We sat at the table the other evening after dinner talking about the end of the world — not the rapture where the born again float up into heaven and the rest of us get to face the devil; not the atom bomb we used to dread; and not the worldwide plague that still may be lurking in some backwater of Southeast Asia; but just the loss of the everyday world we’ve come to take for granted for the last half century or more. My wife said, “This isn’t like those other times when things were bad. This is one thing after another. It doesn’t feel the same at all.”
I said, “They say it’s just a short recession. It will be over by the end of summer or by the fall at the latest.”
“But what if people don’t dare spend money anymore? What if there is no extra money? None of us, none of our children know how to live frugally.”
I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t know how to butcher a hog or grow corn in the back yard. If there were no jobs, I would be selling pencils on a street corner.
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I said, “We’ve been told all our lives not to worry about another depression like the Great Depression. They tell us they’ve learned what went wrong and safeguards are in place.”
But then I thought, didn’t we all see this coming two or three years ago? Even I could recognize the frenzy of greed. Why did they let it go on and on, the people who were supposed to be watching? Why did they short-circuit the safeguards and feed the frenzy?
“We need to start preparing,” she said.
“I’m not sure this country could take being poor.”
I wonder how many middle class families sit around the table these days or talk to each other in bed in the dark, worrying about their jobs that are disappearing forever, the good manufacturing jobs, now the fewest in almost 60 years. That was the ladder out of poverty and into the middle class for our fathers and grandfathers.
And when the companies that build things are gone, who will employ our engineers? And without engineers, who will repair our failing bridges and build our technologies? And how many people watch their savings dwindle and wonder what failing hedge fund has invested their retirement savings in worthless bonds?
It may not be as bad as it looks. I recall something similar when I was in high school in the late sixties. Across the country, survivalists were out in the forests building camps stocked with canned goods and buying high powered weapons to drive off the anticipated hordes of refugees from the city. We sat in a smoke-filled living room, listening to our favorite teacher telling us she was investing everything she could in gold, so she would have something to bargain with in the great crash that was coming. But the crash never came. Still, the news goes from bad to worse, and every day the newspaper brings more. I read this week how the federal government blocked attempts to regulate the predatory lenders that began this debacle. I heard about pension funds going bust, no health care for children, 48 million without health insurance, and the cost of the war passing a trillion dollars and climbing to maybe seven trillion.
And then I heard about the pot holes in the roads in Maine, big enough to sink a truck into, and the state too poor to pave them. I watched the news about the slaughterhouses like something out of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” and I felt sick that our children were given the meat of sick cattle in their school lunches. It felt like the clock was ticking backward toward the 19th century when it was every robber baron for himself, and God help widows and orphans.
“Maybe it’s time we quit buying things we don’t need and can’t afford,” she said. “Maybe it will be good to stop thinking of ourselves as consumers and learn how to make do.”
“I think we’ll have to,” I said, hoping I was wrong.
Walt Mills can be reached at email@example.com or at P.O. Box 174, Spring Mills, PA 16875.