html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: If it means the return of WPA-style buildings, I'm all for it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

If it means the return of WPA-style buildings, I'm all for it.

With talk of a recession or even a depression in the air, I have a question for you.

What would a contemporary depression look like? Is it something I would consider a problem? My understanding is that until the amount of unsecured credit is determined, people will not be able to buy stuff on credit. OK. What does that mean for how people will actually live, and what a modern depression looks like? Do I care if there is a depression?

Here's where I stand: deep in my hippie soul, above a level of necessity and a little comfort, I do not think think that consumerism improves people's quality of life. So I don't care if it goes away. If a modern depression means that people live on really tight budgets for the next few years, and can't buy new clothes or remodel their kitchens or travel, I don't give a rat's ass. Does a modern depression mean that people will have to increase their living density? Take in roommates to afford the mortgage? Move into a smaller place closer to work because they can't afford gas and heat? You are not convincing me that a depression is a problem. My life is, like, sparse. I ride my bike around and meet friends to do things and hate gadgets. I have a little money put away for the long term. Will my life change if there is a depression?

But I don't want a depression if it is going to be all dreary and sad and if I'm going to have read bummer stories in the news. Will a modern depression mean big segments of the population out of work and standing on street corners? Kids in newspaper caps without enough food? That's a total downer. Will it mean big diasporas within the country? Starving men, coming round my house asking for food and putting secret codes on my sidewalk? People being sicker, scared-er, hungrier?

What would a depression be like? Not causes or some abstract statistic about home ownership. That doesn't tell me what I am asking. I want to know what a modern depression would feel like as we go through it.



UPDATE: Your answers are AWESOME. Thank you so much for thinking hard about my question. Keep it coming, if you are still willing.

39 Comments:

Anonymous YK said...

I think one of the saddest parts would be people missing out on opportunities to improve their lives. Like a high school student who wants to become a doctor, but his family needs him to get a job as soon as he graduates. Or a software engineer who wants to go back to school, in order to get a better job that's less likely to be outsourced to India, but she can't afford to work only part-time while she studies.

3:25 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Is this a middle class bias? Like, we're all, boy it will suck to have less opportunity and buy less things, and poor people are looking at making a turnip last for three days?

I still have no idea what the scale of a depression is.

3:43 PM  
OpenID Dagon said...

I don't think a depression in the 1930s sense is possible nowadays. Capital is too mobile, and investors (well, enough of them to make a market) are aware of monetary vs commodity vs business risk tradeoffs. So I doubt that the human investment (time and energy) which keeps the world growing is likely to slack off for very long.

That said, your hippie soul has a funny view of human behavior. I tend to agree that consumerism doesn't lead to happiness for me, and doesn't lead to as much happiness as most people think. HOWEVER, I also don't believe that reducing options leads to more effective choices. If I had to rank happiness, I'd say
chosen sparseness > consumerism > forced sparseness

You may think that a kitchen remodel isn't what makes people happy, but THEY think otherwise. The problem is that people won't forego the remodel in favor of simpler healthy food. They'll decide to do a smaller remodel, and give up sending their kid (and the remodeler's kid) to school.

4:02 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I was talking about this elsewhere.

Reducing choices has made me happy, so I think it can work. My main example is that I would probably choose wrong if I had a car available to me. There are times where going out on my bike doesn't sound good. I'd use a car if I had one. Every single time though, when I take my bike (no matter how much I dreaded the trip) I feel better than I would have if I'd driven. My decisions aren't right; they don't predict my mood accurately. However much of the time that happens, fewer options (in the right direction) make me happier.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

And honestly, I think people choose wrong a lot, because they are numb to their bodies and moods.

4:15 PM  
Anonymous justus said...

Most likely you wouldn't have men knocking on your door for food; they'd be breaking in raping and murdering you. In 1900 the US had a murder rate of about 1.2 per 100,000. That increased as the century went on and then the Depression hit and the murder rate peaked at almost 10 per 100,000 -- pretty much the highest it has even been in American history. Today the murder rate is down below 6 per 100,000. If we had another Depression I imagine the crime rate would once again climb to (and probably past) historic levels.

Possibly crime would become so bad that you would no longer feel safe riding your bike after night falls and would forced to drive your car more than you do today.

