15 March 2009

What I learned from the Depression era generation

Growing up with parents, grand-parents, aunts and uncles who had come of age or lived through the Great Depression taught me some very valuable lessons in my life, not just in outlook, but how to orient on 'worst case scenarios' while going through good times.  This is not an exercise in emotional negativism, but in recognizing that mankind has made foolish decisions before and is likely to make them again, so thinking just a bit ahead can help to leave one prepared for both good times and bad.  What you do during good times helps to determine how you do in bad times, so getting the habits right from the start is a necessity.  You don't have to be a pessimist to take that view, and you can live a very good life at the margins beyond those minimal habits because your attitude is properly oriented beyond the good times, and not dwelling on future bad ones and then seeking to get through where you are right now.

To lead off I will start with the general problem statement seen in a previous era before the modern one and then go to specifics of daily living, leaving the intermediary of how to bring the two into alignment to each individual:

Experience should teach us wisdom. Most of the difficulties our Government now encounters and most of the dangers which impend over our Union have sprung from an abandonment of the legitimate objects of Government by our national legislation, and the adoption of such principles as are embodied in this act. Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress. By attempting to gratify their desires we have in the results of our legislation arrayed section against section, interest against interest, and man against man, in a fearful commotion which threatens to shake the foundations of our Union. It is time to pause in our career to review our principles, and if possible revive that devoted patriotism and spirit of compromise which distinguished the sages of the Revolution and the fathers of our Union. If we can not at once, in justice to interests vested under improvident legislation, make our Government what it ought to be, we can at least take a stand against all new grants of monopolies and exclusive privileges, against any prostitution of our Government to the advancement of the few at the expense of the many, and in favor of compromise and gradual reform in our code of laws and system of political economy.

What is the prime thing I learned looking at the Depression era generation, talking with those close to me in my family about how they got through it?

Manual labor is no ill.

When actual pay-for jobs go scarce, work still needs to be done nearly everywhere.  The maintenance of civilization is never-ending if you wish to retain it, and that requires personal and family infrastructure to be addressed and then sharing skills with your neighbor on a non-pay but sustainment basis.  In that era the 'high skills' for manual work was in electronics: radio repair and the such.  Today's equivalent is computers and automated infrastructure, so that manual skills in computer repair and maintenance would be at a premium.  Very few radio repair shops closed during the 1928-41 Depression, and general electrical skills on motor repair and refurbishing continued to be a viable place for earning small amounts of income.  That said, the major general trend was to 'Do It Yourself' ideals: pick up minimal necessary manual skills to allow you and your family to conserve cash and resources.

As a society we made some very hard decisions to start denigrating manual labor in the 1960's and 1970's, even when those were the prime sustaining areas of the industrial economy.  The move to manufacturing, where value-added to basically worked materials overtook industrial work: the old steel mills and major industrial plants closed as low cost Asian goods undercut the US market and we moved to a 'value-added' manufacturing system.  Automation leveraged into repetitive tasks lowered the number of people needed for those tasks, increased productivity and quality per unit.  The mid-1970's saw the 'Rust Belt' hit where manual labor jobs were dying off and moving overseas, as manufacturing facilities started to purchase same quality metals and other industrial products from those overseas firms.  Today, however, that leaves us with many people who have decided that manual labor to change a tire or their car's oil, repair a computer, or even troubleshoot a dishwasher or clothes drier is done by specialists.  When durable goods are cheap the need for those skills moves to specialization and is lost by the larger public.

And yet these are cheap, easy and fulfilling skills to have on one's own and not difficult to pick up.  Learning the basics of how a PC works and how to identify which connector goes to which hole is easy.  Troubleshooting one is now covered by a vast array of online material from many sources.  The question is: what is the value of the work to be performed and how much can you afford to pay to have it done against what you lose in your life by not having it done?  In that value-cost-necessity equation there is an area that is set aside for your unskilled time to learn a skill, utilize the skill, return value to a material good and function in your life.  When the value is high, the cost high and the necessity life critical (say having a heart attack) you will pay through the nose to get that treated *now*.  When it is trying to figure out just why a washing machine is overflowing, you aren't employed and can hand wash for a week or so and have spare time to find out what is wrong as you are unemployed, the entire equation re-centers itself to a different area.  The 'home handyman' is a vital, survival area for hard times as the value that can be returned to life by material goods is something that can be traded (skill for skill in different areas) or utilized 'under the table' in the non-taxed person-to-person economy.

