Toward the end of her life, which spanned nearly all of the 20th century, my grandma Olga often advised, "What this country needs is a good depression."
She didn't wish destitution on anyone. She was simply noting how good fortune and modern society have conspired to isolate Americans from each other, turning us into tiny, self-interested island nations no longer needing to borrow a cup of sugar from the neighbors, much less appreciating how we -- rich, poor and in between -- are all connected. Only a depression, she thought, would show us again how much we depend on each other.
She didn't live to see the Great Recession, but I suspect she'd be disappointed.
Now, as before, we're broke. But far from bringing us together, this downturn has driven us farther apart, culminating in the recent riotous weeks in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union crusade has brought out accusations of selfishness from all sides.
We accuse each other of being selfish all the time now: If you want to keep your good government job, you're selfish. If you want high-speed rail, you're selfish. If you want the rich to pay their fair share of taxes, you're selfish. If you don't want to pay more taxes, you're selfish, too.
Which can only mean one thing: We're probably all being selfish.
We have run up deficits, to be sure. But it's not that we can't pay for the public good -- the average tax burden is the lowest in half a century. We haven't paid so little, per person, for the public good since the end of World War II. We simply don't want to pay for it. In fact, we can no longer agree on what constitutes the public good at all.
When Gov. Mark Dayton recently named projects he felt were worth state bonding, such as civic centers in Mankato, Rochester, and St. Cloud, Republicans reacted as though he'd suggested building a zeppelin, filling it with spotted owls, and flying it around to Bill Maher performances.
When Republicans rejected funding for high-speed rail in the Midwest, some argued that transit should no longer be a federal priority, that taxpayers in Florida have no interest in helping Minnesotans get around. As though there were no shared economic benefits from pooling resources to build better regional economies. As though we should never have built the Hoover Dam, established the Tennessee Valley Authority or even, as one conservative analyst suggested, rebuilt New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Paul Ryan, the rising Republican congressman from Wisconsin, delivered his party's response to the recent State of the Union speech. As he summed up the responsibilities of government as he saw them, he seemed to surprise even himself by finding so few to name, chief among them defense, equal opportunity and a safety net. Then he lamented the "diminished country" we would become if we did any more than that for the public good.
For years, social scientists have warned that we're retreating from each other even as technology binds us together. But social isolation doesn't give us the whole story. Even in 1935, seven in 10 Americans thought the government should cut public spending and reduce the national debt. (FDR acquiesced, and unemployment nearly doubled.) We're simply bad at macroeconomics.
Which is why, in bad times, we fall for politicians like former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who coarsely informed Wisconsin workers that "the gig [sic] is up" and would have us believe that surrendering rights and benefits is necessary now. That "imposing suffering on other people," as economist Paul Krugman put it last year, "is how you show leadership in tough times."
This moment of budget crunching is a tipping point: Are we in this together or not?
Faced with shrinking bank accounts, we've holed up on our islands even as the waters around us rise. Perhaps we will perceive the benefits of boosting others again only when we are all making for the same life rafts.
For now, there are no breadlines, the shouting in the streets has only just begun, and we can still pretend we are alone in this. We haven't gotten a good depression, after all, just a bad recession.
Tim Gihring is the senior editor of Minnesota Monthly. He is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.