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We’re going back to the Depression – NOT

December 23rd, 2008 · 19 Comments

Okay, this is a late-night, non-urban-politics personal rant, but I’m going to gag if I see many more media stories saying that the current economic crisis is having such a profound impact on people that they’re rediscovering their Depression-era values, scrimping and saving like it was the ’30s again.

Oh, puh-leez. This MUST be written by people whose entire knowledge of the Depression comes from watching the movie Seabiscuit.

I have had the great good fortune to grow up the daughter of someone who lived through the Depression and, believe me, you’re no Depression. These are some of my mother’s recollections of life in the 30s on a wheat farm in southeastern Saskatchewan:

They would sometimes eat boiled wheat because there was nothing else in the house. Ontario farmers sent out exotic items like cheese and oranges, which were received with great excitement. My uncles had to ride the rails because there was no work for them to do locally and they couldn’t find regular jobs. My grandfather realized at one point he needed to apply for welfare to feed his family but he was so ashamed that, after walking all the way to the nearest town, he turned back without asking for it the first time.

As far as I can tell from reading media coverage and listening to people talk, this is the new Depression:

You try to haggle with someone in a store to sell you a blender for only $200. You don’t open your investment statements. You put off buying a flat-screen TV for the bedroom. You wonder if you could pick up a secondhand car at a good price, given the world economic disaster and all. You eat out at restaurants with $20 entrees instead of $30 ones.

Sheesh.

The only thing that’s possibly more annoying than those stories is the glee of all the anti-consumer types who are tearfully envisioning a scenario where impending economic Armageddon will somehow prevent hordes of teenagers from splurging on Ugg boots and True Religion jeans, while their parents will be forced to forego even more serious spending.

Oh, it’s all such wishful thinking. The reality is that we live in a world where, by and large, a majority of us in the industrialized countries have enough money to cover the necessities of life and then some. We also live in a complex consumer society. Both of those mean we are unlikely to go back to the lifestyles of your average 1930s farm or factory worker.

It’s going to take a lot more than a few months of economic uncertainty for that to happen.

Categories: Uncategorized

  • http://condohype.wordpress.com condohype

    Well, I guess it’s a “depression” in the face of the leveraged- to- the- max, my- condo- is- going- to- be- worth- $14-million- in- 2010, B.C.- is- the- best- place- on- Earth exuberance of the last five years.

  • http://tovancouver.blogspot.com West End Bob

    Thanks for putting it in perspective, fabula.

    The voice of reason strikes again . . . .

  • Jeannette M

    As someone who works in the wealth management industry, I am tired of people asking me if I am worried about my job.

    THANK YOU for this. Just because the average person is afraid of their investment statement, doesn’t mean that every part of the investment related industry is going tits up.

    For the record, my job at a large Canadian wealth management company is very secure, and while msot people are afraid of their investments, those of us in the know are buying as much as we can!

  • spartikus

    It’s going to take a lot more than a few months of economic uncertainty for that to happen.

    With all due respect, the consensus of most economists…or should I say those economists who successfully predicted this mess (Roubini, Krugman, etc) foresee it lasting until 2010. And that’s with the massive stimulus being contemplated by the Obama Administration (a model which Harper is being compelled to follow) and even then they are not completely certain.

    The poor in this country don’t boil wheat anymore, it’s true. They buy 50 cent Ramen packages, or KD, or boiled potatoes which, excepting the latter, have even less nutritional value.

    I’m glad Jeannette M’s job is secure. I’m glad mine is too. I know people being laid off, however. Not in the wealth management industry, sure, but let’s not pretend it isn’t happening in general and that double-digit unemployment isn’t being discussed as a realistic possibility in this country.

  • A. G. Tsakumis

    Frances:

    You made me want to stand up and cheer.

    Recession, yes. American devaluation, yes (just wait until another 8 million homes are lost in the next three years by those who cannot pay even conventional mortgages…)

    HOWEVER!