Your trendy coffee shops and farmers markets would go out of business because they wouldn't have the cash reserves of Starbucks or ADM. Your supermarket would stop carrying a wide variety of mushrooms. Ultimate leagues would be cancelled because the parks have become temporary housing shelters. Your trainer at the gym would have to quit training you because she moved back home to live with family. Your gym shuts down because too many people cancel their memberships.

The government "encourages" everyone to move your 401(k) to an IRA in order to generate one-time tax revenues but putting retirement out of reach for even those who maintain a job during the Depression.

You are laid off from your job because state tax revenues are down. With the lack of employer-sponsored health care medical clinics increase their usage of antibiotics in marginal cases. This, plus the increased population densities, leads to widespread MRSA infections. Anand, also jobless, is infected and develops necrotizing pnuemonia. It doesn't kill him but the resulting hospital bills nearly do.

Etc.

4:26 PM  
Anonymous SwissArmyD said...

no, a real depression has all that fun stuff about losing your job, your house, and so forth. Tight budgets and stuff, yup that's just a recession.

If you think about how most people have their life constructed, this is an implosion to lose their job. In a depression, there are no other jobs to be had, because it is a broad base. Everybody is losing their job in a cascading failure. Losing the house will plateau, after there are so many people behind on their mortgage, that you don't have enough sheriffs to evict them all.

But that doesn't help people eat. Especially when they don't live as close to the land. Most people have no capacity to grow their own food, at least in the volumes needed to eat, day in/out.

A depression in a service based economy, like we live in. Would be really ugly. Talknig about capital movement in markets, doesn't change the fact that the money doesn't actually exist. A credit card won't buy you an apple, when there is no credit. Most people have no real hard currency at their disposal, if the banks were to close.

People who lived through the depression are getting few and far between, but all of my elders told many stories... and I remember the day as a child when we went to clean out aunt Bernice's house after she passed away. And found $5K worth of money in her mattress.

When the bank is closed, and the ATM is closed, what are you going to barter for food? What do you have that is actually worth anything?

I certainly hope I never see the like. Because a recovery will be hard.

4:37 PM  
Anonymous YK said...

Is this a middle class bias? Like, we're all, boy it will suck to have less opportunity and buy less things, and poor people are looking at making a turnip last for three days?

I didn't mean it that way. I was thinking of opportunities to improve one's life in very concrete ways, like higher income and better job stability. It applies to poor people especially.

The sad part is that if you miss such an opportunity, it can have a detrimental effect that lingers on for years. For instance, in the case of education, think of the opposite of the GI Bill.

5:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How's this for a non-abstract statistic? Unemployment was 19% in 1939 in the US. (thanks, Wikipedia.) That's nearly 1 in 5 people out of work. Right now, it's 1 in 20.

On top of Justus' comments, it's worth mentioning that a depression would likely bring to the fore all sorts of ugly ideologies looking to take advantage of the real political fervor that would be going on. Populist tendencies would move from vague Edwards-style "it's time for the rich to pay their fair share" to a real hard, ugly "let's kick out all the foreigners" tone. (It's worth noting that the really nasty anti-immigration types can't get any traction in Washington through Congress. In a depression, that would change real fast.)

A worldwide depression could mean worldwide war, too.

Megan's point is interesting... quality of life past a certain level of material goods is difficult to measure. But I'm guessing my life (in a depression) would be a lot poorer in knowledge. No at-home internet, no buying of books, no splurge on a $5 Sunday NYT. Yeah, I could go to the library, but I'd be waiting in line with all the other out-of-work schlubs.

Ronald Reagan talked about eating "oatmeal meat" during the Great Depression; that is, ground beef mixed with oatmeal to stretch it out. While nobody has the right to 100% beef, it is a sign that life during a Depression reaches past low-luxury consumer goods to day-to-day survival. -K.

5:43 PM  
Blogger bobvis said...

(I'll use the term recession here rather than depression, but it works either way.)

Megan, I think a recession that only results in less consumerism for everyone through tighter budgets is not likely to come to pass.

In a recession, most people do not lose a job or their homes or even any income. Whatever they save out of fear will be spent in the future as their confidence comes back.

The people who suffer in a recession are relatively few in number, but they truly do suffer. They are students coming out of college unable to find jobs. They are laid off workers. They lose a lot more than a few consumerist niceties, and they must do more than simply adjust to a more simple lifestyle.

