May 3, 2002 (Ira Pilgrim)

Good Times

Who, day and night, must scramble for a living,

Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers?

from Fiddler on the Roof

I was born during the roaring twenties. By the time I had learned to read, the great depression was in full swing. Lots of people were out of work and there was no such thing as unemployment insurance. Many people had lost their life savings when the banks failed. It wasn't just the factory workers who had no work; there were even a few doctors and lawyers who had to wield a snow shovel in order to make enough to feed their families. There were even some rich people who had lost their shirts. Some were committing suicide in despair. After that came World War II and the conventional wisdom is that it was the war, not Roosevelt's New Deal, that had ended the depression.

Nothing like that has happened since. Two generations have grown up not knowing what it is like to have mass unemployment. Bank failures have occurred, but no one has lost his savings. Like theft insurance, the cost of what was stolen by the bankers was spread out over the entire population.

After living through The Depression and World War II, it's hard to get excited about what I would consider the normal ups and downs of the economy.

If things continue as they have for another 25 years, it will be the first time in the history of the modern world that a whole generation of Americans has lived and died without knowing a major economic catastrophe or a major war. What is happening now is small potatoes compared to the wars and economic disasters of the past.

There hasn't been a big war in 50 years. The wars we have fought have been with countries that have not come into the industrial age, not as in W.W.II where we faced the most modern military machine in history.

Has it been because of the competence of world leaders? I doubt it. The major talent that all of our presidents have had is the ability to get themselves elected. Few really knew much about government and relied on their expert(?) advisors. I suspect that the same situation exists in Europe.

I am beginning to suspect that the people who talked about the atom bomb as a deterrent and insurance for world peace might have known what they were talking about. No, that couldn't be. What then?

A number of years ago I heard the economist Milton Friedman say that the country has been in a recession for several years. If that was so, how come I wasn't aware of it? Could it be that the industrial world has learned to manage its affairs better than it did in the thirties? Could it be that the economists who make the decisions in the capitals of the world really know what they're about? No, that couldn't be either. What then?

Could it be that prosperity is a contagious disease? It looks as if the Communist world is getting infected. Now, if it would infect the Third World, the only thing that we'll have to worry about is the environment, death and taxes.

I know that I shouldn't be saying this without invoking some charm against the Evil Eye or Knocking on Wood or something. I'm not superstitious. How could my saying that things are better than they have ever been make something bad happen? The answer is that it couldn't.

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