It was while washing out a tin food pan—one of those three-inches- deep and two- foot-by-three pans used by institutions for serving food in a cafeteria line or at an off-site location—when it occurred to me that the US desperately needs another Great Depression, or something like it. I was at the church I more or less regularly attend, cleaning up after a meal served to celebrate the end of this year’s English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, a program the church puts on as an outreach to the “international” community (meaning, anyone who isn’t native born and bred, therefore meaning immigrants, authorized and otherwise). I had been volunteering as a teacher, and was helping with the cleanup. There were about thirty or so students and maybe half that many teachers and helpers who had shown up for the picnic at the local park where the food prepared by the church cook staff had been served.
I was washing a tin in which chicken breasts had been swimming in barbecue sauce before being served (they weren’t actually barbecued—they had been baked and dipped in the ‘cue sauce to make them sorta taste like they had been barbecued, with only middling results). It was a mess, and hard to wash, as it didn’t fit the sink in which I was trying to clean it. And then the program coordinator arrived to tell me not to bother—the kitchen staff would throw the pan out anyway. I was a bit taken aback. We were already wasting about fifteen or so chicken breasts that hadn’t been eaten, and now we were to also waste the pan in which they were cooked? And this, from a church that solicits my donation every time I grace its pews? I shook my head and told her that if my grandmother had ever got hold of pan like that (it was made of very thick tin foil, almost to the point of being a regular, and not flimsy and disposable, cooking pan), she’d have kept and used it ‘til either she or it ceased to exist. The assistant coordinator of the ESL program, a thirty-something church employee, piped up that people who lived through the Great Depression saw things from a different perspective than we see them now (I’m fifty, so my grandparents came of age during the Great Depression). Indeed. But I don’t think she meant it approvingly.
That set me to thinking of all the good that really hard economic times would do for this country, collectively, and for the individuals comprising its population. We almost got a contraction severe enough to call a depression in 2008/09, but at the time there were still swaths of the economic system not totally dependent on continual cash infusions from the Fed, and the dollar was still sporting a huge liquidity premium as the only currency with a military strong enough to defend it, so the Fed’s monetary machinations still had some room to work their delusionary magic. Nowadays, any economic wobbling and the whole thing is apt to topple over. And there won’t be anything to pick up the pieces. The Fed’s tool-kit is bare. The federal government is, by any reasonable accounting, insolvent. The military is still the strongest in the world, but military strength is the direct predicate of economic strength, so won’t stay so for long, except perhaps as a relative matter, if all the competing military forces (and their economic systems) decline along with ours.
Thus, in no particular order of importance or relevance, I compiled a list of ten benefits an economic calamity on par with the Great Depression would bestow upon the US and its people. A critical assumption I make is that this time around the crisis is precipitated by government solvency; essentially that the government fails at its outrageously comprehensive scheme of indemnifying each and every type and magnitude of human risk; that the government can no longer borrow from the future to pay for the past, and that the fundamental economic weaknesses exposed by the Great Recession, which were essentially plastered over by government fiscal and monetary profligacy, have resurfaced with no hope of indemnification or resolution. In other words, the economic calamity I envision happening is the one which would have happened in 2008/2009, except less severely, had markets been allowed to work at reallocating resources.
1. Less waste. The first and obvious thing that came to mind (considering the circumstances of my mini-epiphany) is that a truly severe economic contraction could help eliminate waste, perhaps enough to actually alter our throwaway culture into a truly recycling one. My grandmother wouldn’t have kept that “disposable” pan for all those years because she had a fetish for tin foil (although she always did have stacks of used tin foil in her kitchen); she’d have kept that pan because it cost money to buy (and make) and because, with just a little bit of care, it was good for way more than just one use. My grandmother recycled long before recycling became an urban hipster’s moralistic obsession. And she didn’t do it by sorting her plastic, glass, paper and metal in appropriate bins for the faux recycle truck to pick up. She did it by actually keeping and reusing anything useful. And Granddad did much the same. He built a deck on the back of his house solely out of lumber scraps, which he eventually enclosed with more lumber scraps, making it a utility/mud room. (I know, because I had to repair it when years of condensation from an old GE Frigidaire rotted the floor and I noticed the irregularly-sized boards when I pulled them up.) The adage “waste not, want not” didn’t become an adage without which it was true, yet in our queered up, hyper-stimulated economic state at present, waste is encouraged. Waste keeps the capitalist gears whirring. A debilitating contraction would remind us why waste was always considered an affront to morality, i.e., an impairment to the prospects for survival, or at least was before capitalism in the modern era seduced people into discarding truth for delusion. While neither am I, nor were my grandparents, people who believed anything except that the earth exists to serve mankind, a corollary benefit to less waste would be less pollution, thereby rendering the earth more capable of serving its human purpose of nurturing life. Yeah, Grandma and Granddad were the original hipsters, recycling and coincidentally minimizing their environmental footprint, not because everyone else was doing it, but because it was the good and proper thing to do for their own survival.
