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March 04, 2009

So Much to Write About; So little Time

The lamentation in the title might serve for any number of think pieces as our overcrowded, fearful world teeters on the brink of economic and mental depression. With respect to the former, historians have generally recognized two major economic depressions since the Industrial Revolution began around the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. The first, known as the "Long Depression," and variously described as having started in 1873 or 1893, is beyond the direct recall of all living humans.

The second, and more recent, is now popularly referred to as the Great Depression. It began with a stock market crash in October, 1929, persisted throughout the Thirties and is considered to have lasted in the United States until the end of World War Two in 1945. Thus its entire duration is also beyond the direct memory of most living humans.

Although there are many uncertainties over dates and nomenclature, there is general agreement that the two depressions mentioned above had certain features in common: they took place in Europe and North America and were definitely interdependent as evidenced by bank failures on both continents; they also generated considerable social ferment and were bracketed by modern wars of progressively increasing scope and lethality. Finally; despite the economic hardships and deaths produced by (or related to) those events, an unprecedented and sustained increase in both global population and wealth has been experienced over the last two centuries.


Although it sank to its nadir in the month I was born (January 1932), I was too young for personal memories of the Depression's worst early years. Much of what I now know about them is from the dimly remembered recollections of several older cousins on my father's side of the family who, at various times and for protracted intervals, were squeezed into my grandfather's small three bedroom house for the simple reason that not only did he own it, he was the only adult with a steady job.

My own first fragmentary memories of the larger outside world included the collection and flipping of "war cards" depicting battle scenes from the 1937 Sino-Japanese War (they came wrapped with square penny bubble gum wafers). My first sustained memory of the outside world literally began on September 1, 1939, which was not only the day Germany invaded Poland, but also the Friday of that year's Labor Day Weekend, thus our first awareness of World War Two was a news broadcast over the car radio as my mother was driving to Long Beach on the South shore for the annual chore of closing up our modest beach house for the Winter. I continued to follow the war closely through the Fall of France in June 1940. My interest was then directly engaged that same Summer when my mother's sister and her three children fled just ahead of the bombing of London, arriving by ship and staying; first at the beach house, then moving with us into into our suddenly overcrowded five room apartment in Queens for the start of school in the Fall.

One of the few print magazines I still subscribe to is Atlantic. This month’s lead article was written by Richard Florida, an academic whose father was about the same age as my older cousins and also grew up during the depression in the New York Metropolitan area under very similar circumstances. Drawing heavily on his father’s depression era experience to set the tone, Florida leaves little doubt that he sees today’s financial problems as very similar to the Thirties (although he doesn't quite forecast a depression). The lion's share of his long article then focuses on metropolitan areas, a subject he has been writing about extensively, with an emphasis on how they may be impacted by a severe economic downturn. It didn’t take me long to learn that although Florida has many fans, he has not not been without critics, most of whom seem both conservative and disdainful.

My own criticism of Florida isn't because of his focus on metropolitan areas as centers of creativity, which I generally agree with, but because he, like almost every academic author writing seriously about current events pretends there is no such thing as a war on drugs in the United States, let alone that it's not a serious impediment in dealing with our financial crisis. So widespread and pervasive is this pretense that the drug war isn't a problem (or perhaps, more accurately that that it's an affordable insanity) that I now see the human capacity for denial as a major cognitive flaw in our species; a form of dishonesty that could bring about chaos even faster than the looming energy problems we are also reluctant to deal with.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at March 4, 2009 04:36 PM