05/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Some Hard Truth About Hard Times

I'm not calling anyone a liar, but I've got to explode a popular myth
that's been circulating in this country far too long. Here's how it gets
passed around: in a casual conversation, someone will mention an elderly
friend or relative who has a habit of never throwing anything away.

Almost invariably the person telling the story will explain the hoarding
behavior by saying, "It's because he (or she) grew up in the Depression and
they remember the hard times, with no money, scrimping and saving day after
day. So for the rest of their life, they have trouble getting rid of stuff
even when it's worn out."

Many of these anecdotes are undoubtedly true. But scrimping and saving
every day is NOT behavior that started during the Great Depression, and it's
misleading to portray the hardships caused by that event as remarkable or
unprecedented in American life.

Using the Depression as a baseline for all discussions of national
prosperity, or lack of it, ignores an important historical truth: for
millions of average citizens, money was tight and economic security
non-existent in every decade prior to the 1930s.

My father didn't grow up in poverty, but he lived on a strict budget in
circumstances that, by today's standards, seem harsh. He was born in
Nebraska in 1915, but by 1922 the family had moved to California and settled
in Redwood City, about 20 miles south of San Francisco.

His father worked in the nearby Southern Pacific railroad yards and
couldn't afford to buy a house. Instead, he purchased a vacant lot and
built one, using his own carpentry skills, sawing and hammering on
weekends. My dad was impressed by that accomplishment but never talked
about it as an amazing, inspirational project. His father wanted a house
and constructing it himself was the only option, so that's what he did.

Their neighborhood wasn't the kind of setting that would make a nice
Norman Rockwell cover on the Saturday Evening Post. From what my dad told
me, lifestyles of the residents varied between frugal and threadbare. There
was one guy who wore the same overalls every day. On Saturdays he would sit
in the kitchen, wrapped in a blanket, while his wife washed the overalls in
a tub of hot soapy water perched on the stove.

Food wasn't abundant. My dad and his brother often had rice for
breakfast, cooked mushy like oatmeal. Bread smeared with Crisco was a
typical sandwich option. And if there was no real tea in the house they
would make 'silver tea.' That's hot water flavored with milk and sugar.

My dad went to college for a year but the cost put too much strain on
the family finances. He dropped out, got hired by a local title company,
and later served in the Navy during World War Two. Thanks to the G.I. bill
he got his college diploma in 1949 and had a successful career in the
aerospace industry.

I don't think he felt nostalgic for his childhood and teenage years.
The conditions of everyday life he had to deal with didn't encourage average
people to dream big or take risks. Getting a job and hanging onto it was
the top priority for most of his peers, He once said to me, "If the war
hadn't come along I might have stayed with that title company forever."

So yes, the Great Depression was awful, but it wasn't some terrible new
malady that no one had ever experienced before. And lately I've noticed a
few media pundits floating the idea that many New Deal policies created by
the Roosevelt administration were actually bad for America in the long run.
This line of thinking claims the US is firmly on the road to becoming a
welfare state populated by slackers devoid of personal responsibility.

More insidiously, it suggests that conditions before the Depression were
closer to genuine American ideals, two of the most important being greater
laissez-faire capitalism and freedom from 'government intrusion' in many
areas of our lives.

Federal spending on social programs is a subject that deserves serious,
thoughtful debate, and always will. But anyone who thinks America is on the
way down because the New Deal wrecked our national character and turned us
into softies looking for endless handouts is delusional.

My dad is long gone, but I know he'd be amused and somewhat irked by
people nowadays who think of the 1920s as a time when women wore flapper
outfits, men called each other "old sport," and every night was party time
at the local speakeasy.

If anyone ever builds a time machine and says they're heading back to
the festive years of the Jazz Age because America was a better place in that
freewheeling era, I'll be happy to send them off with fireworks. I hope
they feel liberated and empowered by the total lack of government safety
nets such as FDIC protection for bank accounts, social security benefits, or
unemployment assistance.

I might even pack a box lunch for them, something appropriate for the
journey. I wonder if they'd enjoy two or three Crisco sandwiches and a big
Thermos of silver tea?