6:14 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Are you guys thinking about what a contemporary depression is like, or are you just analogizing to the last one? Is there reason to think that the problems are the same (shortage of cash, lack of food)? Or would we allocate resources differently? I mean, how expensive is the internet anyway? Is there reason to think that would go away before housing density increases or people travel less?

6:23 PM  
Anonymous doctorpat said...

A prolonged decrease in living standards and general wealth would mean that in 20 years time:
1. The population will be larger (poorer people have more kids).
2. Technology will be less advanced
3. Many governments around the world will be much nastier than otherwise (prolonged bad times promote populism, nationalism, fascism)
4. Less work on reducing/adapting to climate change.

7:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Megan:

I've got to admit you stumped me for quite some time. But I'll answer your questions in order.

1) Yes, I'm basically analogizing. But what else is there to use?

2) No, the problems would likely be very different in a modern depression. But the effects would be the same (lots of people without jobs, looking for work.) Worse, they'd likely be without either the land or the skills to feed themselves.

3) No, we (consumers) wouldn't allocate resources differently than they did in the Depression. Food and shelter would come first. Tourism and McMansions would die a quick death; I think it's likely they're suffering right now. -K.

9:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the 70's are a more useful guide than the 30's to what a severe modern recession (in an earlier time, we would have called the 70's a 'depression' or even a 'panic') looks like, at least in the early stages. We might be lucky if it's only that bad.

Would there be hungry people, malnourished children? There already are. People dead from the heat because they couldn't afford AC? Almost certainly. Small towns and parts of cities that wither away because no one there cares anymore? Maybe -- see Detroit. Angry mobs looting and burning? If it gets bad enough, yes.

---

A depression for you, personally? You'd move back to Sacto, because you can't enough rent to cover the mortgage, and you can't sell.

You'd invite your friends to live with you, and you'd create a little oasis in the middle of a quietly crumbling neighborhood.

You wouldn't travel alone anymore.

You'd get cut back to quarter-time or 'consulting' at work, because tax revenues are down and the state can't sell enough bonds.

You grow plenty of fresh veggies in your backyard to supplement what you can buy at the store, but working in the garden (for needed food, not just for fun anymore) so much means you're too tired to go to the gym.

Trivia night is at home, now that the pub closed (or maybe just has a rougher crowd.)

You're one of the lucky ones -- you own a home that you can afford, you have a strong support network and money in the bank. Life is just a little scary and uncomfortable for a while.

The poor folkson the other side of the city weren't lucky. Their section 8 vouchers kept a roof over their heads, but when inflation cut their food stamps in half, the protests and riots became a nightly occurrence.

It's a wasteland over there now -- a tenth of the buildings were burned to the ground, including some entire city blocks. One of your coworkers lived over there with her daughter -- their home is still there, but they've moved in with friends in a safer part of town.

---

I'm sympathetic with your view that some 'forced austerity' would be good for people, but having been poor in the recent past (as in "we used up the food stamps, it's only the 25th, and there's nothing for dinner. How much change do you have?"), I fully endorse George Orwell:

"A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and RyVita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't"

(If you haven't read _The Road to Wigan Pier_, I recommend it. The full text is online.)

And I'll part with an endorsement of Calculated Risk (calculatedrisk.blogspot.com) for great data and analysis on the current situation.

--Dex

10:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(oh, and thanks for the hobo symbols link. very cool.)

--Dex

10:46 PM  
Blogger guy said...

First, two quick responses: my gut reaction is in line with yk and dagon, the impact of a depression will not be people cutting back on “non-essential” things, but rather on “non-immediate” things – discount rates rise as future expected income falls, and especially as risk-adjusted future income falls…

And on Doctorpat’s suggestion about population levels – I am not sure that would be an effect you see in the short run: wealth impacts on fertility are slow moving things requiring a change lifetime outlook; if we see fertility changes in the short run they are more likely to come from not being able to go out so much – think powercut babies.

2:23 AM  
Blogger guy said...

And second, to understand this debate I have tried to set up a couple of frames: First, inter-depression impacts. I think one of the difficulties with Megan’s request is that we haven’t defined the problem very clearly. As various people have noted, the difference between the 30s and 70s (and indeed between the US and elsewhere in the 30s). Some commenters expect the US, and then the world, to collapse in a depression, but the 1930s was a very special mix of events, some of which are highly unlikely to arise again (e.g. the post WWI settlement and reparations; pro-cyclical monetary and fiscal policy – see the 75 basis point drop on Tuesday).

