"Depressions then and now..."

Thanks to the relentless prompting of this unfolding financial debacle, I often ponder what a modern-day depression would be like. If we experience such a thing again today, I'm not optimistic about our prospects.

In fact, I believe the outcome would be catastrophic. Our population now stands at 304 million souls. We've outsourced much of the production we rely on and become a nation of paper pushers, clerks and service workers. What's left of our manufacturing sector is in a world of hurt. Less than 2% of our people are involved in agriculture, and that system is utterly dependent on high technology and hydrocarbons.

In 1930, the population of the United States was below 125 million. A large percentage of our workers were still in agriculture. Many farmers still plowed fields with teams of horses. Paper pushers were a novelty. This was before the GI Bill, so few attended college - heck, many never finished high school. Nonetheless, literacy rates were higher then and most Americans had a far more realistic perception of the world they lived in.

Family farms were the norm, and almost everyone had relatives who grew something for a living. If you had a city job, you probably had a garden and chickens in your back yard. Regardless of where you lived, there was produce in canning jars in your pantry. If you lost your city job, you could always go stay on the farm with family. There, you had productive work to do raising crops and animals and meals with your very own family awaited every evening. That's one heck of a fallback position!

Today, the pantry is bare, if there even is one. Many people will have to go to the store before cooking tonight's meal. With no one really paying attention, government officials tell us we should have three months food on hand in case of a pandemic. Well, for any kind of emergency, even a pandemic, three months is a pittance. I have nearly three years worth of staples and canned goods on hand right now, purely as a hedge against inflation! It wouldn't be the same diet I'm accustomed to, but I'd certainly not go hungry. Plus, I have seeds. Heirloom seeds.

Gardening is almost a lost art, nobody in the city has chickens and only a few acquaintances have family living on a farm these days. City people who lose jobs and homes now sleep in cars instead of farmhouses. They have little or no family support structure and rely on government. if they fall on hard times. Obviously, if things unraveled today, we'd be in a world of hurt.

This contrast runs far deeper than food. In the 1930's there was a pretty strong consensus on the concept of "America" - we had our problems but they looked nothing like today. There was a very different moral climate, and people had coping skills that are now largely lost. These factors produced innumerable scenarios like the one a client of mine recounted from his childhood in a small Nebraska town. His father owned a store there and many people in and near the town owed him money. They would show up - voluntarily - with eggs, produce or live animals - quite embarrassed because they were broke but honoring their debts as best they could. Voluntarily.

Beyond family support, I suspect this informal barter system was a powerful factor in small town and rural America. Things were better in the cities, too, as churches were a much bigger part of life back then. They all had big kitchens, and many more people had stocks of food on hand to share. These days we'd be far more dependent on FEMA (!) for relief. (Recall Hurricane Katrina and tell me that's a comforting thought...)

Government was small, and the welfare state was a distant gleam in the socialist's eyes. Absent the magnet of entitlements, immigrants who couldn't make it here packed up and returned from whence they came. Those left here were the best and the brightest, and whether they were bootleggers, farmers or Louis Chevrolet, our economy was innovative, productive and highly efficient. These are the folks (and the children and grandchildren of the folks) who made America great. The contrast today couldn't be clearer. Today, government workers and welfare recipients constitute a large, pre-existing drain on society. As of now, our government employs more people than our entire manufacturing sector. The income tax, a recent and relatively minor burden back then, now consumes the fruits of our labor until May of each year. We carry burdens that were inconceivable in my grandparent's day.

A depression today would mean chaos. How many people have enough food to tide them over until their garden produces? How many people even have seeds to plant a garden? A shovel? Canning jars?

In 1930, government debt and deficits were miniscule compared to today. The New Raw Deal no doubt prolonged the doldrums, but we we didn't start out in the same kind of hole back then. The ramp-up of production for WWII was enough to pull us out of depression. I can't imagine us ramping up that kind of production these days, given that our production capacity is long since dismantled and shipped to China. Shoot - even the tools we need to build new production lines are now made overseas.

I could ramble on but the point is clear. Suffice to say I'm worried. I hope you are too...

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