Lessons

02Nov08

The Great Depression has suddenly become more than a distant memory. The contestants in the world’s ultimate game show – the upcoming US presidential election – and the ever-present media have been talking about the Great Depression with renewed vigor. They talk about the fear of the current crippling economic crisis and the possibility that it could lead to a 25% unemployment rate and a worldwide economic devaluation. A few people even talk about learning from the mistakes that led up to the depression, which ultimately pulled humanity into the horrors of WWII. Everyone has their ideas of how to bandage the hemorrhaging world markets, and create a temporary sense of confidence and stability.

This is all well and good, after all, now is not the time to point fingers and wait for things to be OK again, now is the time to move forward and create a new world. However, the true lesson of the Great Depression is not how we fell into it and fought our way out of it, but rather how it changed the way people thought about personal responsibility. When it comes to wealth, personal responsibility used to mean fiscal responsibility. That means that people used to keep track of how much money they had and how much money it would cost to support their families, and they would save the rest. These people taught their children these lessons in the hope that their children’s children would be capable of creating a better world. In the past few decades, the personal responsibility of wealth has centered on the idea of credit responsibility. From catchy commercials advertising websites where you can check your credit to organizations that can protect your credit from others, we have learned and have taught our children that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, as long as you’ve got good credit.

Does anybody else but me see how fundamentally stupid that is? Trying to teach Americans – a diverse race of free thinking people who have come to think that they deserve the world’s respect – something like not overspending money that can easily be borrowed again, is like trying to tell a dog not to eat all the food in the dish. The dog doesn’t know any better, and for the last few decades neither has many Americans. It’s not that Americans are stupid; on the contrary, it’s just that there is not the overwhelming need to save when there is credit available.

If you talk to any of the old-timers who grew up during the Great Depression, most of them will tell you about being hungry for years. They weren’t afraid to lose their cable or even to lose their homes; they’d already lost their homes. These were people who had nothing to eat. Those old-timers can tell you about how when the depression was over, people began learning to save. Not just money either, they saved things as insubstantial as leftovers from dinner.  They learned not to waste anything.

The Great Depression gave Americans and people all over the world a true sense that “things may NOT be alright after all.” This left most people in a scary, and hopeless place; always wondering from where the next meal would come. Humans were oftentimes forced to return to their animal instincts and actually steal food from others to feed their families. The Great Depression could have easily been called the Great Desperation for what it meant to the populous. That same populous went on and learned from that desperation. They kept with them their notion of saving for tough times. In the mean time, the government, having to look after the really downtrodden – the people who had nothing to save – created social programs intended to help raise the nation out of its slump.

Then came war. The economic desperation left the world ripe for change. That change came in the form of evil socialist empires with the goal of taking over the world and committing genocide on those that they blamed for that same strife. It was a bitter time for the world, and once America was brought into it, the people turned their desperation to nationalism. Again, the value of saving and working hard for things were reinforced. The men had to go over there to protect freedom in the world, while the rest of America stayed back and went into production for the war.

Once the dust had settled, and the Cold War was being quietly fought, America began to lose some of its hard-fought values. There were a number of reasons why this happened. Most people, that being the middle class, moved out to the suburbs after the war, and promptly began having kids. These were highly competent and capable people, and they created a culture of high school shenanigans mixed with hard work and collegiate achievement. Their kids went on to truly believe in the American dream in a way that had never been recognized before. They graduated from college with stars in their eyes and made our country strong and great. Many lived quiet suburban lives, where going to church and having a strong standing in the community had become more important than teaching their kids the truth about personal responsibility. Having cut themselves off from the rest of America, many of these soon to be evangelicals came to fear anything different from the world they had created.

And in their minds, they had much of which to be fearful. There was a counter-culture growing that stood fast against the conformity that the suburbanites took for granted. The hippy generation had the right idea: peace, love, and happiness are amazing things, and if humans could just learn to live with each other than everything would be groovy. These folks didn’t save money, most refused to work, ‘cuz such conformity was lame. The problem is that humans are clearly not ready for this ideal, and with the mix of psychedelic drug abuse, murderous violence, and the diseases of the sexual revolution, the hippy movement came to an end, leaving a cultural influence that has permeated through to the modern day.

