My grandparents survived the great depression. Until recently, the only nightmarish social upheaval of my lifetime that I could compare their suffering to was my life during disco ;-). But somehow, enduring the freakish 70's just doesn't compare to wondering where the next meal is coming from.
My mother's mother's mother, Vivian Amanda Sellers Scott, found a way to thrive in the 20's and 30's. I never knew Vivian Amanda; she died the year I was born. Growing up in Carlisle, I heard lots of stories about her from my family and even from random people who knew that I was her great grandson. She ran a "cream station" in Carlisle. The long and the short of it is that she bought raw milk from small dairy farmers, separated and graded it, then sold it to larger operations, like Trauth. Until my Grandmother died a few years ago, we were only allowed to eat Trauth ice cream -- it was her mother's best customer. As her business grew in the roaring 20's, she branched out into eggs and poultry. All told, she made a nice living out of it.
When the Depression hit, she started taking anything that farmers brought in. Even if it was just a squirrel he had shot, she was determined to give him something for it. Farmers were hurting, Vivian had trucks and knew where the markets were, so it was a match made in heaven. My grandmother's first trip to Chicago was to sell a truck full of wild geese and turkeys. She told me lots of stories about riding to Cincinnati with her parents with loads of rabbit and squirrel to sell at Findlay Market. While Kentucky's hills and valleys may not support many crops that are edible, they sure are a haven for small furry creatures that people are willing to eat. Especially when pound-for-pound, those small furry creatures are a fraction of the cost of beef or pork. Yep, Vivian knew her market and she knew how to survive.
She wasn't alone. Kentuckians rode out the Depression in relative comfort compared to urban America because our land bore many gifts. When times got tough, we got going. Of course, so much of what Vivian did to survive is impossible in the 21st Century. I think that Findlay Market, the Over-The-Rhine Chamber of Commerce, the City of Cincinnati, the State of Ohio, and the USDA would all object to unregulated wild game being sold in one of Findlay's stalls. And if they didn't mind, there's a union who would object to her unloading the truck and a lawyer who would follow her customers home to see who got a bad rabbit. And even if she made it through those traps and snares, there would be lots of people with hands out expecting a piece of the pie. Being an entrepreneur ain't as easy as it used to be.
We used to be a "Can Do" nation. Now, "yes we can" is little more than an cynical slogan whipped out at election time. You see, Vivian had a business of selling dead things to hungry people. It was hard and often unsavory work. She bought a surplus object from a farmer or hunter, marked it up, and resold it to someone who saw value in it. She made a living on that markup. The farmer made a living on providing the raw material. It was no different from any other business. All business used to be a simple proposition until we made it complicated.
It's so complicated now that the only folks still willing to participate in it are large corporations who operate on razor-thin margins. Frankly, we've succeeded in killing off the merchant class and we're now a nation of helpless proletarians who live paycheck to paycheck. There's not much we paycheck-to-paycheck people can do to help ourselves out; we simply don't have the capacity to generate wealth. Our only recourse is to choose leaders who we think will help us out. That plan is flawed, for sure.
So, times are tough all over. What should our leaders do about it? For starters, we need to rebuild the merchant class and make it easier for them to operate. After all, they're the ones with the capacity to generate wealth. It's Econ 101. For as much derision as "trickle-down economics" took in the early 80's, you'd be hard pressed to find an economist who believes it didn't work. It did work and life was better when it was government policy. Wealth just doesn't grow from the bottom up. It never has. It never will.
We need to restart industry. And to do that, we need to make it cheaper to make things in this country. Despite every setback imaginable, from earthquakes and tsunamis to recalls, Toyota flourishes while GM flounders. Why is that? Well, they pay less for labor. That makes it possible for them to sell a better car at a lower price. Simple. And I have yet to talk to anyone in the Georgetown plant who feels exploited making less than their Detroit counterpart. On the contrary, they are proud and grateful to be working there. Need more proof? Take a tour of Detroit after sunset.
Lastly, we need to stop expecting "something for nothing" from Uncle Sam. That gimmick has never worked and it is just that; a gimmick. Somebody always pays. If not you, then it's the guy or gal who signs your paycheck. How much more can they pay before there's nothing left to put in your paycheck? Remember, we are the paycheck-to-paycheck people; we really can't afford to bankrupt the boss. And that stimulus check you got a few years back? Yeah, you're going to be repaying that with interest soon. Sorry. Something for nothing is a lie.
Lee Iacocca was famous for saying "Lead, follow, or get out of the way." And since he actually has some experience with restarting a dying industry, his words carry some weight. In this case, the "powers that be" would be wise to simply get out of the way. Stop trying to fix it. Stop trying to regulate it. Stop trying to give it away. Just stop. Get out of the way of business. Get out of the way of industry. Get out of the way of recovery.
You can't fix but if you get out of our way, we can.