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

The Political Animal at Rest

Production still of Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, and James Gleason

Aristotle conceived of us as political animals, attaining complete fulfillment only through participation in political life.  If true, this interminable campaign season should be one of our happiest times.

Thrilled as we may be with the eat-drink-politics character of the weeks unfolding, we must be on guard: some 235 days remain before the general election.  Political animals are highly sensitive, and have been known to be susceptible to sudden mood swings.  For such high-strung creatures, political engagement 24/7 simply isn’t healthy.

Happily, their forebears have created a magnificent canon of diverting novels and movies, whether about campaigning and the presidency, or about Washington, government, paranoia, political eras, or the political bug more generally.  Just the other day, I saw a love story set against the unlikely backdrop of the G8.  Pastimes for the political?  There are endless possibilities.  Not all are great works by any means: some are fantastic, some hard-hitting, others irreverent or downright silly.  But they speak to a political animal’s recreational needs by furnishing an excuse to think about politics by other means.

Walter Brennan in Frank Capra's 1941 film, "Meet John Doe"

Today’s recommended diversion: Meet John Doe (1941), an old chestnut by Frank Capra that seems tailor-made for our times.  With its Depression-crazed characters struggling in the grip of an all-destroying capitalism, the film reads like something straight out of Occupy.  Gary Cooper is Long John Willoughby, a down-and-out ballplayer who, for the sake of 50 dollars, agrees to become “John Doe,” a symbolic everyman he knows to be a journalistic fraud.  Barbara Stanwyck is journalist Ann Mitchell, scheming to make John Doe a sensation out of professional vanity and for the sake of keeping her job.  Both become better humans as they struggle against D.B. Norton (is that D.B. for Dollar Bills?), an oil-turned-newspaper baron intent on controlling politics and public opinion.  Walter Brennan nearly steals the show as Willoughby’s sidekick “the Colonel,” a fellow bum who is the moral center of the movie.  His classic warning against “the heelots” is a must-see.

Meet John Doe is in the public domain.  You can watch it immediately in its entirety via YouTube or the Internet Archive.  Go for it.  Because you know what?  The real thing’ll still be there in a few hours’ time.

Image (top): Publicity still for Meet John Doe
with Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, and James Gleason,
from this source.

Image (bottom): Walter Brennan in Meet John Doe,
public domain.