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Paul Greenberg / December 2, 2009

A Word from the Little Old Lady

I’d really wanted to get with it, honest. I had this powerful urge to don sackcloth and ashes, beat my breast, proclaim that The End Is Near, and generally do a Paul Krugman. It was quite the fashion for a while among the Eeyores of the columnizing trade. They were placing all their bets on black – dark, funereal black – when the Panic of 2008 hit, which they insisted on confusing with the Great Depression. So did the kind of politicians who thrive on shouting Fire in a crowded election year.

There was so much crepe being hung, you’d think the economy had died. And there’s still a lot of that going around. I’ve lost count by now of the comparisons made between these times and the 1930s – by everybody from Barack Obama to Timothy Geithner to The Man on the Street, although Google puts the number at approximately 2,700,000. That’s quite a chorus to be singing a requiem for the American economy.

Here’s a typical verse: “…Timothy Geithner is making his mark the hard way, as caretaker of the economy in the worst crisis since the Great Depression.” –Jonathan Mann, CNN, as late as March 27, 2009.

No wonder that “Comparisons are odious” has become a proverb. The Panic of 2008-09 is like the Depression of 1929-39? What ever happened to the dot-com bust at the tail end of the Clinton Administration, the stock market Crash of 1987, the Reagan Recession of the early ‘80s before it was Morning in America Again? Or the Carter Stagflation, or just the cyclical rhythm of boom and bust in the economy? Didn’t anything ever happen in this country’s economic history besides the Depression?

It’s as if amnesiac America could remember only the 1930s. It must be the effect of those unforgettable Walker Evans photographs of the era. They give it an irresistible appeal whenever pundits or pols find themselves in need of an economic comparison. I wanted to join the stylish crowd, but I just couldn’t carry it off.

“It makes a fellow lonely,” I had to confess in one column, “not to see the disaster everybody tells me is upon us. It’s not easy, being the Last Optimist of the Western World. I do my best, honest I do, to share the pervasive pessimism about the American economy and where it’s headed in a handbasket. I feel it’s expected of anyone who wants to retain his credentials as a Serious Thinker. But every time I peer around, sincerely in search of the economic apocalypse that’s upon us, all I can discern is just a classic 19th-century financial panic….”

I realized I was not entirely alone when I heard from the Little Old Lady in Connecticut:

“Today’s column really hit home. Born in 1920, I was nine when the world around me began to collapse – old enough to read faces and interpret words I hadn’t heard before. I knew very quickly that something enormous had just happened and that things would be different, very different. In Manhattan there were long lines in many places, very often men wearing the long, full-skirted and ugly military overcoats they’d worn during World War I and carrying tin cups hoping for hot soup at the end of the line. It was a sight that always scared me. My father had an overcoat like that in a closet and I did not want to see it come out of the closet.”

Lines were common around the block with the local bank the destination. Everyone tried to get out whatever money they might have tucked away. Some got it, some got some and some got none.

“As a veteran of the Great Depression, I have tried to make people understand that what happened then was a whole different story than what they think they see ahead today. It was very different. … Some cities paid employees – teachers, firemen, cops and others – with Scrip, which my parents explained as IOUs. I never found out if they were eventually paid off. No welfare programs, student loans, unemployment insurance payments, no state help, no federal help, enormous unemployment. As you pointed out, 25 percent of Americans had no jobs and practically no prospect of finding one.

"We were 'rich’ because in Waterbury, where we’d moved, we were not very far from my grandfather’s family farm, a small one but able to supply us with eggs, milk, fruit and vegetables, jars of my grandmother’s pickles, jam, butter, a chicken now and then, and sometimes a braided loaf of bread for Friday night, and occasionally meat. Once a week, probably on Saturday mornings, all the little boys in the neighborhood could be seen pulling their red wagons down the hill toward the City Hall where they would line up waiting. Eventually, until it gave out, they might get some of the basics – the only substantive help available – five pounds of flour, or sugar or both if lucky. Eggs and milk were seldom handed out, never meat, never butter.

"I still remember an aunt’s cautionary remark at lunch on the days when my family, parents and two kids, joined my aunt’s five kids. She’d bring out the food (she also shared the bounty of the farm) but would warn, ‘Go easy on the butter, kids. It’s 30 cents a pound.’ I do not think we are headed for that kind of decade, but it’s hard to convince people. This is a Recession and far from a Depression. I hope for the best….”

Of course she does. She’s an American and can’t help it. Also, because she’s not writing out of theory or throwing around ahistorical comparisons in search of a good lede for a story or a theme for the 2010 congressional elections. (“We saved the country from another Depression!”)

The Little Old Lady was writing from experience, which is another name for history, the real kind, the kind you live through. It gives her a certain perspective. May she live long and be well. We need such voices. I know I look forward to hearing from her the next time The Greatest Crisis Since the Depression doesn’t hit.

© 2008 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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