Friday, October 3, 2008


(Week 10 - Friday, Oct. 2)

In these last three weeks I have heard from voices in the media and people I have conversed with much speculative talk about whether the current financial emergency indicates that we are entering into another "Great Depression" of a nature similar to what the world endured in the 1930's. That such a comparison would arise is natural, given that many of the same factors that attended that crisis seem to be present in this one also. Many elders still living among us have a vivid memory of that time.

People are free, of course, to engage in any musings they feel moved to express, but I would suggest that, absent critical thinking, such speculations are effectively loose talk that pose a danger of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. The depression of the 30's was a real historical occurrence for which a relatively good picture can be formed. The term "depression", as it is somewhat uncritically used now, is, in my view, an abstraction that can distract our thinking from a real perception of what is happening now, and what needs to be done.

Since the 1930's the world has changed so fundamentally that, I would suggest, the litany of events of that period offers only minimal potential for guidance as to how the current crisis might unfold. To be sure, there are lessons from that episode that need to be learned, but the present crisis is happening in a world that is in many respects so changed as to be almost unrecognizable. The nation was able to survive the Depression of the 30's relatively intact (albeit with great hardship), and emerge stronger than ever on the world scene. In my estimation, such an outcome would not be certain if such a catastrophic monetary contraction were to occur today. Why do I say that?

In the decade of the 30's a quarter of the population still lived on the land, and a farm still, typically, had chickens and hogs for meat, a garden which was augmented by extended storage capabilities (canning & root cellaring), a woodlot for heat, a diverse mix of "organic" crops, simple equipment, and a limited need for cash flow. Farms were still embraced by a network of small rural towns, and communities where people knew and supported each other on a personal basis. This was true also of the town banker.

Now less than two percent of the populace remains on the farm, and the average age of the farmer is about sixty. Increasingly he is no longer an independent operator, but a manager who produces on contract to a corporation. The farmstead chickens, hogs, gardens, woodlots, crop diversity, and simple equipment are virtually gone. The limited need for cash flow has been supplanted by a huge appetite for money to buy seed, fertilizers, fuel, equipment, and other inputs.

The upshot is that if the monetary economy ceases to function to the degree that it did in the 30's, even the few farmer's who remain will for the most part be in the food line almost as quickly as the urban dweller. Where would our food come from? One can easily imagine the implications of such a situation for the cities.

In the manufacturing sector most products have gone hi-tech, and the capacity to produce real sustaining goods has been dismantled and shipped abroad. In the transition a wide range of practical manual and mental skills have not been passed on to the next generation. During the depression of the last century the skills most in demand, even in downtown office towers, were relatively basic. They depended largely on manual and mental dexterities that are rarely practiced anymore. They have been supplanted by highly specialized computer software routines that would be useless as survival skills if the money to finance their capital-intensive workstations stopped flowing.

The big growth area of the last few decades, it seems, has been in the service sector, but many of these jobs are essentially "doing the paperwork" on each other's lives (albeit in a software mode). Now many of these "service" jobs have disappeared to other shores in the endless search for "cheap labor". In any case, the service sector cannot be materially sustaining. We have to produce something. We can survive only so long by selling each other insurance, while borrowing more money to have foreigners make our products and do our work.

My purpose here is not to recite a litany of how much better life was in the good old days, as opposed to how untenable it has become now. Truth be told, many of these changes represent the impelling forces of human evolution, and embody in themselves their own virtues. My point here is simply to say that the times have changed. The economy is now high-tech, high-cash-flow, and global. Hardly anyone survives on their own efforts anymore, or even on the labors of their local, regional or national communities.

The division (or should I say atomization) of labor has become virtually utter, and globally dispersed. Like it or not, in this new socio/economic order people do not work for themselves anymore. They work to do their bit in supplying the needs of others who live often half-a-world away, and whose language they do not speak. The transformed conditions since the time of the last great global economic upheaval I am describing here is, of course, relative, but in essential ways it is effectively a "world turned upside down".

The web of relationships that holds all this together works through the monetary system. If that goes down, unlike in the last depression, we do not have the subsistence capabilities by which a modern civilized society can survive, save at unthinkable human trauma (if even then).

We as a nation, and as a global community, have no good option except to redeem the monetary system by transforming it, if it is not to implode, taking us and our civilization with it. There is an argument that can be made for going for the $700 billion "bailout" in the hope that we can buy some time before the final reckoning, but it is the same self-delusional reasoning that courses through the being of an addict who wants to stave off the inevitable by indulging in his weakness just one more time. The "bailout" may (or may not) keep the system going for a time, but there is no doubt that in the end the price we will pay will be more certain and ruinous for our having put off coming to terms with our addiction to "debt" money.

But, life is a leaf; turn it over. Unless we will it so, this crisis is not the end of the world. On the contrary, it may be our opportunity to step up and emerge into a bright new morning. There has been a lot of tragedy and suffering that has transpired in the course of getting to this juncture, but we can choose how events will unfold from here. Indeed we must.

There is a silver lining of grace in the dark cloud that looms over the financial world right now. The present crisis is not our grim chastiser (unless we refuse to understand it otherwise), but our teacher. If only we could behold the lesson it has to reveal (the necessity of returning, in the spirit of service (not gain), the monetary franchise to the public domain), a breathtaking vision of a new world would open up on the other side.

Richard Kotlarz

The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites: