Reposted from January 2009—because it still applies… —Ed.


January 28, 2009

by Charles Potts

[Arthur editor] Jay Babcock has tempted me with the phrase, “It would be great if you wrote something on this subject,” referring to the subject line of his email, “The recession and how to live through it.”

I’ll take the bait. This is more than a recession. This is going to be a huge depression, with the “recovery” way off in the distance.

A recession, per Christopher Wood, desk chair person for The Economist in Tokyo circa 1995, is “a superabundance of inventory, and can be melted off the shelf; a depression is a superabundance of capacity” and takes much longer to get out of. Remember that it took the bean counters in Wash DC a full year to confirm the economy was in recession, and there’s a lot of over-the-counter chatter about how this recession is already longer than the one in, take your pick: 1976-1980-1991-etc. However, look around you and notice the superabundance of capacity. The industrial hind end of Europe, Japan, the US and China plus all else, can easily produce multiple times more automobiles, cell phones, TVs, computers, refrigerators, et al. than anybody with funds can buy.

This is the fourth major deflationary price collapse in the past 600 years. In the three previous price collapses, there was a long period afterward when prices did not recover their pre-fall levels for decades. Prices last collapsed hard in 1815 after Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo; the period from 1815-1896 has been called by economists The Victorian Equilibrium. Many things contributed to this low-level stability, but it is sobering to realize there was scant inflation in the United States during the 19th century. (Inflation, by the by, is not necessarily a bad thing. Inflation simply moves assets around the game board from creditors to debtors; it doesn’t actually destroy anything except purchasing power if all you have is cash. In deflation, which we’re going through now, cash will buy a lot. During inflation it is better to have hard assets that increase in value at least at the same rate as cash.)

Will it take eight decades before the world economy is go-go again?

My reference to 1815 isn’t casual. I just re-read David Hackett Fischer’s The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History. His book is about the three previous big price collapses: in the early 14th century when the Black Death ended the so called “Middle” ages; then, circa 1492, when prices collapsed during the Renaissance, and we encircled ourselves globally; and the aforementioned 1815. What’s so crucial about 1815 is it is also the date and the event that Oswald Spengler (The Decline of the West) identifies as the moment Western culture went sideways and into “civilization,” cf. Napoleon at Waterloo. Fischer’s graphs of how the prices rose and fell, can be superimposed one over another. This collapse we’re in, the big one for the rest of our lives, started 20 years ago in Japan in 1989, has hit Argentina and most of Latin America, Russia twice now, and finally the big fish, the rest of Europe and the US. Even Doha is scaling back!

The powers that be with their printing presses will print money and throw it at the wall until enough of it sticks. Some activities will appear to return to normalcy. But you shouldn’t wait for the influx of money to turn deflation into inflation, just as you shouldn’t wait for the bailout to trickle down to you. Unemployment is going to increase and stay high for some time. Challenging moments are upon us.

My advice in hard times would be the same in good times: find something you love to do and master it, become as good as or better at it than anyone has any reason to be. Look up the people who do it really well right now. Study the masters. A musical instrument, a physical activity, painting, movies, art of all kinds, the writing of poetry or other books, whatever makes you feel better about yourself and contributes to our well being. Try enough things until you are satisfied that your fascination with the subject will lead to mastery. Six or eight hours of focused effort a day should suffice. I think this is reasonable advice, coming from an old man who has squandered most of his life by being interested in too many things to master any of them.

We don’t exist as individuals; we exist as the sum total of our relationships. You’ll need all the friends you can get, so be honest, fair and generous in your dealings with other people. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or take unseemly risks. The future does not belong to the risk aversive.

It will be difficult to get rich in the onrushing hard times, but it will be easy to get poor or poorer. Watch where your money goes. Make sure you get good value for it. Avoid buying things you don’t really need. Add value to your activities by putting forth effort. Expect others to do the same.

Spend time with children and if you have children of your own, take the time to understand the world from their point of view.

Assets are things that have to be used up creating additional assets. Almost without exception, your biggest asset is your time. I could have gotten rich teaching a seminar I created called “Seize the Day,” essentially a series of sensory exercises to stimulate your imagination to take over and live your own life. But I preferred life in a small town and didn’t want to see the inside of every airport and convention center in the country.

Maybe it’s time to skip the addictions, look up old friends, or visit long-lost relatives. Life is a gift of such presurpassing value that we sometimes hardly notice. Learn to appreciate simple things, the taste of water, the odor of flowers, the great way gravity contributes to your ability to walk and run.

Some of the things people love to do and do well don’t pay that much: poetry for example. Nobody really gives much of a fuck anymore if you can understand the world and set it to music. You have to feed yourself, and if a family, contribute to their well-being. You may find yourself bearing an overload of dissonance, earning your daily bread and wishing, as the Colorado poet and painter Joe Lothamer said, “I dream of being a janitor.”

Every changed circumstance contains opportunities, which accrue to the first people to recognize them. Since circumstances are in constant flux, there is a steady stream of opportunities. Learn to spot them and make them your own.

Keep the basics in mind. People will still be buying food even if the rest of the consumer economy blows completely up, as it so richly deserves to. Heal the sick, wake the dead, feed the hungry. Food shelter and clothing. Eat slowly and chew your cud well.

Biographical info on Charles Potts.

Previously in Arthur:

“The Dope From Muskogee” by Charles Potts

Muntader al-Zaidi named Arthur Magazine “Man of the Year” 2008; Charles Potts salutes al-Zaidi with new poem, “Balls Out.”

“A Case of Cheney Paranoia” by Charles Potts

Poem in Arthur No. 5

“Spasm Empire” by Charles Potts

CHARLES POTTS & SUNN 0))) AT ARTHURFEST 2005 – video footage

Categories: Charles Potts, POETRY | Tags: , , | 13 Comments

About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

13 thoughts on “THE RECESSION AND HOW TO LIVE THROUGH IT by Charles Potts

  1. Charles is one of the great humans of the Washington (& world) literary community. With the intelligence of the best the academy can offer combined with the life experience only the rarest of people have, his is an important perspective on anything he chooses to write about, and clarity is a hallmark of his writing.

    The Victorian Equilibrium is an excellent phrase of which to be reminded because we are experiencing a huge shift.

    So much in our culture is based on the notion of separation, competition and domination. We’ve perfected this mindset (let’s call it mechanistic) and have reached its limit. Yes, it was cool putting men on the moon. Now we’ll have to do more practical things, like learn the names of our neighbors, make a connection with the people who grow our food, grow more ourselves, deepen other aspects of our sense of place, study consciousness, gain self-knowledge and eventually, eventually, average people will rise up and demand a reduction in militarism, demand that more resources go to pre-natal care than to death medicine (attempts to deny death in the last six months of someone’s long life), demand food be grown locally and organically, and more momentum will be given to this great turning from experiencing the world as a hostile and indifferent place to one that is interconnected and only a true reflection of who you understand yourself to be.

    Hence Charles advice on how to spend your time. Very wise.

  2. hey charles, great to hear your views in these scary times. i’m scrambling hard right now trying to figure out how to keep on keeping on without going back to working for the machine.

    you’ve given me some inspiration here to keep my eyes out for the opportunities, be a maverick (but, holy crap how that terms been soiled! not in the palin/mccain manner) and not give up until it’s a little closer to too late.

    still and all, it’s looking more and more like i’ll have to be temping or, worse, full-timing again to support all the various endeavors (some of which were begun to support the other endeavors, ugh….) and this of course being the worst time in decades to be a job hunter. crazy.

    posted my recent ‘recession blues villanelle’ on the wandering hermit page (link above) which includes musical interludes (thanks to youtube) courtesy of john lee hooker and pink floyd, as well as a clip of deniro in taxi driver and a mime demonstration. hope all’s well in walla walla and environs.