It is amazing how much of that last showed up, again, in the late 1970's in my area of the Rust Belt when I lived there, almost over night.  Swapping skilled time for someone else's time and materials allowed for work to be completed at a relatively low cost and yet regain value to both objects and one's life.  Even when the government 'had jobs' during the Depression, many people would not take them as they knew they were stealing money via taxes from other citizens and ruining the overall economy just to put food on the table.  The more you encouraged government to do things and support people, the worse things got.  It is always preferable to work for a friend or neighbor or someone living nearby as they then form your 'support network'.  Government can't do that, and government jobs tend to isolate you from creating that network of home grown support.

Manual labor is cooking, cleaning, knowing how to use a few power tools (saw, drill, etc.) and hand tools (hammer, screwdrivers, etc.), component level vehicle knowledge of vehicles and equipment (you don't need to know how to strip an entire engine down, but once you learn a few of the basics that is not impossible, either, save for supporting the engine block), cooking a decent meal out of not very much, and owning the tools necessary to back up your skills.


The value of a home is a roof over your head.

Yes, amazing as it may seem, the prime value to having a good life is a home and *not* for its increased valuation over time but for the fact it keeps you dry, lets you moderate the outside elements and generally puts a barrier up between you and mother nature.  Owning a home is a good deal.  Making sure you can afford it *before* you buy it is a necessity.  You never, ever, buy a home with expectation of increase in future value: that can get you homeless.

If you are liquid enough to have assets to purchase a home, pay mortgage, pay upkeep (about 1% of original home value per year), and maintain it, then you will have an asset of high value as it allows you to do other things with your life.  The object of purchasing a home is to *owe no one* for it: your aim is to pay off your mortgage.  When you can assure yourself that you have steady income, low to no debt overhead, and sufficient capital to invest in a permanent address and the cost of that is less than renting, you then buy a home.  That was a prime 'fast track' for my first year or two of employment, and to keep myself solvent, make sure I had enough to put away in case of that 'rainy day' and then buy a home when rent went through the roof.  Literally the cost of mortgage and annual upkeep was less than renting.  I was very lucky to buy near the bottom of the local market and the market, even now, is not at those levels.  At this point I am also close to owning it outright as I have paid down principal and then did a lower-rate re-fi when the money was cheap and nearly hit the bottom of the market for a much shorter pay-off period.

When looking to purchase a home in an already developed area one of the major sub-rules for purchasing also hit: purchase the lowest cost, largest place in the development, most likely close to a major thoroughfare. Yes I can hear a scant amount of traffic in the back of the place... no I don't have my sleep disturbed by it.  And when the rest of the development goes up in value, this place goes up more slowly, and then tends to firm up as prices go down: the swings of appreciated cost are lessened and it sits close to the low-end of the market and thus helps to set a *floor* to it.  Literally none of the neighbors we have now were here when we first moved in, and they have all bought and sold at higher prices, while the value of the place (not its cost) has remained fixed.  Even in poor health I can still afford to live here.

As for the extra space?  Well, in very rough times it serves as rental area or for housing of those close to you while they try to get a real job.  When a large segment of the population goes unemployed, can no longer afford their homes, and seek ways to stay afloat, the idea of having renters or close friends and family who can do 'sweat equity' to pay off their keep is one that comes back to the forefront.  Rental cost would have to plummet in the region for that not to be of consideration, and if that happened the illegal working population would soon find themselves homeless and jobless as the more affluent homeless and jobless locals would price them out of the bottom end of the market.  And once you are close to paying off your home, or having paid it off, you are no longer beholden to anyone save the taxes on the place done locally (varies by locale).  That means that the cost per year is now 1% of original value plus taxes and no mortgage.  Even when 'deductions' are removed, you will end up with a lower overall outlay, although a bit more going to taxes.

One critical thing I learned growing near the old-growth neighborhoods (pre-Depression) that many of my extended family lived in was that gas stoves and furnaces were preferable to electric as they were simpler in design and didn't stop working if the power went off.  And if you have a choice between paying your gas or electric bill, the latter is preferable to have go, really, as the former can get you the latter if you can find a small natural gas powered generator.  When electrical power wasn't so prevalent, that was the way to go.  Today if you are making that decision you are in true bad straights.  Luckily all these lovely government buildings like libraries and the such have what you need for some of the basics of computing and entertainment, so for the minimal cost of keeping old equipment going, you will no longer have to shell out for a movie.  And even if you have dependable electricity, I have witnessed it going out only a mile or so from a generating plant during bad storms... and the cable was underground.  As it is, when usage goes down, the cost to keep the infrastructure due to lessened wear also decreases and the cost then centers at the consumable and O&M for electricity.  'Green' power is too expensive by at least 35% via photovoltaic and wind turbine to be a paying proposition for the home user.  Take the cost of the system, divided by the average annual electricity cost and you now have years to pay-back for DIY electricity via 'free' means.  Now if a good natural gas fuel cell for home use comes along, that will change the equation, as well as these self-contained nuclear fission generators and the possibility of the polywell fusion systems panning out for neighborhood or small area use.  Still you don't depend on the future to solve problems of today, and a gas stove and furnace are really preferable to an electric one if you have good gas supplies.  If you live next to a municipal power facility, on the other hand, your equation changes.


