The lost Depression perspective

Richard W. Smith

December 11, 1991|By Richard W. Smith

IN ONE state capital after another, angry citizens are marching against their governors and legislators. If they are not waving placards proclaiming the vileness of tax increases, they are chanting against the unfairness of cuts in services. "Morning in America" is as dark as midnight, and it's not even lunchtime.

But prosperity in America has had a long run. If you are under 55, you have no memories at all of the Depression. You have to be 65 to have spent your childhood in the '30s. You have to be 75 to remember trying to find a job at a time when young men thought themselves lucky to be in the Civilian Conservation Corps or the Works Progress Administration, two make-work programs of the '30s. You have to be 85 to remember how it was, trying to run a business or operate a factory department during those grim days.

In the Depression, war veterans did not organize to build monuments and memorials. They marched on Washington for a few bonus dollars to feed their families.

World War II veterans, who went to college under the GI Bill, remember Depression-ravaged campuses with unpainted buildings and so few library books that they could borrow them for only four hours at a time. They can be excused for not being overly sympathetic to today's students protesting about a few more bodies in a classroom and the elimination of some fringe courses.

Men who, in their youth, played stickball in the street with a broomstick and a wad of newspapers wrapped in rubber bands can't be comfortable passing night-lighted Little League playing fields. Grandparents can only stare in wonder when they hear their children complain about having to buy $90 sneakers for their children. They remember patching shoes with 15-cent kits from Woolworth's.

Depression people enjoyed America's march to prosperity and to world dominance, but they were never really comfortable with it. They knew it could all disappear.

As the Depression people began to retire in the '70s and '80s, they could only marvel at the corporate perks their younger colleagues took for granted. Having taken the street car to their first job, the elderly watched the countryside covered with parking lots, company cars become routine for mid-level managers, long-distance telephone calls replace letters and overnight air trips replace long-distance phone calls. Besides, nobody was making anything anymore. They were all shuffling papers.

During the Depression, if a businessman was lucky enough to continue to make money, it was not seemly to make a public point of it. Getting your name in the newspapers for conspicuous consumption was the last thing any capitalist wanted to do.

In Winston Salem, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., as long as it was controlled by Depression-era people, would not allow its executives to drive anything more ostentatious than a Buick. Even very profitable organizations had a sense of decorum. When the go-go, junk bond boys of the '80s took over R.J. Reynolds, Mercedes and BMWs began to show in abundance.

Of the new breed of billionaires that dominated the business news going to and from the bankruptcy courts and jail, Depression people could only relate to Sam Walton of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Sam was said to brown-bag it and drive a pickup. And Sam was old enough to be a Depression person himself.

It is no accident that a greater percentage of men and women over 65 own their homes than any other age group. Part of that is longevity, of course, but much of it is a sense of the need to prepare for a rainy day. The same is true of Social Security. The Depression people saw to it that the old would not be devastated again, as they were in the '30s.

They also saw to it that depositors in banks and savings and loans would not be wiped out, as many of them were. Unfortunately, they did not reckon on the bankers being a good bit less than honest and competent.

Even during the best of times, Depression people could not shake themselves of the feeling that the good times were only temporary. Having had to pay dearly for the progress they made in life, they knew in their bones that all the debts would come due.

The boomers who let the good times roll had no sense of impending hard times. The credit card economy was all they had ever known. If they had heard that "you can't have your cake and eat it, too," it did not make much of an impression.

The disillusioned marchers in front of state capitols are simply undergoing a painful reality check. It is no longer possible to solve problems or cover them up by throwing money at them. There is no more money, and the boomers know no other way to function.

It should be remembered that Depression people, schooled the hard way in frugality, practicality and reality, were the men and women who made the last 40 years so prosperous.

Retired and living in Baltimore, Richard W. Smith is one of the Depression people.

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