by Dr. Paul Kengor
I just read two very interesting articles on the U.S. economy, written from historical perspectives. They compelled me to share my own historical perspective. And what I want to say is more about our changing culture than our economy.
One of the articles, by Julie Crawshaw of MoneyNews.com, notes that the “Misery Index”—the combined unemployment and inflation rates—made infamous under President Jimmy Carter, has hit a 28-year high. It’s also 62 percent higher than when President Obama took office.
But that’s nothing compared to Mort Zuckerman’s article in U.S. News & World Report. Zuckerman measures the current situation against the Great Depression. He writes:
The Great Recession has now earned the dubious right of being compared to the Great Depression. In the face of the most stimulative fiscal and monetary policies in our history, we have experienced the loss of over 7 million jobs, wiping out every job gained since the year 2000. From the moment the Obama administration came into office, there have been no net increases in full-time jobs, only in part-time jobs. This is contrary to all previous recessions. Employers are not recalling the workers they laid off…. We now have more idle men and women than at any time since the Great Depression.
Zuckerman is a perceptive writer who looks at economies from a historical perspective. In my comparative politics course at Grove City College, I use his article on the Russian collapse in the 1990s, which Zuckerman showed was worse than our Great Depression.
I can’t say we’re teetering on that precipice, but Zuckerman’s article got me thinking: Imagine if America today experienced an economic catastrophe similar to the 1930s. How would you survive?
I remember asking that question to my grandparents, Joseph and Philomena. How did they survive the Great Depression?
My grandmother, never at a loss for words, direly described how her family avoided starving. Compensation came via barter. Her father, an Italian immigrant, baked bread and cured meats in an oven in the tiny backyard, among other trades he learned in the old country. My grandmother cleaned the house and babysat and bathed the children of a family who owned a grocery store. They paid her with store products. Her family struggled through by creatively employing everyone’s unique skills.
What about my grandfather? When I asked that question as he sat silently, my grandmother raised her loud Italian voice and snapped: “Ah, he didn’t suffer! Don’t even ask him!”
My grandfather, also Italian, returned the shout: “Ah, you shut up! You’re a damned fool!”
Grandma: “No, you’re a damned fool!”
After the typical several minutes of sustained insults, my grandfather explained that, indeed, his family didn’t suffer during the Depression. They noticed no difference whatsoever, even as America came apart at the seams.
Why not? Because they were farmers. They got everything from the land, from crops and animals they raised and hunted to fish they caught. They raised every animal possible, from cattle to rabbits. They ate everything from the pig, from head to feet. There were eggs from chickens and cheese and milk from goats and cows. There were wild plants.
I was captivated as my grandfather explained his family’s method of refrigeration: During the winter, they broke ice from the creek and hauled it into the barn, where it was packed in sawdust for use through the summer. They didn’t over-eat. They preserved food, and there was always enough for the family of 12.
When their clothes ripped, they sewed them. When machines broke, they fixed them. They didn’t over-spend. Home repairs weren’t contracted out. Heat came from wood they gathered.
And they didn’t need 1,000 acres of land to do this.
They were totally self-sufficient — and far from alone. Back then, most Americans farmed, knew how to grow things, or provided for themselves to some significant degree.
That conversation with my grandparents came to mind as I read Zuckerman’s piece and considered life under another Great Depression. I realized: The vast majority of Americans today would be incapable of providing for themselves. If you live in the city with no land, you’d be in big trouble. Even most Americans, who have a yard with soil, wouldn’t know what to do.
Isn’t it ironic that with all our scandalously expensive education — far more than our grandparents’ schooling — we’ve learned so little? We can’t fix our car let alone shoot, gut, skin, and butcher a deer.
Think about it: If you lacked income for food, or if prices skyrocketed, or your money was valueless, what would you do for yourself and your family?
Americans today are a lifetime from their grandparents and great grandparents. God help us if we ever face a calamity like the one they faced — and survived.