Without even taking into account the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam War, you must be able to see how the American values were changed. We had come from different places and we continued to celebrate those differences. America quickly became a class society structured between the excesses of the haves and the apparent laziness of the have-nots.

The haves were the so-called rich people who had used the Cold War for profit. These folks believed themselves to be among the country’s elite. They were the masters of industry and they taught their kids that the American dream is something to be bought. Their kids promptly bought that dream by the handfuls, on credit, not savings. It was easy to keep the money flowing, for America was the country to be. No other country produced so much in the history of humans. The American civilization became a shining beacon to the world, and as long as you were one of the haves, wealth could be yours.

The have-nots were the poor people. There were poor people whose ancestors were former slaves; there were poor people whose ancestors were former plantation owners; there were poor people whose ancestors were former working class immigrants. These people largely thought of the American dream as something that was fundamentally only a sense of survival. The depression had hit these folks’ parents hard, both financially and psychologically. They had taught their kids that it was hopeless for the most part unless a person was exceptional. As generations came and went, many poor people gave up hope and lived as subjects of the system, which had originally been created to stem the tide of the Great Depression. When you were poor, you didn’t really have enough to save, and even if you did, some other poor person would probably just come around and take it from you, maybe even harming you in the process. Poor people learned to stay on their side of the tracks and keep their drugs and violence within their community. Some would cross the tracks from time to time and make the ten o’clock news when they invaded the world of the middle class.

The entire time the middle class lived in relative ease. They sat in church and pretended to be separate form the fray. They locked their doors tight every night, to protect all of the stuff they had acumulated over the years. America’s technological advances are due in part to the way that the middle class latched onto the importance of the information age and what it had to offer. They racked up a lot of debt by trying to appear better than their neghbors, and spent money on big cars, big houses, and big HDTV’s. This love of excess had become the new American dream, and it was catching.

Even the poor people wanted in on it. It started with Robin Leach and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and evolved to MTV’s Cribs, but the culture of having “stuff” became the very ideal of that dream the people wanted. American consumerism hit its pinnacle at this time. The government began letting banks loan the American dream to just about anyone, because it only made sense that everyone should be entitled. We’re all Americans, and Americans are the best, most exceptional people on the planet.

Then the shit started hitting the fan. Our culture, coming from so many different directions was suddenly thrust together in the name of solidarity, human rights, and personal freedom. The sociopolitical walls that were around after the depression were being taken down as American government expanded all social programs. Consumerism united the country as the all the classes chased after the next smartphone or gaming console. All along, America’s credit debt grew and grew. Soon, the need to supplant the apathetic culture of the poor through that same sense of consumerism became the thing that defined modern America.

Now, the spending spree is over, and it makes all Americans sad.  We can learn from this, though.

America is not the same place as it was before, during, or after the Great Depression. This country has been shaped by its history and there is no turning back. We need to take this current economic crisis and really see what we can learn from this. The culture of this country needs to be changed, literally from the bottom up. We need to educate the masses. Education empowers people. The Internet is the perfect tool to be used for this task. It’s easy just to throw money and food stamps at people, while others scratch and claw their way to a greedy precipice, but we’ve been doing things the easy way for a long time now, and look where it’s gotten us.

Many of the mistakes of the past eras were made because the people were divided and isolated. That is largely not the case anymore. As much as the media would like to keep us apart, Americans as a whole are much closer in their thinking, and we are capable of making great changes. There will always be people who are too greedy for their own good as well as people who are too lazy to better themselves – let them become the second class citizens while the rest of us strive for a better nation.

Already we can see what impact our habits and actions have on our world. Anybody notice how fuel prices have fallen…sure the economic downturn has something to do with that, but it is the demand that has gone down. Most of us have not changed the way we live; we have just become less wasteful. Efficiency is about doing things with less waste.

That’s the lesson we need to learn as Americans. We can no longer be a nation of people waiting for handouts. What’s the difference between social security and corporate tax breaks? Nothing. Hell, what about food stamps and bailouts? We need to change; and such change will keep us out of another Great Depression and catapult us to the standing as a world power that most of us think we deserve right out. Patriotism has to be measured not by the size of our trucks but by the size of the efficient use of our resources. I’m not talking about the dubious idea of the carbon footprint (even though that will be a healthy byproduct of the human revolution) but for a change from the culture of spending to a culture of living well and being happy with our lives.

-LucFerris

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