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Imagining Life In A Depression

The Journal has an interesting piece up today thinking through what a depression would look and feel like if things came to that:

The different structure of today's economy means that a modern depression would differ from the Great Depression of the 1930s. Fewer than 2% of Americans working today have agricultural jobs, compared with one in five in 1930. Three-quarters of today's workers are in service-related jobs, which tend to be more stable than manufacturing, compared with fewer than half in 1930.

And then there are the social-safety-net programs that emerged after the Great Depression to blunt the blows. ...

With spending on food accounting for a little less than a tenth of a typical family's disposable income today, compared with a little less than a quarter in 1930, a modern depression wouldn't hit people in the stomach as the Great Depression did. ... Today's cutbacks would be for more discretionary purchases -- cable television, iTunes songs and restaurant meals.

I can't decide what would be more surreal: To be told we're in a depression without the widespread signs of human misery we associate with the the 1930s--with life going on as normal for most people, in fact--or to actually experience misery on that scale. (Don't get me wrong: It's obvious which would be preferable. Just not clear which would be stranger.)

On the other hand, there would be more than enough misery to go around if we got to the depression stage (certainly more than enough anxiety), so maybe it's a stretch to think life would go on pretty much as before. In that respect, a depression wouldn't quite be analogous to, say, contemporary American wars, which only directly affect a small minority of the population. (Though there might be some similarities...)  

I guess the other problem (for this discussion that is; it's a very good thing for humanity) is that, given the tools of modern economic policymaking, it's extremely unlikely that the contraction would ever be as severe as the '30s, so it's not really an apples-to-apples comparison in terms of economics, to say nothing of the social consequences.  

--Noam Scheiber