Our Favorite Depression

Why the next one could be much worse than the last

We've been gossiping about an imminent recession most years since the '70s. Lately there's been serious and informed talk, for the first time in my memory, of another Depression.

To some of us, it may not sound that scary. Americans have a soft spot for the last one. The 1930s was a Golden Age for movies and literature and jazz and architecture—in New York as well as here, a "prewar" building is much envied by high-end condo-seekers. The Great Depression was Rodgers and Hart, Hope and Crosby, Fred and Ginger, George and Gracie, Laurel and Hardy. It was Hemingway, Faulkner, Disney, Ellington, Gershwin, the Marx Brothers; it was a high point of American culture. It's often assumed that the Depression gave us self-discipline, but maybe it also brought an aesthetic clarity.

We've gotten used to thinking of the '30s, despite the hardships, as an honest, hardworking era, a time of both gravity and grace. A lot of people had to downscale, and some college-educated professionals had to get jobs working with their hands. But whatever men had to do, they never did it without a fedora and pleated slacks. Men in the Great Depression always looked sharp.

People who grew up during that period offer some variation of the familiar line, "We were poor, but we were happy." That statement may be eliding a world of pain, but you believe them.

Few economists predict we're in for another Great Depression, with 30 percent unemployment. But it may be important to remind ourselves that if it does get that bad again, it will be much worse than it was then.

We've changed in the last 75 years or so, by degrees, in irreversible ways. We live and work very differently. Knoxville is much more dependent on the national and global economy now; as a result, we're more vulnerable than we used to be. Most of us have come to depend on the Internet for one thing or another: on Google, on Amazon, on eBay and Craigslist. Most are supported by corporate advertising, which is vulnerable to bank crises. In an economic catastrophe, much of the Web-based economic culture that makes it all go might evaporate.

And a computer's not a shovel. If several subscriber or advertising-supported systems crash, a laptop's not worth much. A few years ago, scholar Richard Florida extolled his theory of the Creative Class, raising provocative issues about which cities in America will thrive in the future; he concludes that the modern economy will favor those cities that are most technologically sophisticated, and most removed from their industrial or agricultural past. Farms, in short, are so 20th Century.

Florida's theories work within a context of a sound economy and American hegemony. But it turns out that even in the tech-savvy 21st Century, we still need food—even more, in fact, than we need blogs. If we just don't produce these basics ourselves, we're at the mercy of whoever does.

Lately I've been hearing friends picture a fallback plan: What they'll do if their employer, or their whole profession, dissolves. "I'll have to get a job digging ditches," is the cliché. I've heard that phrase at least three times in the last week.

But the ditches aren't hiring anymore. A skilled laborer with a big machine digs them. Those who lose jobs in their specialties won't necessarily be able to downsize as handily as our ancestors did: dishwashing or road building or sharecropping or cutting paths through a new national park.

A salesman or bank teller or journalist who lost his job in the 1930s might pick up something in a factory, and hope for better times. In Knoxville in the 1930s, one of the biggest T-shirt factories in America was downtown. There was also a flour factory, a coffee factory, machine shops, rail yards, lumberyards. Nearby were coal mines, marble quarries. They all hired unskilled labor—and by supplying basic needs, offered Knoxville some limited immunity to what happened on Wall Street. Knoxville suffered during the Depression, but in the 1930s, the Knoxville metropolitan area could almost have survived as an independent nation.

Maybe more importantly, all Knoxvillians lived within an hour's walk of farms. A farm was a source of employment for many non-farmers, especially during planting and harvesting seasons, but also a source of food near population centers, a source not entirely dependent on the global economy, the price of oil or the economic health of national trucking companies.

Since then, we've turned our farms into subdivisions and shopping centers, our factories into brownfields. Most of the farming still done in America is done on a giant scale, in remote places, with large machinery run by the few people who know how to operate it. Then more networks of professionals to get the food to us. Sprawl has left us much more dependent on gasoline at whatever the going price.

I've always resisted the truism that the past was ever a "simpler time." People of the 1930s had their own complications. It was more complicated to clean an oven, make a long-distance phone call, dress for dinner, shop for milk, start a car, paint a house. And then there were other complications like polio, typhoid, smallpox, racial segregation.

But it was simpler in that respect. If you needed something to eat, you weren't far from its source. You could walk down any road from most American cities, and find a farmer who was growing something you could eat. A subsistence barter economy was at least possible. That was simpler.

We still need food, but now we won't have food in sufficient supply without an organized national network of transportation. If transportation, which is dependent on the economy and the global supply of oil, fails, we may be doomed this time. We'd starve to death quicker than we could have in the '30s, on a level that we're used to associating with Asia or Africa.

We're much more dependent on the health of the global economy than our grandparents were. If you have a choice of Depressions, take the one from the '30s. But I'm afraid it won't be on the table.