Food is a necessity.

Processed food in the Depression era usually meant sausages, and those sold due to 'meat byproducts' and 'fillers' that went into them.  And you don't want to know what those are.

Un-processed food meant, often, live animals, a garden out back and then you did the processing.  In that era there was a neighborhood butcher: an individual who had the skills necessary and serviced a three to ten square block area of semi-urban housing.  Ditto bakeries.  Walking through the old neighborhoods with family members brought back just how intense the local economy was in the semi-urban areas surrounding cities: not true urban zones and yet not suburbs as we know them today.  There were often large fields right next to dense housing areas so getting and maintaining live animals for a day or two was no hardship.  And when time to slaughter came you could DIY or have the butcher do it to get a 'cut' of the meat involved plus rending the other portions of the animal.  That was a high skill service, and a skilled butcher had other functions in that era, beyond just meat processing.  A very good butcher was also a bone-setter, and would often do as good a job as a doctor would.  Barbers also retained some of the old pre-surgical skills necessary for dressing minor wounds.  As we over-specialized these work areas, we removed the longer and deeper background for them as we wanted 'specialists' who would charge more to do similar work and have some certificate that they had, indeed, attended some courses and passed a few exams.  Back then it was: can you do the job?  Those who could got work, those who couldn't had better find other areas of work to do.

In the semi-rural and semi-suburban to rural areas around cities today, that sort of thing while still around to a very low extent, is not as present as it was then.  Yet the skills for native hunting and dressing of game remain, and those aren't much changed from the 1930's and home slaughter.  Then, as now, if you want a skillful job done, you go to a butcher... but the butcher, today, is just that and no longer a bone-setter able to find, by touch, if a bone has been properly set and if there are any fragments around it.  You now depend on an over-specialized infrastructure far more than the Depression era population did.  No amount of first aid courses make up for dealing with such things on a daily basis.  Still the useful skills toolbox should have a decent place for killing chickens, ducks and the such, and doing some of the basic meat work that doesn't require a specialist to do.  In that area confidence in yourself is paramount, even if your skills are nearly not there: the willingness to do the job to survive outweighs how skillfully you do it the first few times.

Hunting varmint and small game can be a decent way to go for a semi-rural to rural area, and you probably already have the skills for that if you are living in such an area.  Closer to urban areas that diminishes in importance and you are either trekking out to woodlands during hunting season or doing varmint potting in your spare time.  For ensuring that those moochers who do not want to work for a living know that you are not easy prey, firearms, for that, are a necessity.  If you are running a small business from your home, doubly so.  Your ability to use, maintain and keep firearms safely for the necessities of life is a measure of citizenship and ensuring that those wishing to take by force know that is an uncivilized way of thinking.  For purely utilitarian reasons, these are skills that one must have, and can be an enjoyable past-time in and of themselves.  That said the general concept also includes trapping of small game, which can be a time consuming but rewarding set of skills.  The same with fishing where available.  These go from 'fun past-times' to survival necessities and it is better to know the skills and not use them much than to need them and not have them.

Growing vegetables is something that can be done on relatively small plots for adding in some variety to the diet, but needs a good quarter acre to really be satisfactory on a daily basis.  Unless you like tomatoes and zucchini and are willing to pick up basic bottling skills.  Glass bottles with metal tops and wax suddenly becomes a survival skill, and each of those is easy to understand and do as skills.  The one thing that will be lacking are carbohydrates, and for that you do have to depend on the larger agricultural system outside of your local environs.  Bread-making from grains was a specialty in the 1930's and remains so to this day.  Thus the local bakery had a service area about the same size as the butcher's.  Getting grain and making bread was a lost art to the semi-urban 1930's culture near major cities and that hasn't changed much, thus flour mills will continue as work centers even when most everything else goes down.

