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December 04, 2008

Perspective, Risk, and the Financial "Crisis"

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.

- Dorothea Lange, on the making of "Migrant Mother", the eponymous image of Depression-era desperation


The family depicted in this photo had just sold their tent in order to buy food. Seventy three years later, Katherine MacIntosh (only four years old when her mother was photographed) remembers what it was like back then:

"...People was starving in that camp. There was no food," she says. "We were ashamed of it. We didn't want no one to know who we were."

The photograph helped define the Great Depression, yet McIntosh says her mom didn't let it define her, although the picture "was always talked about in our family."

"It always stayed with her. She always wanted a better life, you know."

Her mother, she says, was a "very strong lady" who liked to have a good time and listen to music, especially the yodeler named Montana Slim. She laughs when she recalls her brothers bringing home a skinny greyhound pooch. "Mom, Montana Slim is outside," they said.

Thompson rushed outside. The boys chuckled. They had named the dog after her favorite musician.

"She was the backbone of our family," McIntosh says of her mom. "We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn't eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. That's one thing she did do."

Her memories of her youth are filled with about 50 percent good times, 50 percent hard times.

It was nearly impossible to get an education. Children worked the fields with their parents. As soon as they'd get settled at a school, it was time to pick up and move again.

Her mom would put newborns in cotton sacks and pull them along as she picked cotton. The older kids would stay in front, so mom could keep a close eye on them. "We would pick the cotton and pile it up in front of her, and she'd come along and pick it up and put it in her sack," McIntosh says.

They lived in tents or in a car. Local kids would tease them, telling them to clean up and bathe. "They'd tell you, 'Go home and take a bath.' You couldn't very well take a bath when you're out in a car [with] nowhere to go."

She adds, "We'd go home and cry."

McIntosh now cleans homes in the Modesto, California, area. She's proud of the living she's been able to make -- that she has a roof over her head and has been able to maintain a job all these years. She says her obsession to keep things clean started in her youth when her chore was to keep the family tent clean. There were two white sheets that she cleaned each day.

"Even today, when it comes to cleaning, I make sure things are clean. I can't stand dirty things," she says with a laugh.

With the nation sinking into tough economic times and analysts saying the current economic crisis is the worst since the Great Depression, McIntosh says if there's a lesson to be learned from her experience it is to save your money and don't overextend yourself."

In those days people waited in line for everything: soup, bread, the promise of a job.

Now a deep, pervasive fear fills the land again... a fear of doing without. The long lines are back as once again Americans reach deep within their souls to find that elemental grit, that scrappy resourcefulness that lifted a ragtag collection of British colonies to world superpower status.

Oh yeah. We've still got "it". Or do we?

The greatest danger in the current economic crisis is that the United States will lose its historic appetite for risk. The mood now is that risk-taking got us into this mess. Risk, though, is the quintessential American trait that built the nation -- from the Battle of Bunker Hill to the rise of the microchip. If we let risk give way to a new ethos of commercial reserve and regulatory restriction, the upward arc of the U.S. ascendancy will flatten. Maybe it already has.

By "we" I mean the policy makers in Washington who will write the new rules of finance, our stunned bankers and businessmen, and the average Joes of Main Street who with reason have lost confidence. If all lose faith at once in the American idea of risk, refinding it when the recession ends may prove difficult.

This is the moment for Americans to rediscover the "frontier thesis" of Frederick Jackson Turner. In a seminal paper delivered in 1893 to the American Historical Association, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," Turner argued that the U.S. found its identity as it pushed away from the Eastern seaboard and crossed a series of frontier "fall lines": the Allegheny Mountains, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the plains, the Rocky Mountains and California.

Every American absorbs the frontier experience from reading biographies of great Americans or from movies. Frederick Turner, however, made it clear that with this effort to transform the wilderness the Americans broke decisively with what he called, believe it or not, "old Europe." "Here is a new product," Turner wrote, "that is American."

"From the conditions of frontier life," Turner believed, "came [American] intellectual traits of profound importance . . . coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil." These, he said, are "the traits of the frontier."

Turner's ideas on the frontier lie at the center of many political fights today over domestic and foreign policy. It is hard to overstate how abhorrent Turner's frontier thesis became to the American left, especially its new historians. His paper has been called "notorious and troubling" and a "myth." Their problem with Turner's view of the Americans' tendency to "incessant expansion" needs no elaboration. His critics have called him a racist.

This is unfair. Turner himself later described the political tensions in the new 20th century between Morgan's banks, Harriman's railroads -- "wealth beyond their power to enjoy" -- and the new forces of reform.

If indeed the Democrats' intellectuals want to disown Turner, the conservative movement could profit from adapting what he admired on the frontier. Everyone's ancestors made the frontier, but if it's just a Republican thing now, so be it.

Turner's purpose wasn't to idealize America but to try to understand the wellsprings of its remarkable and self-evident success. He found it, persuasively, in the lessons learned settling a continent.

For our purposes, amid economic meltdown and fiasco, the telling phrase in his list of shaping frontier traits is "that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil."

