American Consequences - May 2020

Sometimes crisis is an opportunity. Sometimes, it's just destruction. And if you are wrong or too early, you end up a loser. Everybody wants answers today. They want to know when the spread of infections will subside... They want to know when our economy will reopen... And they want to know what to do with their money. We all find ourselves scrolling endlessly on our phones or perpetually watching cable news, trying to find the little bit of information that will help us answer these questions and see the future. We know this is futile. So instead, let’s do what we always recommend. Step back from the crisis... away from the news, away from the virus, and out of the current moment. Here is a wood-framed shack buried by sand, with only the roof joists still visible... And is that a schoolhouse, with just the chimney and two walls still standing? Then you see fence posts, the nubs sticking out of sterile brown earth... The fence posts rose six feet or more out of the ground. They are buried now but for the nubs that poke through layers of dust. Sometimes crisis is an opportunity. Sometimes, it’s just destruction. And if you are wrong or too early, you end up a loser. Today, the coronavirus has shut down wide swaths of the global economy. It’s still too soon to know exactly what kind of crisis it is – opportunity or pure destruction.

Consider Nebraska about 20 years after O Pioneers! A boom in the price of wheat and promises of riches on the southern Great Plains brought an influx of farmers. This chase for agricultural wealth and new plowing technology led farmers to tear up the natural grassland at a record pace. With the Great Depression, the price of wheat fell, and farms lay fallow. A lack of rain let the plowed soil dry out. Nebraska, and especially areas a bit farther south, suffered for years through the Dust Bowl. Reading accounts of the Dust Bowl seems surreal. Great storms of dust would completely black out the sun. Survivors always described how “you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” and they meant it literally. People stuffed their nostrils with Vaseline. Children died from “dust pneumonia.” And the economy went from boom to bust. No crops were grown. Commerce ground to a halt. Teachers worked without pay. At times, it may have appeared like the ideal opportunity for the Bergsons in Nebraska. More than a quarter of a million people fled. Farms were bankrupt. You could buy them for pennies per acre. But levering up and buying land would not have paid off. The dust and drought lasted for eight years, and the recovery was little more than an improvement from abject catastrophe to just miserable. Even today, the dust still buries the things people built... never to be used again. From Timothy Egan’s 2006 history of the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time :

American Consequences


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