Monday, June 15, 2009

William Urban: HARD TIMES, COME AGAIN NO MORE

HARD TIMES, COME AGAIN NO MORE

By William Urban

The words of the Stephen Foster song remind us how tough life was before the Civil War. The same message is conveyed by the better-known melody of Old Black Joe — that times were hard for everyone, especially for slaves. This was the era of Jacksonian democracy, when Whites experienced a combination of hope for prosperity and fear of economic collapse, and Blacks plotted to escape security into that stressful life. Economic security is always purchased at the cost of some freedom, sometimes all freedom; freedom can be frightening, because one has to make decisions and be responsible for one’s own prosperity. Circumstances can make this very difficult.
It is my impression that fewer schools teach these songs nowadays, and ever fewer teach what they represent. There are periodic complaints that young people don’t know the patriotic classics, countered by arguments that these songs glorify war and aggression. It’s a hard time to be a teacher in some school districts.
It’s also both harder and easier to teach music. Not too many decades ago Monmouth College had lots of beginning piano lessons, because elementary education teachers had to be able to play the traditional songs. Now it is easier to provide a teacher with a boom-box than a piano — convenience at the cost of that personal connection to music and a demonstration that playing music personally can be fun. But it is also true that we are past that era when schools boards felt that it was essential to help bind the nation together by emphasizing the history and culture that most Americans shared. “Multi-cultural” has been the catchword of recent years, with race-, gender- and cultural- politics being more important.
Lost in all this is the sense of widely shared successes, failures and suffering. If the piano is old-fashioned, what is a young person to think about memories of the Great Depression? Every family (or at least many) went through it. For some it made a lasting impression; for others the escape into prosperity was more important.
Trash-pick up week illustrates both of these characteristic. I am pleased to see people scour the streets for useable items. That is commendable thrift and enterprise. I grew up in more simple times, and for years our family of five managed to get all our weekly trash into a small bucket that won’t hold half the packing material of any new purchase. The piles of junk that remain after lumber, repairable items and almost new stuff has been carried away — those piles of boom boxes, sofas, chairs, stuffed bears and other worn-out toys illustrate how much we have become a consumer society.
It’s hard to resist. Each fall I take my potted plants indoors, and each spring I realize that I could replace those plants for about the cost of the electricity needed to provide them with heat and lighting. I could do without potted plants. As far as luxuries go, flower gardening is fairly cheap, but it is a luxury. Past generations would have gone straight for the vegetables.
It may be time to remember Stephen Foster, the Great Depression, and Victory Gardens again. Our current hard times have not been as bad as past ones — not that many people have put in gardens. Being out of work is hard, but no one is absolutely starving. More important is the fragility of the recovery. Fear of another 9/11 and the impact it had on the economy caused the Bush administration to begin spending money wildly, and Congress eagerly cooperated with that combination of earmarks and relaxing lending rules that led to last fall’s economic crisis. One who reads much about economics cannot be confident that we can rebound quickly from another 9/11, increased gas prices, or a war — say with North Korea. And one might doubt that earmarks are an improvement over committee oversight.
One has to hope that the Obama plans work quickly, because the spending plans that he and Congress have in mind make Washington budgets look as hopeless as those of Springfield. We have only four ways to cover deficits: raising taxes, borrowing money, printing money, or cutting spending. Congress seems to be choosing the third option — the most dangerous of all, because that leads to inflation, which can destroy an economy more fundamentally than any enemy attack. The fourth option seems to apply only to the missile defense system designed to counter North Korean threats.
When money becomes worthless, that is when the economy really crashes; and that is when people truly cannot buy food, or give it to others. That is when people understand that Camptown Races is so often followed by Hard Times Come Again No More.

Review Atlas (June 11, 2009), 4.

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