    In Canada, where we have a highly capitalized banking system, with national branch banking system(s), and a more conservative (philosophically speaking) approach to our economy, we will be impacted less so.

    Your review, although more social commentary than hard economic musing, is appropriate and spot on.

  • Rick

    Ai-ya, I’m sick of this recession talk too…CNN seems to have replaced all those “the War in Iraq” graphics with “the Economic Crisis” graphics…

    Also I’m pretty tired of people giving the Canadian banking system the big ‘thumbs up’…I don’t see how 20 million people sending their money to a handful of buildings in Toronto is something for the world to learn from.

  • foo

    Spoken like true comfortable upper-middle class city dwellers. Meanwhile, out here in the real world, things aren’t quite as rosy.

  • T W

    Whether you have a job, have lost a job, seen your career vanish and/or seen your retirement savings evaporate, the prevalent mood, in my view, is quite akin to the Depression or a world war. Events are quite beyond the control of most individuals and nearly beyond the control of most politicians. There will be a fertile ground for some very unscrupulous politicians in the economic debris in the coming year.

  • Bill Lee

    Barry Broadfoot and James Gray books are still around
    about the Great Depression which started in 1928 on the Prairies with
    the harvest failure and the lack of summer work for the land labourers from Ontario.
    A.E. Safarian’s book on the economy was a cheap M&S paperback classic.

    The Winter Years by James Gray
    Ten Lost Years by Barry Broadfoot, also a Van Sun writer.
    The Canadian economy in the Great Depression by A. E. Safarian
    which can be contrasted with the business stasis nowadays.

  • http://westcoastindienews.blogspot.com/ Westcoast Indie News

    Oh, I don’t know if homeless people who burn to death in shopping buggies, or freeze to death in their vehicles, their last possessions in the world, would share your optimism about the state of things such as the economy.

    It’s easy for middle class, educated professionals to disavow what’s happening. Have you spoken to some of your fellow colleagues in journalism who’ve been laid off across the country about how things are going? About how easy they’ve found it to get new jobs?

    We are in a time of massive “correction” – real estate prices, markets, etc. We’re also in a time where those of us who are paying attention to it are seeing the biggest transfer of public wealth into corporate hands (some may call it corporate welfare) in history in these bailouts packages, or proposed ones. Note the CEO’s Council bellying up to the public trough, banks that haven’t passed on interest cuts to consumers, the loss of over 700,000 jobs, most in Ontario.

    These things are real, and perhaps people aren’t yet eating boiled wheat, or lard sandwiches, and hopping the rails, or living in shanty towns but life isn’t as rosy as some of us might like to think and I think it’s really shameful that the privileged classes can so publically fail to acknowledge that. I think it’s the perfect time for people such as those posting here to start getting active in volunteering around town and see life is quite a bit different for many. You might learn something, including a few things called humility, realism and compassion who don’t receive the benefits some of us do.

    For a follow up story, I’d be really interested in reading interviews Frances does with people living in poverty – seniors, single moms’, immigrants. Lets get a real view of how the economy is impacting a broader section of people than those who can be observed in shopping malls. Because as far as I have observed, the voices, lives and perspectives of poor people have long been ignored, or don’t make “good copy” to too many journalists and media outlets who then use their soapboxes to shape what is “truth” and “reality.”

    To finish up, I hope to hear from each and every one of us in a follow up in one year for updates on how secure our jobs have been, the impacts on the lives to those around us, those we volunteer with and what changes we’ve made as a result of our economic circumstances. I sincerely hope and pray that things won’t be as bad as I think they will be and am very open to being wrong, so is it a date? December 23rd 2009. Same place, same conversation?

  • Rick

    I just wanna say that in 2006 at the height of the “geez aren’t we all swell” times part of my job was helping people deal with the local welfare office. There were lots of people hurting then due in large part to the perception that everyone was fine, just fine and only the lazy couldn’t get a job in that economy. So it’s not just the employed that aren’t seeing changes in the economy, those that were struggling in 2006 are still struggling.

