How Much Do We Need?

House and fruit stand in Houston, 1943 (Courtesy Library of Congress via the Commons on Flickr)

During the Great Depression, in the 1930s and early 40s, the federal government sent photographers out all over the country to document the condition of the people (and to keep a few more photographers employed).  The effort produced some of the most famous images in American photography, as well as scads of seldom-seen photographs, like this one, now available online.

The pictures capture America at a time when the modern consumer society was just beginning.  Americans drank Pepsi and Coke, bought things on credit, and wore factory-made clothes.  In many parts of the country, though, many Americans still used horses, made what they wore by hand, grew their own food, and did without refrigerators or washing machines.  The “March of Progress” hadn’t yet made it to their neighborhoods, and perhaps some were not all that eager to see it arrive.

Life was tough, but the relative simplicity of Americans’ material conditions brought clarity.  It was easy to see the relation between work and the standard of living people enjoyed.  Then, as now, many Americans lived in a precarious state or in out-and-out poverty.  Society was less knit together in a corporate economy, so the solitude of failure was a specter individuals lived with daily.  The wedge between the hard work of getting and the easy work of spending was already there, but there were far fewer goods to buy.

A tension had already developed, between the industrial output of the US and the capacity of individual citizens to consume all of what the nation made.  As early as the 1890s, the government and corporations began pushing to develop markets for our products overseas, producing the kind of globalism that prevails today.  No one has ever figured out what to do when the goods in the world exceed what the human population wants or needs.

Today, in a time of high long-term unemployment, commentators fret about “low consumer confidence.”  We’re told this is the reason American corporations are reluctant to hire.  Yet it’s perverse to hope that Americans will spend when they are in debt, unemployed, and impoverished.  It’s amazing how much more “confident” a consumer feels when he or she has a paycheck or a real wad of money.

Corporations and banks show their contempt by sitting on hordes of cash rather than making it a priority to hire American workers, which would ease our collective difficulties.  Meanwhile, we have lost sight of economic independence as an important goal of a free people.  In the midst of this antagonism, we need to keep asking, how much do we need?

Top image: House and fruit stand in Houston, photographed by John Vachon, 1943,
from this source

10 responses

  1. Excellent Susan – I just can’t say enough – you have put this into words beautifully!

    • Michele–Thank you. There is a great disconnect between the economic realities of the populace and the political discourse of the present campaign. It is sad that so many politicians keeping relying on the same old, un-inspiring, hackneyed and polarizing ideas! I wish one of the parties would make it their job to articulate a vision that would make sense for the whole country, not just one of its classes or parts. Who can we look to for inspiration?

      I always enjoy hearing from you–

  2. How much do we need? Much less than we have, in most cases. As you point out, the Great Depression was a time of real hardship. . . .there were virtually no safeguards like the FDIC or Social Security until FDR and the New Deal came along. The US economy was much more agrarian then. . . . if a farmer lost his farm, he also lost his job (farming). Today we have a consumer based culture of buying “things” that are really not needed…..How many TVs? Fancy electronic gadgets? Ipads? Iphones? etc. Here is what I believe: the younger generation will have a decline in standard of living….this is virtually certain and not all bad. The “rise of the rest” of the world has created a new reality for America. We are still on top in terms of GDP, etc., but fiscal problems will inevitably take a toll on America’s political/econommic/military clout in the world……I hear no more nonsense about “morning in America” these days, but the sun has not set either.

    • It would be useful to develop a narrative regarding our future preoccupied with something other than pre-eminence and decline. One of the things that interests me is the quality of what we experience as a nation. Yes, we can buy more than our parents (if we’re lucky), but does that make us better or more happy? Do we have a greater sense of being worthy? As the US matures, what will happen will depend a lot on how we develop not so much as an economy but as a culture. I would be less worried if I were hearing more public discussion about what our goals as a nation should be, now that a position of pre-eminence has been attained. The goal of a more just economic order is just one possibility. To move to a higher ground, a country has got to have talented visionaries with a real indwelling capacity to lead—not just a bunch of pollsters, consultants, and handlers of the type we have now.

  3. As always, Susan, you are a master of a) the idea and truth and purity of the idea; b) mellifluous expression, an artist who uses words to sculpt impressions on thought; c) tone, always suggesting a poignancy, a humanness to what may become a statistical matter in the hands of others; d) the lesson that elegance is refusal, meaning that you chose one single, strong image to have an impact, rather than have its power muddled by visual sensory overload. People like you should have your own network or school system or something.

    • Yes, please. Not so much the school system, but the network–or a literary emporium to reside over–that would be lovely!

      Thank you for the thoughtful analysis and praise. It’s been terrific to blog–trying to write history in a whole new way–hearing back from readers–the experience has been a happy one–a tonic. SB

    • Carl – you have found the words that have eluded me about Susan’s writing and thinking and presentation. Thank you for letting her know how singular she is!

  4. Wow-that was a really “meaty” essay! Well spoken!…….Yes, many Americans lived without electricity and plumbing for a long, long time at the same time as those who were able to get the more modern conveniences. It really wasn’t until LBJ became president and instituted the “war on poverty” that things changed. Then enormous amounts of federal money finally became available, bringing almost all Americans into the “modern age.” We need the basics and so many of the “basics,” as we move into the new “modern age,” are expensive again. Internet TV, internet-connected ipads and iphones, etc, etc, etc……How much do we truly need–Hmmmmm and hmmmmm again.

    • Sam–You are so right about LBJ, and about how our sense of what’s basic has changed. The complexity of modern life, and the growth of scientific knowledge, have made the question of “right action” in government more complicated. Do we need to regulate the type of plastic in sippy cups, or have laws relating to supersize drinks? Do we need different laws about all guns or just some? Should government be active in all things, or should it be limited to just a few objects? If the latter, how do we establish the state’s “top priorities”? One of the things we can say about federalism is that it is cumbersome–perhaps that works against our efforts to “keep it simple.” SB