My parents were both young children during the years of the Great Depression. I am not sure how much they actually remembered about it, but a few things they related still stand out in my mind. Both remembered people coming to their homes, one in Fayetteville and one in Kinston, begging for work. Sometimes men and women with children came begging for food. My grandmothers apparently kept some provisions in their pantries for this purpose. Both my parents remembered their fathers, one a physician and one an attorney, taking produce, chickens and other foodstuffs in payment for their professional services.{mosimage}
    By they time my parents grew up, married and were joined by my sister and me, the Great Depression was long past, and we were a young family of the 1950s and ‘60s. I do not remember anyone ever begging at our door. The Depression, though, clearly marked my parents. My sister and I probably did not understand why at the time, but we did chuckle behind our father’s back when he followed us from room to room in our house turning off the lights if no one was there. Even before there was a hint of an energy shortage, he jealously guarded the thermostat, lest anyone turn the heat up too high or the air conditioning down too low. Our mother had her own ways of economizing. My sister and I were probably teenagers before we realized that not every mother thought of spaghetti sauce as a way to use refrigerator leftovers.
    We thought all families had peas and carrots in their sauce.
    The words “Great Depression” have been tossed around quite a bit in recent weeks, as the world watched the United States recognize and try to come to terms with our financial crisis. It has been an agonizing process as Americans of my generation see our retirements go poof and young people see their dreams postponed. Many of us have some idea about what went wrong - “toxic” mortgages and other debt, frozen credit markets and the like, but almost no one, it seems, has an acceptable fix. No American wants to go any further into debt to foreign nations, but neither do we want to see our nation’s economy grind to a halt, with the inevitable job losses and vanishing resources.
    I do not think we are on the verge of another Great Depression. I think we learned a good bit from the first one and put instruments in place, like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), to shield us from the worst consequences.
    At the same time, we did not learn enough — or maybe we just forgot — the lessons of human greed.
Before the stock market crash of 1929, the United States did not have many business regulations. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, people made astonishing fortunes in the largely unregulated business world. After the financial devastation of 1929, our government did take steps to reel in the excesses of some business activities, and over time life slowly settled down.
    Times were good again with the economic growth that followed World War II, and my parents and their contemporaries raised my sister and me and millions of other Baby Boomers in relative prosperity. As we Boomers grew up and started our families, a cry went up for less government regulation of business and industry, and probably rightly so in many instances.
    The fabulous business successes and glittering fortunes made in the late 20th and early 21st centuries were generated in vastly different business arenas, but they have common origins in creativity, entrepreneurship, and little government interference. No one told the captains of industry in 1880 that their employees should work a 40 hour week, and no one told the financial wizards of 2000 that people should be credit worthy and be capable of making a down payment before they got a mortgage.
    So here we are again, stewing in our own economic juices.
None of us, even those who think they do, really know how all this is going to turn out and certainly not when we are going to feel — and to be — secure again.
    As a Baby Boomer, I hope my Echos are paying attention.
    I hope they are receiving the message that almost nobody deserves salaries in eight or nine or more figures, that few markets should ever be completely “free,” and that there really is no such thing as a free lunch or a free mortgage.
    I hope they are learning to read the fine print of every document they sign and to find out about the things they do not understand.
    I hope they are learning that even the most careful planning and execution can be swept away by forces outside one’s control and that the only safety net in such situations is to pay close attention.
    This is my take for all the Echos whose lives are stretching out before them, but I did not experience the Great Depression firsthand.
    I wonder what my parents would say to all this.

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