  • spartikus

    As Harry Truman said “It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours.”

  • Not running for mayor

    When we as a society can discuss the current depression on the internet we aren’t in a real depression. Once you’ve cancelled the phone/cable/internet and sold the computer then we can talk.
    Using the recent deaths to stress an argument is pretty lame, and their were people suffering the same fate during the greatest boom of modern times.

  • Peter

    Actually there are thousands of people who have lost their jobs in the past three months.

    Right here in BC, the greatest place on earth.

    If you work in transportation, construction, oil, gas, coal, forestry, its tough times. If you work in the media, telemarketing or a car dealership things are looking pretty bleak. If you own a condo and your waiting for the bubble to burst, watch out. Its coming soon in the new year. If your sixty-five this year and have to convert your company pension, if you ever had one, to an annuity this year. My thoughts are with you.

    I actually find it sad that someone who would think of herself as a journalist and some one who is apparently teaching young journalists, would write and post something well … snooty. I suppose you’re just out there trying to protect your interests like so many other people who are struggling this year.

    Good luck to you Ms. Bula. I hope it all holds together for you and your yuppie pals. Don’t land on your arse, it smarts.

  • Wayne

    My impression is that those who endured the Depression of the ’30s never forgot what it was like and many continued to live as though it could happen to them again after the recovery. I don’t know what else will smarten us up other than another Depression.

    And, anyone who claims to work in the ‘wealth management industry’ whatever the heck that is, needs a smack in the head.

  • http://pacificgazette.blogspot.com RossK

    Did Ms. Bula just say ‘sheesh’?

    .

  • Allison

    Thanks for the rant on an issue that is really bothering me. All the references to Frugalistas and depression era chic in the papers is not just laughable but speaks to the completely. Minor curbing of ridiculous and wasteful spending is not depression era living. What is more disconcerting about this stream of thinking is that so many of the “haves” in this country are being encouraged to cast themselves as “have nots”. If people making over six digits a year can claim to have nothing to share who is going to support our charitable industries?

  • Dawn Steele

    I think it’s waaaay too early to call this one.

    Paul Krugman (http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com) has been discussing how our leaders need to “do better than FDR at fighting an economy that wants to go into depression.”

    A screeching halt to credit-driven consumer spending and 3/4 million job losses a month in the US has got to start hurting at some point unless we can pull off a major turnaround. Look at the price of oil.

    A couple friends have just lost their jobs and the office next to my husband’s firm has already laid off about 30% of its staff. I’m sure it’s already looking like a depression from where they’re sitting, although some of us will get through fine even if it does get pretty bad.

    IMHO, whether we end up with a recession, a depression or a momentary fit of economic pique will depend on how well we manage a situation that even the leading economic minds admit has them flumoxed. And if they do mange to avert an all-out depression, we will still eventually have to face the mind-boggling bill, sooner or later, for the hundreds of billions that have already been poured on to try to douse this crisis.

  • Denis

    Go look in the malls and tell us there is a depression? Recesson yes. I do recall when very young seeing men coming to our door asking if my father needed any work done. They were hungry and had been riding the rails. They always got something to eat. There were relief camps up our way in the Ontario bush towns. There was no UI, or welfare, so if there was no job,families didn’t eat. If one of the kids got sick, there was no doctor around to help the family. When a condo goes up in price a couple of hundred percent,in a very few years, folks it can come down even faster. We feel for those who by the luck of the draw have no job and are willing and able to work. Let’s not argue as to what is happening, let’s spend some time telling the folks we elected to get their shit together and sort out a few things. King Gordo froze all property assesments when the so called value was the highest, some folks will have to walk away from the biggest investment in their lives. I don’t know the answers but somebody better know what to do. We seem able to spend billions on a two week circus as others are scared stiff, they are about to get canned. The places that give out free food are seeing working families with kids in the line up. We have money to bring in more senators, but many folks will be learning how to do with less or nothing.