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The Next Great Depression Is Here... If We're Lucky

11/24/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Don't panic — this is just a speed bump. You want to ride this one out. Think long-term. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Keep your money where it is — trust the market. The worst thing you can do is panic.

Reassuring words, which can all be traced, ultimately, to the same dudes who ringed our noses and walked us to the edge of this particular ravine in the first place. The Dow is literally in freefall as we speak, plunging beneath a five-year-low, with no bottom in sight. So here's my open question: Are you guys sure we shouldn't panic?

You know, not that we don't trust you absolutely anymore.

I, for one, think this is an excellent time to panic. I'm strongly considering curling up in the corner over there and rocking like a freaked-out autistic kid.

The challenges we face as a nation grow more complex every day, and every day, America's superstrength weakens. Our financial institutions — the only corner of industry we haven't already sent overseas — are imploding. Every day our political process grows more absurdly corrupt, while our watchdog media slumbers, dreaming of Britney. Our families are virtually all fractured; our prisons are teeming; our schools are churning out violent morons.

How bad does the state of the nation have to get before we will be advised it's okay to panic?

Collectively and individually, we are already enslaved to a diminished future by decades of unrestrained gluttony and greed. And we are getting fatter, stupider, and more indebted by the moment. I'm not being judgmental; that's just a sober read of the stats. One in five Americans today believes the sun revolves around the earth. One in four read no books at all last year. One in three believes in UFOs.

Kind of makes you wonder who we are, anymore. I think we've been bellied up just a little too long at the all-you-can-eat buffet of the world. You probably think I mean that figuratively. But one out of five Americans is overweight now, and one in four of us is clinically obese. Yowsa! One in four!! We are not just the fattest people on Earth, we're the fattest people in the history of people. We're so fat our favorite color is gravy. We're so fat that when our beeper goes off, other countries think we're backing up.

But I digress.

Time to put two and two together, people, whatever THAT adds up to, and take a good hard look at what we've let ourselves become. Not too long ago, America led the world in things like energy production, automobiles, cotton, hope. Today we lead the world in substance abuse, incarceration, bulimia, and serial killers. America's #1 export today is — this is true; can anyone guess?

Debt.

As esteemed philosopher Dean Wormer of Faber College once noted, "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life." Yet here we are, living that immature dream, inspiring nobody.

When you're driving as fast and recklessly as you can, a 'speed bump' is quite sufficient to wreck a car. I say it's time to panic. And rejoice. Because things are going to get a hell of a lot worse before they get better. And that may be exactly what this country needs.

The Great Depression was no barrel of laughs, by all accounts. Poverty, despair, unemployment, hunger, and hopelessness are harsh mistresses. But in retrospect, they raised us right. The Depression built character on a national scale, taught us virtues like self-reliance and sacrifice and compassion, brought families together. Roll your postmodern eyes at the quaint earnestness of it all, but it truly did make our nation strong.

And just as the Great Depression brought out the best in us, our postwar prosperity has surely brought out the worst. Our blissful blinkered indolence has left us thoroughly unprepared for the challenges of the new millennium, challenges which couldn't be more immediate or acute. Iran is twenty-two seconds from becoming a nuclear power. Russian warships are steaming toward Venezuela, literally, as you read this. And here, right at the moment when we could really use the Greatest Generation, we find ourselves armed with...the Me Generation.

D'oh!

I modestly propose that a new Great Depression is exactly what America needs to wake ourselves up, put some moral fiber back in our diet, and give us some breathing room so we can catch up to the rest of the world again. We got ourselves into this mess, and it's high time we got ourselves out, by deliberately provoking a painful and protracted worldwide financial calamity. We did it to them in 1929, and by God we can do it again.

It shouldn't be that hard... These are fragile times, and information moves at the speed of light, and we have the herd effect on our side. Does anything seem unsinkable this week?

Consider this scenario: A local TV pundit half-jokingly suggests, after some next bit of bad financial news, that maybe we'd better pull our money out now, before all the ATMs stop working. A few people take him seriously; they tell their Facebook friends. A news chopper films the line forming outside some local bank; Fox News picks it up for the national feed, and next thing you know your spouse is calling you at work, saying 'Honey, they are closing banks and there's cops everywhere..."

The FDIC 'insures' your $3 trillion in consumer deposits with just $45 billion in assets...that's just one and a half cents per dollar. Won't take much to empty that box — WaMu alone was projected to cost the FDIC $24 billion, so you do the math. Math is hard! The FDIC will have to take the collection plate to Treasury, who'll have to go to China, who'll tell us to screw off. Or to turn the other way while they take Taiwan out back for a beatdown.

There's no question in my mind that America can be strong and resourceful and self-reliant again. But it's going to take an actual catastrophic system failure to drive those lessons home. Sure, maybe we can heed this 'dress rehearsal' warning and wise up and put ourselves back on track, but the smart money's on no fricking way. You know us; we're going to fall right back into our crack-addict habits as soon as the credit lines open up again. There are just too many suits in cahoots working to keep us spellbound, too little in the way of countervailing force. Brace yourself to resist the messaging this winter, as retailers try to shore up The.Worst.Christmas.Season.Ever.

You know what'll probably make you feel better about this whole thing? A new iPod Touch. Click here to buy it right now, and make no payments for the first six months!!

I'm not saying a new Great Depression is definitely coming, I'm just saying put what's left of your money in a mattress, plant apple trees in your backyard, and buy a gun. And bullets — don't forget bullets! To be first in line for the run on a bank is irresponsible to your country. But to be last in line is irresponsible to your family.

Don't let anyone tell you to relax...That's how they walked us off the cliff in 1929. Embrace your fear. Fear makes you smart; fear makes you strong. It's the only proper mindset to face the coming storm. In fact, why not practice? As an experiment, try to live within your means, just for a week. Buy only some things you absolutely don't need, and try eating only 50 or 60% more than your body can possibly process. Put a couple of dollars in a box and see if they're still there at the end of the week. Try it! Just for fun!

The only thing to trust is fear itself. Because the reality is, if we all choose to get a little leaner and hungrier, it might not hurt quite so bad later this year or early next year, when that choice is taken from us.