Would it be so bad if we had another depression? It’s one of those taboo utterances that will get you in trouble at a dinner party as everyone is inwardly fretting over their stock market losses and portfolios gone bad. I don’t have much of a portfolio other than what adults purchased in my name in my youth. To my credit, I haven’t burned through them impulsively. They still sit in my filing cabinet, being brought out into the light of day when I need to use them as collateral to fund this or that business venture, travel adventure or other big ticket item. Then, when the loan is paid off the bank returns them and I return them to my filing cabinet where they now sit. Depreciating, I guess.
I’ve been thinking about the way America has been acting in the past few months. Highway departments across the nation are reporting that more people are carpooling, less are traveling by car and overall highway use is down. The silver lining, they say is that there is less wear and tear and thus, less expensive repair necessary.
The glut of beautiful farm fields being turned into McMansions has virtually come to a halt. I used to ride my bike through the country and watch as seemingly ten houses would be thrown together before I could even complete my morning ride. Where are all these people coming from? I used to think. Of course, they were simply redistributing; leaving established towns to die as they followed their white flight into what would soon no longer be country. Throw up a neighborhood. Call it something that used to be their like “Quail Run.” And enjoy the housing boom. What, I used to think, would it take for Americans to stop this mad march toward unfulfilling insanity? Will we only be happy when we’ve plowed up every single farm field and turned it into a subdivision?
Sometimes I would drive past an enormous mall-sized parking lot where a local car manufacturer would park thousands of minivans until a day or two later they would all be gone. Who, I used to ask myself, requires all those thousands of cars? How can America’s highways stand this infusion of so many cars? Who knows how many thousands of other parking lots like this one are holding areas for vast herds of vehicles waiting to be turned loose on our roadways?
Then, almost suddenly it all stopped.
What would it take for America to start behaving more like everyone else in the world? What would it take for us to be less focused on devouring everything at the penny carnival, less focused on spending that dollar that’s burning a hole in our pocket and simply enjoy the social aspect of having all our friends gathered around us? The answer seems to be: Less access to readily available cash. Suddenly we don’t need all this stuff. (As I write this in my local coffee house, the Beatles chant “All you need is love” over the speaker. What would it take? Well, as the current meltdown, disaster, catastrophe, bust, recession, slowdown, depression is showing us: it just takes a slowdown in the flow of money.
Like my chain-smoking friend who was admitted to the hospital after a car accident found out, when you remove the supply from the addict you’ll be surprised at the fact that they really can live without the habit.
What we’re clinging to here is our habits, folks. It’s finally coming out into plain view what that American Standard of living really is. It’s an American standard of spending. And we’re going through the panic of realizing that our drug supply is threatened. Soon, we’ll go through the painful withdrawls where we will beg, plead and threaten in order to have our supply restored. Then, if we’re lucky, we will turn the corner and see that the sun still comes up every morning. We’ll see that living in a real neighborhood where people gather on their porches and occasionally cross the street to talk to the neighbor feels pretty good. We’ll learn to cook at home and we’ll find that we really don’t need stainless-steel, restaurant grade stoves to make a pot of soup.
In the past few weeks we’ve learned that CEO’s don’t behave responsibility and you really can’t trust corporations to do the right thing. We’ve learned that too much access to too much money isn’t the key to happiness. We’ve learned that eventually the day of reckoning will come and then you have to pay the fiddler. And for some, these lessons hit especially hard.
But the world is fundamentally the same today as it was when those people’s portfolios were fat and bloated several months ago. The sun will come up tomorrow. There is probably more money in circulation today than there was several months ago. The question is: Is it making us any happier?
I spoke to my mother and grandmother who lived through the Great Depression. They both agreed that they had everything but money. Perhaps the real low point in this country came after the Great Depression. It built for several decades afterwards. Maybe we will call it the Great Binge or the Great Bloating. It’s when America became fat and bloated and ugly. It was when we lost our moral direction. It was when we forgot how to be happy.
Maybe that is how we will remember decades of excess that brought us little happiness. Robert Bly seems to indicate in his books that it is human to have periods of personal and social depression. The difference between coming out healthy and never coming out is in accepting the depression. He suggests diving down deep into its depths and learning a discipline while we’re trapped underground. Learn to play an instrument. It’s funny that the instrument of choice of the Great Bloating was the game RockBand. The opposite of really playing music.
My friend is due to get out of the hospital sometime next week. I hope he doesn’t ask me to take him to get cigarettes.