But there is another more sobering reading of the Great Depression. It is that painful and once unthinkable changes are made only under the pressure of acute crisis. One reason that central banks were so passive is that they clung to the gold standard: Relaxing credit policies too dramatically to rescue banks might lead to a loss of gold; people would demand metal to replace paper money. Gold was abandoned in various countries only after it seemed untenable. Similarly, the post-World War I debt problem wasn’t “solved” until repayment was impossible. As for Britain’s place as global leader, the United States assumed that role only in World War II.

Against that backdrop, today’s unresolved problems — over the welfare state, leadership in the global economy — become more ominous. They suggest that major adjustments won’t be made until they’re compelled by some sort of crisis. This possibility defines the present economic drama. Will the recovery encourage conscious changes? Or is recovery providing a false sense of security? The stakes are, of course, enormous, because — as everyone knows — the economic suffering of the Great Depression transformed many countries’ politics for the worse and led to World War II.