2. Better and healthier food. That other of hipster obsessions—the local sourcing of food—would likely also see a resurgence, as people without money for groceries turned what had once been carefully manicured (by someone else, preferably of Hispanic origin) landscapes into a source of sustenance. Grandma always kept a garden, even in the city, even on the tiny plot in one of the first exurban subdivisions in Birmingham where she and Granddad lived. She always canned whatever bounty the soil provided. In an age when money was scarce and difficult to come by, home-canned green beans were cheaper than she could buy at a store. And they were fresher, not having had to ride for many miles on a truck to the cannery before processing. And they were tastier, as Grandma got to season them just as she liked before canning. And they were less toxic, as Grandma and Granddad weren’t stupid about who would ultimately ingest any poisons they applied to the plants. And the expense of store-bought food and the work of gardening helped keep their appetites in balance with their food production. It’s hard to get fat on eating what you produce yourself. It’s harder still when scratching and clawing to find enough to eat comprises, as it might in a return to Depression-era economics, the balance of one’s day. There aren’t any fat people in any of those iconic Great Depression photos. That’s not an accident.
3. Smarter, saner people. Scratching and clawing to survive is precisely what our bodies and minds have been designed to do. When the basics necessary for survival come with little effort (even for a great many people who ostensibly have jobs), the mind and body are robbed of the existential challenges for which they are designed. This plays havoc with the mind. It constantly seeks to alleviate the ennui and boredom, sometimes through overeating, sometimes with a blog like this, sometimes with drugs, etc. The reasoning mind needs a reason to mind. If its original purpose, survival of the body in which it exists, is fulfilled so far as is possible, it will craft purposes for itself out of its imaginings, or dull itself to comfort. Either strategy is apt to have nefarious consequences, and even when they don’t, the culture of psychiatric hypochondria as represented by the recently-released manual of psychoses, the D.S.M.5, will make every untoward thought or feeling into a full-blown neurosis. Grandma would have laughed had she been told her child suffered a psychosis demanding pharmaceutical treatment simply for his being fidgety in his chair at school. A plethora of modern conveniences conspire to make us stupid and neurotic. From Apple Computer to Ford Motor Company, the perception is that products are better the less effort and understanding is required for their manipulation. Which might be true for Apple and Ford Motor, but is not necessarily the case for their customers. Harder, in a manner that makes us think and actively engage the world, is better for the individual who seeks to recapture a bit of his own humanity lost to the age of technological wizardry. Difficulty taxes the brain, and that’s not a bad thing.
4. Properly ordered priorities. The National Football League has its own television channel nowadays, one that broadcasts information on the National Football League pretty much every day, all day long (along with all those channels that broadcast information on the National Football League intermittently). The National Football League provides entertainment to millions by staging football contests between teams of highly-paid athletes. The owners of the teams comprise an oligarchic band of brothers devoted to sucking every last monetized moment of attention out of the adoring public. There is no social function performed by the National Football League except entertainment. The National Football League does not feed our bellies. It does not nurture our children. It does not build our houses. It does not clothe our bodies. It exists and enjoys such prominence because all those other things—the stuff that matters for survival—have already, and easily, with time and energy to spare, been capably attained. And this is true of all such entertainment obsessions, from sports to movies to Facebook to almost any device produced by Apple Computer. If truly hard times were ever to revisit (okay, I should say “when” because there is no doubt they will one day reappear), these entertainment obsessions would, at the very least, become a lower-order priority, or would be for people who manage to survive the calamity. Hard times might yield a culling of the herd that extinguishes the gene lines of people not capable of adapting to a reordered system of priorities that don’t include mindless entertainments as obsessions. It might be the end of the line for those without enough to eat who kept on believing that the only thing that mattered in life was how the Crimson Tide’s season went, is going, or will be. It’s hard to see how that would be a bad thing. Granddad listened to radio broadcasts of the Tide’s games on Saturday afternoon while doing other, more useful things, like tending the garden, or building a porch. He never listened to sports talk radio, and never thought football was anything more than a game.