A real depression would have gross impacts at the individual level, but the overall impact on international power games is not going to be catastrophic – long term movements like the rise of the BRICs, fuel reserves, etc. are surely more important than cyclical variation, even if it extends 5-10 years.

Which brings us to consider the micro side of things, and the intra-depression impacts . The marginal cost for me, Megan and many others here of a depression is likely to be low. In terms of Megan’s utility map, it may well be beneficial. But for those with other current consumption bundles, the marginal cost of shifting from now to depression is likely to be awful. This is not new to this thread per se, but just me trying to tie some points together.

2:24 AM  
Blogger guy said...

And second, to understand this debate I have tried to set up a couple of frames: First, inter-depression impacts. I think one of the difficulties with Megan’s request is that we haven’t defined the problem very clearly. As various people have noted, the difference between the 30s and 70s (and indeed between the US and elsewhere in the 30s). Some commenters expect the US, and then the world, to collapse in a depression, but the 1930s was a very special mix of events, some of which are highly unlikely to arise again (e.g. the post WWI settlement and reparations; pro-cyclical monetary and fiscal policy – see the 75 basis point drop on Tuesday).

A real depression would have gross impacts at the individual level, but the overall impact on international power games is not going to be catastrophic – long term movements like the rise of the BRICs, fuel reserves, etc. are surely more important than cyclical variation, even if it extends 5-10 years.

Which brings us to consider the micro side of things, and the intra-depression impacts . The marginal cost for me, Megan and many others here of a depression is likely to be low. In terms of Megan’s utility map, it may well be beneficial. But for those with other current consumption bundles, the marginal cost of shifting from now to depression is likely to be awful. This is not new to this thread per se, but just me trying to tie some points together.

2:25 AM  
Blogger Scott Calvert said...

I've been spending a lot of the last year pondering about our economic systems and how we perceive and experience them. I've been driven by my continuing realization that we are unlikely to reform our carbon based energy sources quickly enough to avoid complete meltdown of the parts of the environment on which humans depend for food, water, and solid dry ground. My baseline expectations for the next 100 years start at apocalypse and go downhill from there. I've been trying to come to some sort of solid starting point for concretely reasoning about the ways human life will be impacted by the problems that are coming.

The single biggest conclusion I've reached is that the collective experiences of 1 million people (roughly a city), 250 million people (roughly a nation state), or 6 billion people, are SO vast and SO complex that any conceptual framework that manages to span the breadth of those experiences must also lack any useful sense of empathic human detail. Likewise any framework that includes pithy human detail will never stretch to include even 1 part in 10,000 of the breadth of the subject. It's a bit like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

The second thing I've concluded is that very few people have any idea how little they actually understand about the world. Our brains are really good picking out the patterns they need to operate, even when the pattern is a tiny part of a total signal that is mostly noise. We form ideas about the world that let us put the facts of life relevant to ourselves in a purposeful, somewhat self consistent system, pick out the bits of data flowing into us that pertain materially on that system, and let the rest go. When we are forced to think about the 99.999999% of the world that is outside of our daily experience we tend to assume it's a lot like the 0.00001% of the world we do experience because there's little else we can do. In my experience, those similarities we assume are often just not there.

In the end I find myself profoundly devoid of tools to reckon about large scale human systems in a qualitative way. The best fit I can see is to reason by rough analogy to large scale chaotic mechanical systems like the Earth's climate. In comparison though, I'd argue human social and economic systems are still of a dramatically higher complexity level.

Therefore I'm inclined to keep my thoughts on things like economic depressions very simple. The people who lived through the Great Depression almost all came out with quirky PTSD like behaviors and complained bitterly about it. I'll take that as a conclusive sign it sucked.

3:01 AM  
Blogger Noel said...

It really depends on how bad the depression is. Pick your point from "a few more people are out of work" to "the end of civilisation as we know it". Assuming we do see a depression no-one knows where on the continuum it will land until it happens.

Assuming a bad depression, the main concern I think is that most jobs are far more removed from material production than in the past, and therefore most people don't have useful skills once the power gets turned off. Certainly my l33t haX0r skills won't help me grow food, or fix a house, or do whatever I need to do to survive in a society like the 1930s.

3:13 AM  
Anonymous Peter said...

