Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Wisdom from Abroad

The central theme of Grandma's Depression Memories is using the skills that enabled our ancestors to survive previous economic downturns to pull ourselves through the current one. However, social and technological change since the Great Depression has led to concern that those lessons may not be as relevant or useful as one might expect.

However, we can also look outside the United States for more recent examples that may be more useful in relation to our current situation. In her blog Sarah Hoyt relates her experiences living in Portugal during its financial difficulties a couple of decades ago.

To my eye, one of the most telling things is her discussion of the post office going unreliable. Not just the usual petty annoyances, but sending anything becoming a crapshoot. Letters may or may not arrive. Sending anything valuable means having to find very clever ways to conceal it, because postal workers pilfer from packages with impunity. A basic social stricture has broken down, such that people feel no shame whatsoever about stealing from strangers.

It dovetails with something that John Ringo has been talking about of late, especially in The Last Centurion about familial trust vs. general trust. In a familial trust society, you can trust your relatives and close associates, but everybody else is fair game. In a general trust society, that trust is extended to everybody, and it's generally expected that you will deal fairly with everybody. General trust is essential to having an advanced technological civilization, since you're constantly having to work with strangers on critical things, often sight unseen.

Even in the worst of the Great Depression, societal trust never broke down on a broad scale. Sure, there were the usual local issues of people who found it easier to cheat than to deal squarely, but grifters we'll always have with us. So long as the number of bad apples remains reasonably small, they can be kept from causing too much damage. On the whole, people stayed within the boundaries of acceptable social conduct. They did their jobs even when they weren't being watched. And the postal workers who handled the mail still treated it as a public trust they were honor-bound to maintain.

But one can question whether we still have that sense of honor. Over the past few decades American society has slip-slid into a culture of getting by, of doing whatever you can get away with. And that, more than any technological change, may well be the most worrisome shift that could make this financial downturn different from previous ones.

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