Friday, October 3, 2008

Thoughts on Sean Kirst's Column

On Wednesday, Sean Kirst wrote his column about his family and the effects of the Great Depression. He vividly remembers his parents talking about it, sharing stories, shuddering over the possibility of another catastrophic downturn. And their advice.

My parents were also Depression parents. My mother lived on welfare in Syracuse with her brother and sister while their mother struggled to work in a florist shop and keep food on the table. She gave them music, though, and memories of old-fashioned German Christmases. Their holidays were spent at Onondaga Lake, taking the tram out.

My father never talked about his parents or his strict upbringing in Auburn. He did love his camp on Owasco Lake and mourned its loss. He was in college during the Crash, and then worked as an accountant afterwards.

The effect on him, like Sean's parents and Bob's parents and so many others of their generation was life-molding. My father never bought on credit. He had a small mortgage on the home he bought for my mother in Syracuse (I think it was $5.00/month!) but that was it. Cars, appliances, and even the camp were paid for in cash.

I cannot imagine an economy like that. We've become so accustomed to pulling out the plastic, dredging up money from our homes when we need it, borrowing for multiple cars and convenience. I would like to have an economy like that, though.

I heard Paul O'Neill being interviewed on MSNBC. He proposed that all mortgages be required by law to have a 20% down payment. Interesting. The interviewer suggested that maybe returning to the all cash, no credit days would also help. O'Neill became furious - "That would be terrible for the economy!" he bellowed. No one would be able to buy anything and therefore jobs would be lost, etc.

Sean concluded his column:
As Wall Street trembles, we lose more witnesses to the Great Depression....Now, more than ever, we ought to heed their wisdom.
Our rattled Congress will undoubtedly come up with some maneuver to postpone the crisis at our door. The deeper question is whether we sober up as a nation, whether we stop to wonder why a baby boom generation proud of owning so much stuff remains so wistful about a collective childhood in which we had so little.

I remember saving for the tv set. I remember picnics with my grandparents and cousins at Verona Beach. We took only one major vacation that I can remember - a road trip to Williamsburg, Virginia - I came down with the measles before we got to Binghamton. They broke out on the way home. Once we got the camp, that was it. Any extra cash went into that.

I had a lot, looking back. But the reason I had it was my father's insistence that we never live above our means - or even at our means, I used to think. He paid cash for my college education, saved a ton so that when he was gone my mother would never have to worry about money. And she didn't.

He passed away 29 years ago today.