5. Strengthened family ties. Since at least the 1930’s, when the tides of industrialization and urbanization swept away the family as an economic unit, the state, i.e., government at all levels, has been insidiously chipping away at what remained of the social viability of the family unit by overwhelmingly filling the economic void. It has agreed to act as parent to children (AFDC, etc.) and children to parents (Social Security and Medicare). It now educates and indoctrinates children, expecting parents to willingly accede to its compulsions. It has assumed ultimate responsibility for the health and welfare of virtually every single person in the land (old white guys like me, not so much as others, but still), a function previously considered mainly the purview of the family. That families still exist is a testament to how powerful and innate is the familial bond. With a catastrophic economic calamity, the state (again, in this context, all levels—federal, state and local—of government) would presumably be so deleteriously weakened by the obligations it has assumed, that it would have no choice but to remit a portion of its writ. It would not be able to provide cradle to grave oversight and care of every person’s health and welfare. This could only result in strengthened family ties, which would be a good thing, and not just for the families that are more tightly bound, but also, somewhat ironically, the state. The family forms the bedrock institution upon which all of society is built. Anything that serves to strengthen the family serves to strengthen the overall social milieu, including the state. Had Grandma and Granddad needed someone other than the state to care for them in old age, we grandchildren might have known them better, and perhaps learned a bit of the wisdom they had culled from experience (who knows, maybe even that money never buys anything—goods and services buy things), all of which, because of the strengthened familial bonds, would ultimately accrue to the state’s benefit. Though the state jealously refuses to admit as much, it owes its existence to the family, not the other way around.
6. Pets treated as pets. Admittedly, this would be a minor benefit of our impoverishment, but the lavish lives afforded to pets in this country is absurd in the extreme. There is even a show on the National Geographic channel celebrating people who riotously indulge their pets (or is it the pets that it celebrates?). Pets are nowadays more or less completely useless except as companions. They are extravagances, i.e., luxury items, and are often treated accordingly. Cats aren’t mousers any more. They are declawed and defanged and kept indoors so they won’t harm the furry and feathered animals in the neighborhood. I even had one crazy lady scare my cat (an outdoor, not defanged or declawed animal) away from a chipmunk she saw it chasing. She was driving by and saw the existential cat/chipmunk drama playing out before her, and stopped the car to get out and shoo the cat away. And that was the very reason I got the stupid cat—chipmunks were overrunning the place. Apparently chipmunks are pets, too. Dogs are even more worthless. They’re good companions, maybe, but only a rare few do anything that contributes to human survival. Most of them are welfare queens, completely dependent on the kindness of their owners for their sustenance, without offering anything but furry cuteness in return. In a depression-like economic calamity, pets wouldn’t necessarily be kicked to the curb. Even homeless guys have pets. They would just fall back to their ordinary priority level, somewhere below humans. (And it’s unlikely that pets would ever be considered food—except for some few isolated incidents attributable more to human stupidity than the vicissitudes of nature—the US has never suffered famine. Just think about that for a moment. The US owes a goodly portion of its human population to famines suffered in other places. But never here. The land is too rich. And it still is, there for the sowing and reaping.) Grandma and Granddad had a copper-colored spaniel named, appropriately, “Copper”. It was a good dog that flushed many a rabbit on Granddad’s hunting trips. But it was treated like a dog, not a furry human. It stayed in a pen out behind the carport. It was kept watered and fed, but was never pampered. A nice, severe depression might turn dogs and cats back into the domesticated animals that they are, not the furry human surrogates that people wish them to be.
7. Profitability taking precedence over popularity. When Yahoo! announced it was purchasing Tumblr for $1.1 billion, it should have been clear to anyone paying attention that Bernanke’s monetary chickens were coming home to roost. Tumblr has never made a single penny in profits. Never. It only barely has any revenue. It gives away blogging platforms where people can post pictures, write articles, etc. (In that regard, it has pretty much the same business model as WordPress, which hosts this blog). How Tumblr could possibly be worth over a billion dollars is simply unfathomable. When Facebook, a company that had only barely gained profitability a few quarters before its IPO was valued at roughly a hundred billion dollars—putting it in the top 50 of the S & P, were it a part of the index–the return of insanity, i.e., the dotcom bubble, part two, had clearly arrived. A depression-like economic calamity would, at least for a time, put such silliness to rest. When risk can’t be discounted by a Federal Reserve put, profitability will determine investment popularity. I can almost see the scowl on Granddad’s face if some huckster had tried to sell him on some fanciful scheme to “make” money without doing anything except handing over some money to a losing enterprise. Granddad lived through the Great Depression. He knew that lending money without collateral, or even the promise of repayment (effectively, the essence of a stock market investment), meant as often as not that it wouldn’t be repaid. He instinctively knew that investing money in a venture that had not even made money was hoping beyond hope that a greater fool waited around the corner that would save him from his folly. That was a bad bet during Granddad’s day. So long as the Federal Reserve exists to indemnify every entity from failure, not so much. A real economic calamity would eliminate the Fed put. That wouldn’t be a bad thing.