Uh oh, it's time to stock up on guns, ammunition, and MRE's (aka Meals Rejected by Ethiopians) and head for the hills!

But seriously ... as a Connecticut resident at the time I (barely) survived the Great Recession that nearly destroyed the state's economy in the early 1990's, and what we're experiencing now is ***ABSOLUTELY NOTHING*** in comparison.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Capella said...

It's convenient that your needs are minimal, but that is for two reasons.

The first is that you are at a very specific point in your life: you have already gotten your education and bought a house, so you don't need a big loan for either of those things, and you don't have yet have children to support or educate. These things may not be strict necessities, but they are two of the most profound ways in which people invest in their and their communities' future.

The second is that you rely on the government for a great deal. Your job is a public one. You ride your bike on public roads, and you play and exercise in public parks. This is a perfectly good way to live, and it insulates you from the consequences of a flailing economy. But this is not because you are morally superior and other people deserve to suffer.

Moreover, you may not have a weakness for morally bankrupt gadgets, but you want expensive things too: good management of the environment, renewable energy, locally-grown food. People who are worried about losing their job, or who are trying to cope with a spiraling rent, tend to be less willing to pay more for sustainable food and transportation than people who are secure in their finances - and companies that are worried about going out of business are less likely to spend money on development of conservation-minded products and programs.

7:43 AM  
Anonymous Thelonious_Nick said...

I think we've seen what a modern day Depression in a developed country would look like, and that was Japan from 1990-2005. Deflation, only intermittent economic growth, a high unemployment rate which mostly affected recent college graduates. Fewer trips abroad, lower consumption, huge slowdown in building.

But no dustbowl, and no apocalyptic scenarios. A lot of the factors that caused the Great Depression in the 1930s were one-off. Just a long slog when life for most people doesn't seem to get any better, and a gradual increase in hopelessness and negative social indicators among 20-30 year olds.

8:15 AM  
Anonymous mith said...

The second and third paragraph are more indicative of recession, while the fourth paragraph gets closer to depression.

To make an analogy, the difference between a recession and a depression is like the difference between going camping for the weekend or being stranded in the wilderness for several days.

When you go camping, you head out into the woods with supplies, food, and the general understanding that while you may be giving up things like running water or electricity for a couple of days, your car is within walking distance and you'll be back in your comfortable home by Sunday night. If you run out of food or forgot to bring something, you can weigh the cost of running to the store to buy it or going without.

Being stranded in the wilderness, however, is very different. You're there with the clothes on your back and whatever you make use of in the environment around you. You have no idea when or if you'll survive long enough to return to civilization. Moving towards civilization (if you know which way to go) would likely be the most reasonable course of action, but you also need to make sure you you get enough food to maintain your energy and enough protection from the environment to avoid freezing to death.

I recognize Californians are more "one with nature" than most of us, but I wouldn't wish slow starvation and/or freezing to death alone in the wilderness on my worst enemies.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Carter said...

I predict that one affect of a depression would be a shift in priorities among voters.

The economy would gain central importance over things like the war and the environment.

Demands to bring our troops home might be a positive outcome, but the average voter will not give a damn about global warming if unemployment or inflation are at 20%.

As voters become more obsessed with the economy, their ignorant economic views begin to dominate policy more and more.

Protectionism, price controls, fixed wages, and other economic cancers are passed into law, extending the depression.

Meanwhile, the the lack of innovation has a lasting effect on people all over the world.

As research is cut back, medical and technological innovations are slowed, meaning billions of people have to wait longer for new cures, safer cars, and higher standards of living (that allow them to purchase quality foods, education for their children, etc.)

9:13 AM  
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11:05 AM  
Anonymous justus said...

Megan, I wasn't trying to analogize, just thinking of some possible "similarly bad" scenarios.

I think thelonius_nick raises two excellent points I wanted to echo. Japan is the closest example we have of a modern nation undergoing a deflationary Depression; but they're different enough from us that it is hard to see what that means for us. The recent 75 basis point Fed rate cut is an example of a Lesson Learned from the Japanese crash. Bernanke has written about the futility of "pushing on a string" with interest rates and the need to act aggressively to stay out of that situation in the first place.

Also, the US Depression was characterized not just by a financial crisis but by a natural disaster -- the great dustbowl.