Hoarding is something you do if you expect an extended period of social disorder:  if revolution is in the air, you hoard.  When a generalized downturn that has no revolution with it goes on for a year or two, your hoard of supplies dwindles and you are then a late-comer to the overall societal problem.  That can give you some valuable months of learning time, and with good skills that can mean extending the long term hoard for maybe twice what you expected via supplementing it with perishable goods.  By 1933 anyone who had hoarded food was part of the general problem: it was not a solution, just a buffer.  Hoarding is, strangely enough, mostly a bet that there will be a moderate period of disruption and a return to some normalcy.  Actual survival skills that depend on large-scale collapse include things like flintknapping and stone age tool creation and use.  Someone hoarding guns, ammo and food is betting on a social disorder with returning order.  Someone learning flintknapping, skinning and tanning of animals is looking to a long term problem that is non-recoverable.  Lately I see a lot of the former, but, so far, no one offering lots of courses on how to knap flint and obsidian, or how to make an atlatl or bow and arrows, nor tanning of hides.  When I see *those* self-help books and courses going on sale or being offered, then I will know that we are in for very hard times, indeed.


Doing a number of things passably is better than being a specialist.

This is a leaf from evolutionary analysis: ecosystems that have the most diverse specialization of species are the most fragile and will collapse taking that diversity with them while leaving the generalists to survive.

During the Great Depression there are only a few specialist skills that were really and truly appreciated.  Butcher, baker, general practitioner, druggist, electronics/motor repair, candy maker... and each of these had to have a diverse set of skills within that specialty to survive.  That last may seem like the simplest, but is one of the hardest: making a diverse array of candies as 'treats' at a low cost that can be afforded by families.  If you could do that latter well, know the techniques to make good candies, you could have one of the few resistant jobs in the economy.  Drugstore owner was another.  General shops or 'five and dime' stores also had a good backing for low cost daily needs items.  The grocers would be that, by and large, and offer very little beyond vegetables, some meats, and other food items (oils, flour, etc.).  These were all neighborhood based.

Today we do not have that neighborhood (or neighborly) association and depend heavily on transportation to specialized shopping centers.  Yet, growing up in the 1970's, I do remember trekking, by foot, to supermarkets up to a mile away (but most less than half that) to save gas money for the family.  A large backpack and my legs (or later bicycle) was all I needed.  Today many suburban areas have problems finding one supermarket in that distance, not to speak of three or four or five.  By concentrating on specialization we make nearby generalists an impossibility: they aren't there now as we have changed our outlook and transportation mode on such ideas of things.

What we have, today, is a general tool of information gathering: the internet.  Better than any library, we now have a system of sharing not just knowledge but practical skills.  Need to see how to dress game in the field?  There is probably a video on that.  Strip an engine down to bare parts, clean it and put it back together?  I will bet that beyond manuals someone did that as a home video to show how to do it.  Bake bread?  Of course!  Do a decent stir fry to cut down on meat use?  Yes, scads of information on that.  Basics on how to fix a pipe, leaky faucet, or find out what is wrong with your washing machine?  Yes, I've run across a number of sites on these including parts diagrams and diagnostic step-by-step analysis scripts.  Need to field strip an M-1 Garand?  Easy enough to find in description, pictures, video.

The basis to being a generalist is self-confidence: if you don't think you can do it, even when someone shows you step by step how to do it, then you will be unable to do it.  If, however, you follow along, do the things as said by those already doing them and who demonstrate that this is a valid way to do these things, you will most likely succeed with a bit of trial and error on your own.  And if you are willing to put up with a cosmetically less-than-perfect job for the satisfaction of doing it yourself and saving the money going to a specialist, then you win in both areas: you become confident that you can get the skills necessary to do those things necessary TO YOU to survive.  The generation that would be known as 'The Greatest Generation', before the Boomers, did similarly and were not afraid of failure in attempting to succeed.  When I fail my self-made expectations it is not in not getting the functionality I want but in not doing a cosmetically 'good job', and to learn that I must have experience.


Experience can, indeed, teach wisdom.

You must experience to be wise, however, no amount of reading will get that for you, but might keep you from stepping into unwise traps of depending upon others for those things you can do for yourself.  Each person has a mix of those things they are and are not capable of doing... no act of man can change that, nor no government make up for it.  We are all created equal and have disabilities even while being equal in creation as we are not perfect.  We recognize that in saying that we are willing to make ourselves more perfect to overcome our individual problems to form a better society.  That, too, is hard work.

We really should stop being impressed with hard work and recognize we all have it to do.

And then be wary of those seeking to set us against each other to enrich themselves by demeaning our ability to learn and do.

I do not use my piss poor health as an excuse to fail, but seek to succeed in those things I can *still* do.

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