8. Tastier food. There is no better seasoning a chef can add to a dish than hunger. Even hard-tack biscuits seem like a delicacy if the gnawing at the belly is severe enough. The Jews of the Exodus certainly understood as much. A real economic calamity where food was significantly more expensive and difficult to obtain than it is today would yield a profound appreciation for the taste of food, even without gourmet chefs serving it on oversized platters with snotty attitudes. Know how you’ll be able to tell when things are getting really bad? When surly waiters climb down off their haughty pedestals and find some manners. Haute cuisine and haughty attitudes about it are only possible when a critical mass of people are so rich and well-fed that tickling their palates requires ever more exotica in food and its preparation. When acquiring food is a difficult and fraught endeavor, deliciousness is guaranteed. For Grandma and Granddad, a real treat was churning some homemade ice cream and scooping it over piping hot homemade peach cobbler, served with love to the ones they loved. How much poorer might their lives have been, had they been able to splurge on ice cream and cobbler every day.
9. Rationalized health care. Grandma died of colon cancer in 1982. After literally trillions of dollars spent to treat and research cancers of all types since then, things are pretty much the same as always. People still get cancer, and cancer still, depending on the type, regularly kills them. About the only deadly cancers that are occasionally successfully treated and cured are childhood cancers, particularly leukemia. All that money, and had Grandma gotten colon cancer in 2012 instead of 1982, she still would have died of the disease. The greatest improvement in health made by modern medicine, and one that is almost solely responsible for the extension of life spans, has come through understanding the biology of disease-carrying pathogens. Vaccines and antibiotics have extended more lives, and for very little cost, than all the resources poured into cancer and heart disease, still the two leading killers of anyone who makes it past their youthful indiscretions. Which should be instructive in deciding how resources are provisioned for medical care. No matter how much money is thrown at health care, life will always be deadly. Every life comes with a death. Economic calamity of a sort that commands health care resources be prioritized according to the effectiveness at extending or improving life (yes, “death panels”) would be enormously beneficial, both to society and the individuals within it. It would derail the constantly accelerating health care spending train. It would force us to be smarter about our bodies (a corollary benefit to number 3, above). It would make us more responsible for our health. And without the safety net (moral hazard) of ameliorating treatments which the government makes available in unlimited quantities, people would be forced to take better care of themselves if they wished to live. Less health care would equal overall better health. People would still die. They always have and always will. But they wouldn’t be able to pretend some miracle of medicine could save them from the consequences of their bad habits or poor luck. It can’t, and never will, be able to do so.
10. Rediscovering what it means to be human. Industrial and technological developments, coupled with rapacious capitalism, have reduced much of humanity to something not much better than farm animals, in both the developed and underdeveloped worlds. In developed countries, people might be clever about manipulating their smart phone or tablet computer, but they have no idea how or why they work. They live in houses with all the modern conveniences, hardly ever understanding how utterly dependent upon the thin thread of civilization their lives have become, at least until a disaster hits. In less developed countries, international capitalists treat employees as little more than inputs to a machine, allowing whole factory buildings to fall on their heads for lack of proper construction, and bemoaning the loss of the factory. Granddad could not be considered a domesticated animal, chewing his cud, depending on his betters to take care of him. He built both of the houses in which he lived—one at the back of his little lot that eventually became the carport and garage, and one at the front of the lot where he raised his family and lived until he died—with the sweat of his brow, the craft of his grizzled hands, the strength of his back and the problem-solving wit God bestowed in greater or lesser measure on all of humanity. Besides knowing how to run a steel-machining lathe without the aid of computerized controls (his official career), he rebuilt and resold outboard fishing boat motors. He even built a sixteen foot fishing boat in the future living room of the house at the front of the lot (he paused construction once the walls were framed and roof was installed to build the boat). He met life square in the eye and willed his way through it because he had no other choice. In so doing, he lived much closer to the ideal for which eons of natural selection have designed mankind. Another Great Depression would force people to discover talents they never would have known they had. Another Great Depression might even compel people to employ their amazing problem-solving ability in the capacity—survival–for which it was designed, instead of living a compromised life as little better than cattle or draft animals.
All in all, the example of my grandparents’ lives makes it hard to see where Another Great Depression would necessarily be a bad thing.