What would a similar drought be like today? Imagine something huge hits the southwest and southern California. Does that mean no vegetable gardens anywhere on the West Coast as water is trucked to the cities? That makes it even harder for the jobless and underemployed to make ends meet.

Will there be a massive influx of the newly poor to the warm climate (and nicer welfare benefits) of California? And what does that do to the already teetering state budget? California offers massive bonds to such an extent that it devalues its credit ratings, leading to even worse terms for future bonds. A cascading failure the cripples state education for decades?

In the 1930s a deflationary environment was bad enough but back then most people had very little debt relative to today; no credit cards or six-year auto loans or college student loans. In a deflationary environment your debt load increases every day just because of the devaluing dollar. (This -- the desire for inflation -- was the basis of William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" populism.) Your $25,000 credit card debt turns into $35,000 in 12 months, ignoring interest. And *then* you lose your job. The resulting debt loads on millions of Americans could cripple families for decades: the kids can't go to college in 2030 because you're still servicing grandpa's consumer debt from 2009.

The deflation would be world wide -- and probably worse outside of the US -- which might exacerbate job flight from America. As unemployment increases, more jobs are shifted off-shore making the problem even worse.

In the 30s the national economies were much less intertwined than they are today but the Depression was still global in nature. A modern US Depression would mean a modern global Depression. US citizens would probably come out relatively okay. But it could mean 200 million unemployed in China alone. Which turns into widespread famine across much of Asia as support systems are overwhelmed and hundreds of thousands dying of hunger every month.

12:20 PM  
Anonymous vinc said...

OK, you're not sympathetic to consumerism. I can relate to that, though I don't agree with it. And certainly we all fritter away a lot of money on inessentials, and maybe we'd be happier if we didn't. Maybe.

But even that point was conceded, there are lots of people who don't have the things you'd consider essential, and who would be hit hard in a recession. Nutritious food is replaced by cheap food. Family time becomes time at a second job. Having an adequately heated home turns into shivering under the blankets all winter.

And in poorer parts of the world a US recession means severe poverty turns much worse. Those hundreds of millions of people living on a dollar a day are still linked to the global economy and would be worse off in a recession. If you're working on a coffee plantation in Kenya and suddenly Americans can't afford to go to Starbucks, that means you lose your job and your kids now don't get an adequate diet anymore.

Charities would lose money, as would government aid programs... people donate if they feel secure, and governments are much more generous in good times. Which means much less money for things like malaria nets or building health clinics in Africa, which means even more people die of totally preventable causes. In the longer term that means disease cures are delayed a few years as government and private funding is cut, and every extra year a disease exists implies a lot of suffering and death.

I could go on endlessly but I think the point is made.

12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being too short of money to have "consumerism" is a lot more fun to muse about romantically than to live. I speak from experience here.

As for outright poverty, there I have only family memories and my reading of history to go on. But I feel pretty confident saying: if protracted, a genuine recession would probably roll this country socially back to the 1930s. Unless my understanding of you is extremely confused, you wouldn't want to go there. (For what it's worth, I'm a big strapping heterosexual upper-middle-class white male, and even I wouldn't want to go there. For someone without one or more of my traits, the recrudescence of the Great Depression's lifestyle would be worse.)

"Hippie" life is fun when it is something one freely chooses, and can live it amid a society that is going on being affluent. When that is not a freely chosen self-restriction, but an unfreely chosen mass-restriction, you should not expect a giant magnification of hippie coolness. You should expect stuff out of The Grapes of Wrath. At least.


--Erich Schwarz

9:16 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

"Hippie" life is fun when it is something one freely chooses, and can live it amid a society that is going on being affluent. When that is not a freely chosen self-restriction, but an unfreely chosen mass-restriction, you should not expect a giant magnification of hippie coolness.

Very good way of putting it.

I wish I'd seen this post before I wrote mine about the hippie Christians. Re the idealistic view of roommates: Megan (and everyone else), have you ever been in a long-term situations where you couldn't control your social environment? Where you had to deal with random people (not functional peers preselected for intelligence and good behavior) on an equal basis, and had no way to excise them from your life if they treated you poorly?

I don't mean just waving hi to them and being polite when you're among a strong group of supporters who will help control their behavior toward you. I mean having to deal with them constantly, where they have power in the interaction. Having to get them to cooperate with you. Having to worry about the loss of their goodwill, because they have the ability to punish you by, say, kicking you out of the apartment, or wrecking your stuff, or interfering with whatever you do, or even physically hurting you.

