Monday, October 13, 2008

Lessons from the Depression

The stock market is bouncing around again, but hard times seem to be everyone's current worry. Increasing grocery prices are part of the picture, along with many other uncertainties. My parents lived through the Great Depression, and they never forgot it for long. In the past 10 years, the collective behavior of the American people was against every lesson they taught me from the Depression experience. Specifically, many borrowed huge amounts and thought it was fine to owe more than their houses were worth. They were sure home values would never decrease.

Journalists have mentioned lessons learned and forgotten from the Great Depression; not all their specifics match my memories, though. Here are the five lessons that I think my parents conveyed:
  1. Don't Waste. Save Money. Avoid Debt. Don't buy inessentials or luxuries. Use your car until you save enough cash for a new one. Only losers borrow to buy clothing and furniture. Don't throw away anything that you can use. Eat everything on your plate. Use every leftover. If you don't play with a toy any more, another child should have it. Hand-me-down clothes and used furniture are fine; when you are done with them, pass them on to someone else. If you live beyond your means, you will regret it. Your house might drop in value so you might lose it when you can't make the payments. (I thought this was the one thing that would never happen again. Ouch.)
  2. Be Grateful. If someone hires you, thank them. Don't complain if they underpay you or mistreat you -- a job is a job. If someone gives you an ugly hand-me-down that doesn't fit you, say thank you. Don't complain.
  3. Fear the Future. You might lose your job, your house, your health. Pessimism rules. Stay away from dramatic political statements or actions that can affect your getting a job (a lesson reinforced in the early 50s by McCarthyism, but activists were blacklisted earlier as well).
  4. Rely on Education. Skills are better than investments in material goods or property. A salaried profession is better than self-employment or owning a store. Working for the government is secure and desirable.
  5. Vote Democratic. See fear and gratitude.
As I write them, the parallels to today's world become chillingly evident. I had no idea!

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