Sunday, June 21, 2009

William Urban: BETWEEN HARD TIMES

By William Urban

As I indicated last week, hard times have been more common than we remember. That is because most of us remember only what we have experienced personally or have been told about. Since times have been pretty good since the end of World War Two, very few of us remember anything but good times.
The post-war boom lasted longer than any period of growth in modern history (since 1500 or so), but it did not even reach some places. It used to be that the movie news had pictures of starving people, but today one can just change channels. The newspapers cover the same information, too, but that is even easier to skip over; also, today too few people even subscribe to a newspaper at all. As a result, we usually don’t even think about those war-torn or badly managed countries where people live miserable lives.
Those who feel guilty about the unfairness of all this — and it is unfair that we were born in America or managed to immigrate here, but it is also true that Americans work hard and they have established a legal-, economic-, and social system that encourages work and saving. Occasionally one hears that the Irish, or the Blacks, or the Hispanics have created American wealth, or that we have stolen it from the Indians or the Third World. It doesn’t take much effort to drive around town to see that people work hard in Monmouth; and corn and beans don’t just appear magically. It is true that not everyone in the world has been treated well, but we don’t have an abundance of food because we ripped it from the mouths of Native Americans — the hunter-gatherers who lived on our prairies were here because they had been driven out of the eastern woodlands by other Indians. They had hard, short lives. If you doubt it, try scrounging for food when the snow is deep. They lived well in the summer after Europeans brought the horse, but winters must have been deadly dull. And they had to fight to keep what they had.
Nevertheless, I have had a person tell me in all seriousness that we have starving people right here in Monmouth. My response was to ask for a name. I’d make a couple phone calls — to Matt Hutton or WRAM or any of several ministers or priests — and have food out to them in a couple hours (or sooner).
That is how disconnected we are from true starvation. Starving means not just going to bed hungry, but being in danger of dying. This hasn’t really been a problem for those of European descent since the earliest days of settlement. Going hungry, yes. There was quite a bit of that in the Thirties, when Roosevelt was plowing crops under to keep prices up (and Stalin was letting troublesome peasants in the Ukraine die). It was important for Hitler coming to power, and for Fascism and Communism to spread elsewhere. The promises of both the ideologies and the dictators were mostly false, but in hard times people grasped at promises.
That is one of the frightening aspects of our current economic crisis. In absolute terms ours is not that bad. It’s not enjoyable to be unemployed, but it’s not like losing your farm eighty years ago. American unemployment is now barely in the range of the European average during prosperity, and right here in Monmouth people can afford gas to cruise around town to recycle what others are throwing away. One just has to look at the piles of “junk” to see how much we have been able to buy in recent years; and one suspects that some of that “junk” has been replaced by something better.
But we have been sold the idea that our current crisis is truly terrible — and since there is little in our personal experience to judge by, we are left to rely upon historians to tell us how good we have it or how bad. Historians? One doesn’t need to be a historian to realize that for decades now our prosperity has been less solid than we believed. One New Madrid earthquake could have made it all disappear. Or an electro-magnetic pulse from an atomic bomb exploded high in the atmosphere.
Our current crisis is certainly not a reason to choose the shared poverty of a fully managed society. Cuba and the late Soviet Union attracted foreign admirers, but common people trapped in those systems of militarized planning tried to escape whenever they could. Zimbabwe and North Korea should remind us how good we have it.

Review Atlas (June 18, 2009), 4.

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