Monday, January 28, 2008

A Great Depression, or Simply a Return to Normal Life?

Imagine living without electricity, radio or television.
No, I don't mean camping for a few days, I mean everyday normal life. Imagine not having a car, and walking on unpaved roads. Imagine tasting soda once or twice a year--not that you get the whole bottle to yourself, mind you--at a special event at church. Imagine lunch being a rice ball with a pickled plum. Imagine getting to go to town once a year, on the train, for the Fourth of July.

Until the last sentence you might have reckoned I was referring to some distant, poverty-gripped Third World country rather than to giddy, gung-ho "Roaring 1920s" America. Much of the above come directly from the memory of my wife's 90-year old aunt in Hawaii, Kay H. We were able to chat with Auntie Kay (and record some of her memories) at some length, as we spent the last week helping the family ready her house to be sold. Though she is in excellent physical and mental health for her age, her family understandably decided it would be better for her to move in with them.

Poverty is a relative concept. If you're cold, any source of heat is wealth. If you're hungry, any food is wealth. If you're truly penniless, any job is wealth. If you're in the dark every night, any source of light is wealth. If you have a kerosene lantern, then an electric light is wealth. And so on.

We know this intellectually, but consider this: what most Americans would consider utterly abject poverty was simply normal life to millions of non-urban, non-wealthy Americans in the booming 1920s. Although the first paragraph describes the everyday life of plantation workers in Hawaii, the same conditions existed throughout mainland America as well, often with the added burdens of extreme cold and drought.

I know from email communication that some readers have experienced severe hunger and poverty much more recently than 1928. Middle-class America tends to think of poverty as only existing in rural pockets or limited urban ghettos, but it can be found anywhere that migrant agricultural workers do their work--and that now means vast swaths of the U.S.

Setting aside the issue of how many of these workers are illegal immigrants for a moment, I ask you: have you seen the places these workers live? I don't mean the occasional Potemkin Village of shiny new housing, I mean the shacks in rural Oregon, California, and dozens of other agricultural zones where for whatever reason the locals don't pick the crops any longer. Yes, some outstanding farms provide adequate housing, but many do not.

The average middle-class American is suburban and thus he or she never sees the primitive living conditions endured by many of the people who harvested the crops that end up so nicely plastic-wrapped in Safeway. For many, the "solution" is to "ship them all back to where they came from." I am afraid these people are not living in agricultural country, or listening to agricultural realities, or even driving around and talking to farmers.

Have you ever picked strawberries all day? Have you ever gone to the unemployment office and announced some wonderful jobs are available picking oranges in the blazing sun for minimum wage, and seen all those hardy, willing U.S. citizens hurry over to board your truck?

My seatmate on the flight home from Hawaii was as astonished by my picking pineapple on Lanai as if I'd said I'd made stone axes. Pineapple is no longer grown on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, but even in 1970 when I was on the afternoon shift along with other high school boys, there was a "local labor shortage" in summer. At peak harvest season, there weren't enough permanent plantation workers or high school kids on summer break to pick pine.

The high school kids in urban Honolulu, it seemed, had no interest in walking through spiny fields in protective clothing beneath a blasting tropical sun all day (or until midnight, if you were lucky) for minimum wage (add a dime for the swing shift and a couple more bucks if your crew exceeded its estimated number of truckloads). As a result Dole Pineapple recruited Mormon youths (all males) from the Mainland and put them up in simple dorm rooms.

So I know what harvesting heavy fruit under a hot sun by hand means. This may sound harsh, but I bet if you assigned 100 unemployed native-born Americans (of any race, religion or gender) to this kind of work, I would hazard that you would be lucky if there were three left by the end of Week One. If you can prove me wrong in this, I would be delighted. But I would want to see verifiable statistics for three months, minimum. Remember, we're not talking about a week-long "adventure" trip here, we're talking about everyday life.

And you know what? Picking pine was a lot easier than harvesting sugar cane by hand. It was also easier than bending over picking strawberries, and easier than a lot of harvesting jobs. We had a union (the I.L.W.U.) and had regular lunch breaks and an 8-hour shift. This cannot be said of all modern-day American fruit picking crews.

In 1928, poverty was relative, too. Having a full rice bin or larder and a roof that didn't leak was wealth to most people.

You knew where this was going, didn't you? Yes, the upcoming Depression. How will today's youth (let's call them Kylie and Josh) handle life when Mom or Dad can no longer afford cell phones for every member of the family? What if the DishTV or cable gets cut off due to lack of payment? What if there's no longer a case of soda purchased every week? What if their allowance drops from $20 per week to zero?

And how about Mom and Dad? What if there's no money for the dog walker, or the kennel when the family dashes off for an exotic vacation? What if there's no money for the personal trainer, or the gym? What if money disappears to such a degree that latte-mocha- caramel-soy-milk-no-foam coffee drinks can no longer be enjoyed?

The ironic answer might well be, good riddance. It was all a fraud, all along--the bogus "prosperity" based on credit bubbles and vast borrowing, the gaudy worshipping of Shopping as the New Religion, the phony collection of gadgets and name-brand clothing, the idiocy of one excess after another, the reduction of the culture to the lowest level of Pop slime, the $100 per person "fine dining," and all the other trappings of sham "prosperity."

At this point few in the Mainstream Media are willing to even mention the possibility that a reduction in income and "lifestyle" may not be short-lived or limited in scope. It will be interesting to see, to say the least, what a relative impoverishment will do to the average middle-class American's psyche.

I know from email that many of you have worked in low-paying, difficult jobs, and that many more of you have chosen to live a simple, low-energy-use lifestyle based on frugality and good living (yes, those two concepts do actually go together). I honor your hard work, and your memories of those low-income days, and I applaud your reject-the-excesses lifestyle.

When does a "reduced lifestyle" reach absolute (as opposed to relative) poverty? When the larder is empty and the roof leaks and nobody has a job. But if "poverty" means the household only gets pizza once a week--well, that is still wealth almost beyond imagination.

For another excellent look at a simpler time--the 40s and 50s--please read Protagoras's new essay, How our Parents Shopped. It will be eye-opening to anyone under the age of 40.

Readers Journal has been updated! A wealth of new comments and ideas await you: Readers commentaries And four new excellent essays--three by Protagoras, and a thought-provoking look at bank regulation by Oliver King-Smith:
How our Parents Shopped
Monoline Insurance and Financial Fear
The Three Little English Pigs
A New Regulatory Idea

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