Sunday, April 5, 2009

Another Great Depression?

Today's New York Times carries a story about a symposium at the Council on Foreign Relations taking a "second look" at the Great Depression.

O.K., well for starters this is probably more like a two-hundredth look at the Great Depression. That aside, the question of the actual impact of the New Deal on the nation's recovery from the Depression is an interesting one requiring serious consideration. Amity Shlaes's book on the topic really is a must read--particularly if you are predisposed to discount her conclusion that the New Deal was at best a mixed-bag of policies that did as much to slow as to accelerate recovery.

But there is another issue that can be resolved much more easily. That is the extent to which the nation's current economic predicament compares to the Great Depression.

Here's the answer: There is no comparison between the Great Depression and today's economic crisis.

Put differently: There is NO COMPARISON between the Great Depression and today's economic crisis. To compare the two is actually to insult the memories of our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents, as the case may be, who endured that era of hardship and struggle.

I'm not even going to get into the macro statistics--the fact that the unemployment rate today is 8.5%--about the same as the average in Western Europe for most of the last 50 years--while employment in the Great Depression peaked at 25%. Those numbers are already circulating in the public debate.

No, I'm talking about the daily existence of average Americans. It may not come as much of a surprise that fewer than 15% of households in 1934 had a telephone or an automobile. But it is also a fact that 31% of U.S. households in 1934 had no running water, 39% had no shower or bathtub, and 32% had no indoor plumbing. Yes, 1/3 of Americans had no toilet.

Now, how bad would this crisis have to get before 1/3 of Americans today ended up without a toilet, and 85% gave up their car and their phones?

Of course, to get back to 1930s living standards, we'd also have to do away with antibiotics and all the rest of medicine. (I didn't say "modern medicine" because medicine in the 1930s was closer to the days of Hippocrates than it was to medicine today). We'd have no Social Security, no Federal Deposit Insurance, no unemployment benefits. We'd have no Gmail, iPods, or American Idol. Etc.

Are we collectively ready to take all of this advancement in well-being for granted? That would be unfortunate, since most people in the world do not have access to the amenities that we citizens of the World's Largest Country Club have the privilege to take for granted. Indeed, perhaps the most promising change occurring in this country and elsewhere in the "developed" world today is the subtle awakening to the reality that all people--notably including Indian slum-dwellers who win Academy Awards and sons of Kenya & Kansas who happen to become President of the United States--are actual human beings whose existence and experience as matters. The Gates Foundation's slogan "All Lives Have Equal Value" states an apparently obvious truth that in reality is the single most deeply transformative idea of our era.

"Poor" in the world today doesn't mean that your 401K just lost 60% of its value. "Poor" means that your children have a far better chance of dying of diarrhea than they do of going to college. Whatever difficulties most Americans may be facing at the moment, they in no way compare with the hardships faced either by our ancestors during the Great Depression, or by the majority of people elsewhere in the world today whose daily wages amount to less than the price of a latte.

At home, the putting greens may be closed and our golf clubs may have been repossessed, but we still have a pot to piss in. Let's be thankful and start to build the Next America, rather than wasting our time lamenting the demise of the last.

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