Being poor is not just about lack of luxury goods. It's about the lack of ability to shield yourself from undesirables. In the most extreme example, homelessness. It's not like a student share-house at a good college.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Spungen said...

P.S. The less there is to go around, the more conflict there tends to be between people. Close quarters with the privileged are a lot more comfortable than close quarters with the needy. Scalzi wrote about how one of the tells of being poor is not being able to leave five bucks lying around when your friends come over.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

That increased as the century went on and then the Depression hit and the murder rate peaked at almost 10 per 100,000 -- pretty much the highest it has even been in American history. Today the murder rate is down below 6 per 100,000.

Wow, Justus. I never thought about the murder rate during the Depression before. If asked to speculate, I would have guessed it was lower than today, although I would have expected petty theft to be higher.

12:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was visiting my great aunt in Wisconsin a few years ago, going through old family photos and talking about her childhood.

She said that her mother brought the children to Chicago because she figured that at least they wouldn't starve to death there, that being someplace denser would mean that they wouldn't be so anonymous in there suffering. In the end, the kids were sent to live with different relatives.

I don't know that we'll see an increase in people starving in the streets, but we might. People living on the margins are liable to find that they can't pay for their SRO anymore.

Little stuff, too, even recession stuff, that parallels some of the fallout from ten years of welfare reform and takes it a notch deeper: a lot more kids without parents around, a lot more parents holding down two jobs. Which means a lot more very poor nutrition and the ensuing health issues (and those health issues not being treated); a lot more stress which means more abuse and more displacement of families. Fewer teeth.

Taking in roommates is one thing by choice and hippiedom, and another thing when it is your only option and you are trying to navigate tense times for your family. I think you're thinking about roommates in your terms, Megan: a well adjusted single adult who basically has her game in order. You aren't thinking about a family that is struggling to pay the bills and keep the kids in line and trying to decide whether it is okay to let the kids date or what to do about truancy or drinking and trying to do all that while maintaining two jobs. I don't want to be roommates with that family and I don't want to add shared housing to the list of strains that family is trying to navigate every day.

I'm rambling, but you get my point. I doubt people will go without toilet paper. They're more likely to go without green vegetables.

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ps, I meant two jobs each.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Spungen said...

You aren't thinking about a family that is struggling to pay the bills and keep the kids in line and trying to decide whether it is okay to let the kids date or what to do about truancy or drinking and trying to do all that while maintaining two jobs. I don't want to be roommates with that family and I don't want to add shared housing to the list of strains that family is trying to navigate every day.

Yes, that's almost exactly the situation I was in several times. Except they didn't have two jobs each. But all those other working-class problems, yes, yes. Truancy you get tickets for and get kicked out of school for, not like Megan probably did where she skipped classes and still got A's. It's a lot less positively colorful than it sounds, when you're in the middle of it.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Eric H said...

Megan;

I'm sympathetic to your desire for less consumerism. It's something my wife and I talk about often. We're vegetarians who live very simply ourselves, and I like to study such things as agorism, books like A Pattern Language or Kirkpatrick Sale's _Human Scale_, and alternative energy (especially biodiesel). But your description of a depression sounds a lot like a desire to return to college. Multiple people in a house, cycling to class, never being able to afford to go out to eat or buy new clothes, woo-hoo! That sounds shockingly naive. Just because you have arranged your life to cycle to work doesn't mean that it will be that easy for something like 30 or 60 million people (or more) to rearrange their lives in like manner in a relatively short period (during which their means would be stretched as it is). I'm wondering how that would work in the Northeast corridor, Long Island, or the Washington DC area - I can't see it being anything less than a disaster.

I'm not sure how one could conceptualize this except as a repeat of the last depression. We'd first have to figure out the definition of depression. A recession occurs when the nation's output declines (usually lasting only a few quarters); a depression occurs when the nation's output declines rather radically and for a protracted period of time. Such events are typically accompanied by social and political upheaval, and (as other commenters have pointed out) they aren't usually happy movements, even here in the US. As Richard Dreyfuss put it so eloquently in that video that has been going around, people stop asking themselves "What am I responsible for?" and start saying, to the nearest demagogue, "Tell me what to do."

