What Would Depression 2009 Look Like?

Boston.com has a really thought-provoking article entitled Depression 2009: What would it look like?. The subtitle answers: “Lines at the ER, a television boom, emptying suburbs. A catastrophic economic downturn would feel nothing like the last one.”

This is one of those “Duh!” articles that makes you see the obvious. As the article notes:

Most of us, of course, think we know what a depression looks like. Open a history book and the images will be familiar: mobs at banks and lines at soup kitchens, stockbrokers in suits selling apples on the street, families piled with all their belongings into jalopies. Families scrimp on coffee and flour and sugar, rinsing off tinfoil to reuse it and re-mending their pants and dresses. A desperate government mobilizes legions of the unemployed to build bridges and airports, to blaze trails in national forests, to put on traveling plays and paint social-realist murals.

Today, however, whatever a depression would look like, that’s not it. We are separated from the 1930s by decades of profound economic, technological, and political change, and a modern landscape of scarcity would reflect that….

Unlike the 1930s, when food and clothing were far more expensive, today we spend much of our money on healthcare, child care, and education, and we’d see uncomfortable changes in those parts of our lives. The lines wouldn’t be outside soup kitchens but at emergency rooms, and rather than itinerant farmers we could see waves of laid-off office workers leaving homes to foreclosure and heading for areas of the country where there’s more work – or just a relative with a free room over the garage. Already hollowed-out manufacturing cities could be all but deserted, and suburban neighborhoods left checkerboarded, with abandoned houses next to overcrowded ones.

And above all, a depression circa 2009 might be a less visible and more isolating experience. With the diminishing price of televisions and the proliferation of channels, it’s getting easier and easier to kill time alone, and free time is one thing a 21st-century depression would create in abundance. Instead of dusty farm families, the icon of a modern-day depression might be something as subtle as the flickering glow of millions of televisions glimpsed through living room windows, as the nation’s unemployed sit at home filling their days with the cheapest form of distraction available.

While no one knows for sure just what might happen, the article puts fascinating flesh on how a downturn severe enough to be characterized as a “depression” would be experienced in today’s market. The article calls out these likely scenarios:

  • Desurburanization, and a preference for renting over owning a home;
  • The re-legitimization of hand-me-down culture (Hey, I never gave it up!), including national second-hand chains;
  • A preference for reliability over novelty and style;
  • “The neighborhood appliance shop could reappear in a new form – unlicensed, with hacked cellphones and rebuilt computers”;
  • A fatter society, “as more people eat like today’s poor” (not if Obama listens to Michael Pollan; this observation makes Pollan’s advice even more compelling with regard to government agricultural subsidies and food policy!)
  • “More crowded subways and cheap, unlicensed day-care centers” (Read the story for the explanation);

That’s far from all. And there’s even more great stuff in the comments. Thanks a lot to @hadleystern, retweeting @gregoryng for pointing me to this article. It was juicy enough that merely passing it on via a retweet wasn’t enough. I want to give it some blog link love, and a place for people to comment.

What would you have to cut in the event of a serious downturn? How would it change your life and the life of those around you? Answering that question will also make clear what some of the right policy choices are for government, as well as some interesting opportunities for entrepreneurs. Go read the story and the comments on it, then come back here and give me your ideas.