And now, a brief interlude of optimism

By JAYSON JACOBY, Baker City Herald October 10, 2008 05:32 pm

I have long believed that my personality inclines rather steeply toward pessimism, but recent events have prompted me to reconsider.

The thing is, I can’t rouse myself to a respectable pitch of despair about the economy.

I don’t feel right about this.

The overwhelming consensus in the country seems to be that this current crisis ranks as America’s most severe since the Great Depression.

I’m pretty sure that’s true.

The stock market numbers, which are spinning with the speed of a slot machine, bear it out anyway.

Yet the implication of our collective hand-wringing, or so it seems to me based on what I’ve read and heard from myriad sources during the past month, is that our nation teeters on the brink of Depression No. 2.

I’m pretty sure that’s not true.

As I said, this bothers me, not because I crave conformity but because I hate being wrong, and when I feel as if I’m in the minority I assume this is because I’m clueless about what’s really going on.

Like I said, I’m pessimistic most times.

Even Barack Obama and John McCain, who would quibble about the direction of the sunrise and the color of a cloudless sky, signed a joint statement that mentions a possible “economic catastrophe.”

I guess a problem has to get awfully bad to warrant that many syllables.

Yet I simply can’t conceive as equals, for their imposition of sheer human misery, the Great Depression and what’s happening today.

It’s not even close, actually.

Thousands of people who endured the Depression lived in sheds they built from cardboard and scrap metal — and they were better off than many at the time.

Compare that with the current crisis and its “victims,” who live in four-bedroom homes they couldn’t afford but bought anyway and probably will get to keep because the taxpayers are buying their mortgages.

And probably giving them a lower interest rate, besides.

Some will say that 2008 is not 1929 and I would agree but I would also say that I believe this is a good thing, because the federal government seems to me more willing to — and beyond question is more capable of — calming financial upheavals.

The government certainly didn’t guarantee anybody’s bank accounts in 1929. This explains why today people joke about cramming their savings under the mattress, whereas during the Depression people actually did. Although quite a lot of people back then sidestepped that dilemma rather neatly through the simple expediency of owning neither a mattress nor any savings to hide there.

(The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation came along in 1933, which for quite a few cardboard-confined Americans was a little late.)

What I’m getting at is that the government has over the past half century enacted too many safeguards to allow a financial downturn, even one as serious as the current version, to devolve into anything resembling the era when “Hooverville” joined the country’s lexicon.

There is a second, related subject which is also provoking widespread anxiety around American but which has also failed to excite me much: The presidential race.

It’s hardly a revelation that partisans on both sides are describing, in the most dire of terms, the terrible future that awaits the nation if the other party’s candidate ascends to the White House.

The tone of these predictions, though, seems to me especially shrill this fall. I suspect this is because the economic doldrums have heightened the public’s inherent cynicism about politics.

Yet I don’t think it matters, in any substantive way, whom we elect.

Both Obama and McCain are honorable men who love America and who want to do the right thing by her.

Of course it’s reasonable — and, I would argue, desirable — that voters debate the merits of each candidate’s plans (and politicians, you probably have noticed, are as fond of their plans as they are of their children).

Yet I think it’s irrational to insist that either candidate has the capacity, much less the desire, to dismantle in short order the world’s strongest economy, no matter how flaccid it seems today.

I have great confidence that this nation is too prosperous, its people too industrious and, in the end, too wise, to ever fail due to the fiscal policies of any politician or political party.

America, I have absolutely no doubt, will still be the best of places when the pundits have begun to refer to “former President Obama” or “former President McCain.”

And even better than it is today, if I may be forgiven a brief and rare turn as a pollyana.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.