My wife points out that poverty requires more calories to sustain life. The reason is that you *have* to cycle because you can't afford a car, you *have* to hand wash because you can't afford a washer (or a car to go to the laundromat), etc. You only have your labor. When that many people are in the throes of real poverty, and food is simultaneously more difficult to obtain, even simple pleasures like weight-lifting for fun would seem extravagant. So if you're looking for an analogy, that's it: imagine life being so hard that you couldn't even remember why you would consider your hobby to be fun, much less a reasonable use of your energy.

5:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In defense of Megan: most people may not make the same hippy choices in reducing their consumption that she might like... but we're probably entering more of a slight-decrease-in-GDP recession that a blood-in-the-streets depression. The situation right now is much more like Japan in 1990 (hyperinflated real estate) than the US in 1930 (no FDIC, no SEC, no social security/medicare/medicaid).

Also, whether you think a downturn is bad matters because it determines how much you're willing to do to stop it (mailing people checks, cutting interest rates). But now, a cutback in consumption is inevitable from the fact that that people have been living beyond their means, buying houses they can't afford and doing cash-out refi, and mailing checks or cutting interest rates isn't going to change that...

DG

6:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. think Argentina in 2002. Middle class people in service industry jobs begging in the streets. Crime, having been the lowest in Latin America, goes to being some of the highest: armed robbery, kidnapping etc.

Watching a highly cultured, civilised country (Argentina, as a measure of its prosperity, had the highest number of psycotherapists per capita of any country) implode is not pretty.

It's not pleasant when 10 or 20% of the people around you lose their jobs. And civil servants are hardly immune: if taxes cannot be paid, jobs are cut.

People lose their jobs, and never really get back on the career ladder. By the time they get a job again, sometimes 4 or 5 years later (in a downturn, the upturn can be a long time coming) they are just too far behind: people would rather higher younger blood.

Negative equity on housing really hurts. You can't sell, the bank will chase you for the difference. Note the new US personal bankruptcy laws: the bank has a lot more power to pursue you this time than it did in the past.

2. Japan looked mild. But Japan was coming from a long history of paternalism and (literally) zero unemployment.

Now 35% of Japanese work on short term contracts, and they have middle aged salarymen sleeping in tents under bridges.

3. think about Russia in 1990-94. Roughly speaking, a 50% drop in GDP. Pensions and salaries unpaid for months at a time. Russians lived by not paying their heating bills (American utilities would be quicker to disconnect) and from vegetable gardens and selling things in flea markets-- family heirlooms etc.

4. Cuba 1990-94 had a similar collapse. 100,000 or so Cubans put to sea, many to drown there. The average Cuban lost 30% of their weight. People learned to grow food in low-oil, low pesticide, low tech ways that we have completely forgotten.

No Depressions are not pretty. Americans are people with massive houses, big cars, shopping in WalMart, huge medical insurance costs.

Come a Depression, people would lose all that. When they need to see a doctor, they will wait until the last possible minute and then go plead in the County Hospital Emergency. The County, financially overburdened, will close Emergency departments.

The poorest Americans would starve. Unable to afford gas bills, they wouldn't be able to drive to work, if they could find it.

Typically the crime rate will go up. Crime rates have an inverse correlation with the unemployment rate amongst the most vulnerable.

Who will be blamed? Well immigrants first and foremost, for taking American jobs. Anyone with black or brown skin, or a Hispanic surname. Jews, probably, eventually (aren't they always?) and almost certainly anyone Asian: carworkers killed a Chinese student in Michigan in the 80s, got drunk and beat him to death, mistaking him for a Japanese.

Politics will polarise. A Dennis Kucinich on the left, and a Mike Huckabee or Pat Buchanan on the right.

Fear a depression. Even a bad recession is not pretty. Ever see the movie 'Falling Down'? The Michael Douglas character is a defence worker laid off in the California slump of the early 90s.

Valuethinker

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dagon

Never say never on Depression.

A bad enough economic shock (someone closes the Gulf, and the world oil price goes to $250/barrel?) and we are there.

Actually we are more there than at any time since the 1920s, in that the US is a huge net debtor, and every sector of society has huge debt levels.

A serious devaluation of the US dollar, coupled with soaring interest rates as foreign lenders demand a risk premium, and the US economy could come to a grinding halt.

And that could spread to the rest of the world economy. Trade barriers go shooting up, so does unemployment.

Valuethinker

2:02 PM  

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