These days, whether the topic is foreign policy, economics, education, or even parenting the signs of a widespread loss of confidence in the spirit of American enterprise are everywhere. Everyone, it seems, needs help. We have become a nation of whiners, scared of our own shadows, desperate for someone to rescue us from the terrifying consequences of every day life - the same consequences our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents face with far fewer resources than we possess -- and far less complaining.

From the pages of every newspaper come admonishing reminders that the realists are back in town; the adults are back in charge. No more leaps of faith, no grand strategies, no more bold foreign policy initiatives with their concommitant risk of failure (not that either Iraq or Afghanistan has failed yet, unless one listens to the Senate Majority Leader's premature pronouncements uttered last Spring before our Surge troops were even in place). But no matter, neither his patriotism nor his judgment can be questioned.

So long as we are willing to completely disregard our own history, it will remain pitifully easy to manipulate us with frankly silly and afactual analogies that don't stand up to reasonable scrutiny.

But this country wasn't built by men (that's right, I said "men" - get over it) who shrank from the possibility of failure or stuck their hands out every time a reversal of fortune dealt them an unlucky hand. It isn't excessive risk-taking but excessive fear of risk that is causing today's angst-fests, and the answer isn't to retrench until America becomes a shadow of her former self but to tighten our belts and rediscover our appetite for hard work and the excitement that comes from knowing we still have the ability to succeed.

Or fail. Our parents understood that adversity hones the character. Our current set of leaders seem determined to convince us that it is somehow the proper function of the federal government to eliminate all adversity from our daily lives.

You tell me where that type of public policy leads? Hint: it's right up there with moral hazard.

Isn't that how we got here in the first place?

Posted by Cassandra at December 4, 2008 07:20 AM

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Just ask your husband about all the safety initiatives that have inundated the Corps in the last decade.

When general officers say that safety is paramount, I always want to scream at the top of my lungs: NO IT ISN'T! The mission ALWAYS comes first, with the welfare of the troops following closely behind.

Sure, reasonable safety should be incorporated as long as it doesn't conflict with either of those two principles, but by definition, safety cannot be paramount.

Posted by: Rex at December 4, 2008 01:34 PM

Just keep repeating: "Every day, in every way, we're getting better and better" :p

Posted by: Cassandra at December 4, 2008 01:40 PM

Cass, this was the theme of my paper on the banking industry. While it could use a serious cleaning up, the point was we forgot our history...and what led to this now.

The usual and reasonable parameters were disregarded for the mission of housing being a right.

I get so sick and tired of the bellyaching other things like the gas emissions standards. Georgia has ENOUGH regulations in place to ensure clean air without the idiotic mandatory emissions tests on cars once a year. With the additives to burn clean in fuel and catalytic converters, the addition of an 18.00 fee to inspect my car is a tax. An unnecessary burden and makes a parasite out of the emissions stations operators.

Yeah, we are getting better directions on that slippery slope.

Posted by: Cricket at December 4, 2008 02:12 PM

We just need to put the Axe to a couple of people and replace them with those that'll get things done.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at December 4, 2008 02:58 PM

These days, kids complain like crazy if their cell-phones don't get paid up on time.

And we think we've got it bad.

Posted by: ZZMike at December 4, 2008 03:36 PM


My dad went to Cornell on the GI Bill after WWII. We lived in "Student Government Housing" -- a euphemism for a tarpaper shack with a potbellied stove and outdoor plumbing.

Dad still has a pic of me sitting on the floor with ice on the inside walls in the background.

No, I was *not* wearing a thong. It was a bathing suit. Mom still can't figure out how I got out of the snowsuit -- I was all of two years old.

Posted by: BillT at December 4, 2008 04:02 PM

Bill probably flew himself out of that suit.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at December 4, 2008 04:14 PM


Zipper wasn't long enough...

Posted by: BillT at December 4, 2008 04:33 PM

It was the 27" zipper.

Posted by: MikeD at December 4, 2008 04:34 PM

And he did it in less than 16 minutes, I'll bet.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at December 4, 2008 04:56 PM

If Bill could have made a vacuum air pressure on the outside of the suit, then it wouldn't have taken more than a few seconds for it to have sucked him out.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at December 4, 2008 05:07 PM

I often think of a passage from Walter Miller's great novel "A Canticle for Leibowitz"--

"To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law - a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security."

There's a discussion related to this topic at Chicago Boyz.

Posted by: david foster at December 4, 2008 06:31 PM

I have been mulling this idea in my head for so long...about socialists who love to experiment with aspects of society. Bastiat refers to this in his essays 'The Law' and 'That Which is Seen and Unseen'.

Since he was writing about mid-ninteenth century socialist France, his writings reflected that. I found much of what he said to be prophetic, as the social engineers decided to make certain things 'a right' instead of a privilege. He talks about the limitations of government in protecting life, liberty and property.

If any of you readers here have not read Frederic Bastiat's 'The Law,' well, you need to.

Posted by: Cricket at December 5, 2008 08:42 AM

> Just keep repeating: "Every day, in every way, we're getting better and better" :p

I used to get mad at my school... the teachers that taught me weren't cool...

Posted by: Obloodyhell at December 5, 2008 03:31 PM

The Law paperback.

Or The Law (online free version).

Posted by: Obloodyhell at December 5, 2008 04:02 PM