’re losing, and rooted as well in the kind of workers we want and the kind we don’t know what to do with. The real economy has been in a state of wrenching transition for decades, and its dislocations have never been squarely faced. A crisis of the real economy lies behind the Long Slump, just as it lay behind the Great Depression.

For the past several years, Bruce Greenwald and I have been engaged in research on an alternative theory of the Depression—and an alternative analysis of what is ailing the economy today. This explanation sees the financial crisis of the 1930s as a consequence not so much of a financial implosion but of the economy’s underlying weakness. The breakdown of the banking system didn’t culminate until 1933, long after the Depression began and long after unemployment had started to soar. By 1931 unemployment was already around 16 percent, and it reached 23 percent in 1932. ShantytownHoovervilles” were springing up everywhere. The underlying cause was a structural change in the real economy: the widespread decline in agricultural prices and incomes, caused by what is ordinarily a “good thing”—greater productivity.

At the beginning of the Depression, more than a fifth of all Americans worked on farms. Between 1929 and 1932, these people saw their incomes cut by somewhere between one-third and two-thirds, compounding problems that farmers had faced for years. Agriculture had been a victim of its own success. In 1900, it took a large portion of the U.S. population to produce enough food for the country as a whole. Then came a revolution in agriculture that would gain pace throughout the centurybetter seeds, better fertilizer, better farming practices, along with widespread mechanization. Today, 2 percent of Americans produce more food than we can consume.