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News Release

October 2008

Op-ed: Economic Crises Have Short-Lived Effect on
Long-Term Behavior

By Daniel Horowitz, Mary Huggins Gamble Professor of American Studies, and author of "The Morality of Spending: Attitudes Toward the Consumer Society in America, 1875-1940" and "The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979."

Here in the midst of the worst economic crisis the United States has faced since the Great Depression, many Americans have joined the chorus of those heralding the end of an era of financial excess. But predicting historical turning points is not an easy task. Rarely has this been made clearer than in sociologist Robert S. Lynd’s forecasts throughout the early years of the Depression that the next generation would likely never know the prosperity of the 1920s. In his opinion, that was a good thing.

In 1929, just as the Depression dawned, Lynd and his wife Helen, published “Middletown,” a classic study of a community later identified as Muncie, Indiana. In their book they expressed concern that radios, movie theaters, automobiles and consumer credit were undermining the health of communities by reducing face-to-face interaction. In 1934, Lynd articulated widely shared expectations about the permanence of the nation’s adverse economic conditions. Writing in “Parents' Magazine” that year, he warned adults who believed the Depression was temporary about the dangers of instilling false optimism in their children. A year after Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency, Lynd predicted that children would not have as wide a range of career opportunities as their parents had experienced. Faced with overcrowded professions and too few jobs, the younger generation would be able to count on less than their parents’ generation, he noted. Their futures would be “less in terms of whopping accumulations of material things and more in terms of more inconspicuous, hard-won personal satisfactions.” Ironically, Lynd made his predictions about a generation that would eventually benefit greatly from the affluence of the 1950s and 1960s.

The current economic crisis has Americans again scrambling to determine how this will affect spending behavior. News programs announce that we will no longer be able to consume —homes, cars, restaurant meals and vacations — the way many of us have done in recent years. America, many argue, has over-consumed, in large measure by going into debt. The national debt has doubled in the last eight years. Credit card debt has approached a trillion dollars. Millions of people relied on rising house prices and easily available home equity loans to finance short-term expenses. China, Japan and other nations have lent the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars so we could continue to drive inefficient vehicles powered by oil imported from abroad.

As the economic turmoil seems to confirm dire financial predictions, comparisons to the Great Depression are inevitable. To be sure, unemployed bankers are not yet selling apples – or Apple I-Pods – on the street. Yet it is by no means clear whether 2008 and the succeeding years will turn out to be a crisis that will fundamentally alter the relationships of Americans to commercial goods and the consumer debt upon which we have relied. In the past, crises — the forced, patriotic under-consumption of World War II or the pressure to reduce consumption in light of inflation and the energy crisis of the 1970s — have proved short lived in their power to change long-term behavior.

Perhaps it’s time to return to the Lynds’ “Middletown,” and explore the authors’ philosophy instead of their prognostications about future human behavior. Robert Lynd preferred a frugal life to a materialistic one. Indeed, he argued that the bleaker economy would relieve the future generations from endless competitive acquisition for its own sake. The generation raised during the Depression would use its energies for the “vitalities of personal living,” rather than squandering them “in trying to excel in getting ahead.” If that turns out to be an outcome of the current financial crisis, then in the opinion of many, it would be a good thing.


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