My "for fun" reading right now is a biography of Herbert Hoover I got for Christmas. Right now I'm at the meaty part, where Hoover -- who spent a lot of his adult life as a revered humanitarian, leading relief efforts to save millions from man-made and natural disasters -- sees the world crumble around him.
I don't know what lessons today's leaders would take from the start of the Great Depression. What I'm seeing in the book is this: There's solidarity, until there isn't. The federal government was much smaller back then, but Hoover leaned on private-sector bankers and labor leaders to voluntarily do the right things to stabilize the financial system after the 1929 stock market crash. There was grumbling, but they did what he wanted, and for a while it seemed to work -- there were months where it looked like a recovery was happeneing. (One big problem, though, was that the tools for measuring the economy weren't well-developed and they had a hard time figuring exactly how bad certain things were. Sound familiar?) When international financial problems started to spread -- tied in large part to reaparations payments from World War I -- Hoover leaned on European leaders to shuffle some obligations around and buy more time in the hopes of stabilizing the banks. It worked for a while.
Failure might have been been unavoidable, as too many systems around the world were imploding at the same time. But any sense of unity crumbled once things got bad enough for the individual actors. European leaders worried about their own economies stopped bowing to Hoover's demands; the DNC conducted an (at the time) unprecedented smear campaign meant to undermine Hoover's reputation; American financiers no longer saw the point in spending their money to voluntarily save other failing banks. Large groups of unemployed people started to fix personal blame on Hoover -- who less than 10 years before was considered by many to be one of the best human beings on the planet.
It seems ... predictable, I guess, because this is how a lot of crises go. Today we're already at the point where solidarity is starting to crumble, because it really is that bad for a lot of people.