Most of the entire front page of today's Seattle Times is a sepia print of the "Hooverville" of plywood homes built just south of downtown's Smith Tower, which was at the time the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River. In the article, survivors of the Great Depression told how they made it through, giving advice seemingly to be applied today.
Of course, in the GD, unemployment was 25%; even after Roosevelt's huge expenditures he only managed to whittle that to 14%. Amity Shlaes, author of The Forgotten Man, the excellent work showing that stimulus spending by the government exacerbated the GD rather than bringing recovery, cites Stanley Lebergott and Richard Vedde, whose "data show average annual unemployment in the twenty percent range for a number of years – 1933, 1934, 1935. At points in 1937 or 1938, unemployment gets back to 20%," after temporary drops.
And what is unemployment today? Bureau of Labor statistics for December, 2008: 7.2% nationally. Interestingly, while some states, like Michigan, hard-hit by auto-makers' layoffs, had rates as high as 10%, they were offset by many states, like Wyoming, North and South Dakota and Nebraska, where unemployment was below 4%.
So, even though the present jobless situation isn't anywhere as dire as the GD (at least we have banks insured and many protective regulations in place) let's spend, spend, spend and ignore the lessons of history.
Cut to this weekend when we're dropping off our daughter back to her sorority at the University of Washington. We're stopped at a signal a few blocks from the campus. Eyes shift to a church parking lot, where people sit among rows of florescent pink domed tents and blue tarp lean-tos. Whereas the Depression housing was named for President Hoover who presided over the crash, this sight is "Nickelsville," a slap at Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, who ordered that vagrants huddled in shop doorways driving off customers, or spread out in clusters under freeways move, and he offered help and accommodation in shelters.
But they didn't want it. Nickelsville was the creation of homeless activists, some were the same ones who proudly oversee the roving "Tent City" that spent August, September and October at a church lot in my neighborhood. They're happy the tents are florescent pink to draw attention to the "plight" of these folk who feel just too cooped up in shelters where there are rules and requirements. Interestingly, as Nickelsville has endured, more and more rules have had to be implemented. Like no drinking; no outside visitors after 9 pm till the morning.
I came across a student video showing a few Nickelsville residents (which one-name filmmaker "Nathan" spells "Nicholsville") within a laughably pro-homeless script: "Homeless people fall victim to countless stereotypes. Allegedly, they are lazy people who lack intelligence. Allegedly, they chose to make nothing of their lives. Nothing could be further from the truth." Cut to a healthy-looking young man in a knit snow cap: "I'm a resident of Nickelsville and a homeless Marine Corps veteran."
Aren't there any services for Marines? Or, um, should I be skeptical of this guy, like I am of the many youthful beggars holding "Disabled Vietnam Vet" signs by freeway offramps?
What I find fascinating is the media's desire to make our present economic dip into "the worst crisis since the Great Depression." They have to, because unless they can get more people to buy their newspapers, watch their TV shows and click on their ad-framed websites, they, too, will have to sacrifice. But I'd betcha that no matter how difficult things get, they won't have to put cardboard in their shoes to cover holes, eat potato soup for weeks on end, or scrounge for plywood to build a home. Give up the daily Starbucks latte? Move in with a friend?
In fact, in the '30s when people were truly destitute, most had so much pride that they'd rather go hungry than be "on the dole" taking government handouts. And if you look at the photo of the Hooversville shanties, you'll notice that they're spread apart, not chock-a-block together like Nickelsville tents.
Reminds me of the words of Bilaam, the biblical anti-Semite prophet sent by King Balak to curse the Jews. When he opened his mouth, looking down from above the Jewish encampment spread at his feet, the only words that came out were the blessing, "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!"
What did he mean by that? What he saw was the way the Jews had arranged the openings of their tents irregularly, so none could peer into another's abode, in order to respect privacy.
Personal pride and pioneer self-sufficiency motivated the nation in the Great Depression, as did individual generosity to reach out and help. 'Twould be goodly, all right, if we could tend to our personal tents with pride rather than expect the government to assume huge debt for give-aways. It might be temporarily tough but compared to the lot of residents of those shanties in the picture, we've got it way easy.