  3. Charles Potts is too hard on himself. He has done many things, and he did many of them well: poetry, family, friendships, publications, and this long-range analyses.

    The competition and credit machine did indeed implode, and it was past overdue. Running on empty means you will shortly be walking or riding a bike. Sane, after so much insanity. The slowdown is worth every sense. When you stop and look around, the world returns to its normative dazzle, not just a tote board with rising and plunging numbers but an awe-inspiring multiplicity of the original Tao. As Potts says, You do need to divert the stream in your direction once in a while, but cooperation will prove superior to gold medals and hoarded money. In fact, potatoes will, and corn, and beans will, too.
    ‘Shovel-ready’? You dig: Oil drums to collect rain water. Free by the barrel. Urban farming is already here. That’s infrastructure, not highways.
    Farming is cultivation. We can restart culture in a more respectful way. But we must be considerate hicks, not backward, not intolerant. Imperialism broke de bank.

  4. Pingback: Reader: Jan 28, 2009 « updownacross

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  6. I enjoyed reading this article. This part was interesting:

    “Try enough things until you are satisfied that your fascination with the subject will lead to mastery. Six or eight hours of focused effort a day should suffice.”

    Malcolm Gladwell totally dovetails with this feeling. In his last book, Outliers, he talks about how it takes 10 years of intense work and study to become truly expert in pretty much any occupation. Say what you want about Galdwell… but I liked the overlap here.

  7. “Try enough things until you are satisfied that your fascination with the subject will lead to mastery. Six or eight hours of focused effort a day should suffice.”

    I dig this quote too. Important to remember that Son House started playing guitar in his mid 20’s; and Bryan Ferry (although far from mastery) started learning piano chords at the same age. When Duchamp gave up art (or stopped producing, etc.) he turned to chess in late twenties. After three decades of intense study (eight hours per day) he was (informally) ranked as one of the top 25 players in the United States….Beatrice Wood took up ceramics in her mid 40’s, etc.

    (If you want to take up the piano, I suggest getting a melodica. They’re cheap [which is good cuz no one has money], and you can figure out Gang of Four songs relatively easily. It’ll give added bite to a song like “To Hell With Poverty.” Advise Jon King to come out with a tablature book to sell at their reunion tour’s merch table.)

    I’ve always found the economy beyond my grasp. So I’ve never tried to participate in it. I mean, you can spend ten years investing and studying the stock market and get nowhere. And I think that’s what Marcuse wrote about in One-Dimensional Man — the economy controlling man, and not the other way around. Although, fuck, don’t take my word for it. (I only read it once and it was hazy.)

    Anyway, this article is incredibly erudite. A nice summary of other financial collapses…gotta get Fischer’s book.

    Oh, hey, Paul Nelson: thanks for giving Lester that job at Rolling Stone.

  8. I’d like to thank Mr. Potts for this excellent piece of writing. This is not the first time he has inspired me with his words. Here’s one of the quotes that really jumps out at me:

    “Watch where your money goes. Make sure you get good value for it. Avoid buying things you don’t really need. Add value to your activities by putting forth effort. Expect others to do the same.”

    It’s scary and surreal to see people doing exactly the opposite, as if by simply ignoring the problems they could make them go away. (Who was it that encouraged citizens to keep buying Hummers as a way to defeat the terrorists?)

  9. The Next Depression

    Sinking and sinking in a sickening swirl
    Retail sales fall short of retailer goals;
    Stock prices slide, well-run businesses fold;
    Massive layoffs raise unemployment fears;
    A loose-lipped faith in endless growth has died
    Replaced by loud cries for costly bailouts;
    Good deals lack all support, while ponzi schemes
    Quickly acquire devoted followings.

    Surely, the Invisible Fist is clenched;
    Surely, the Next Depression has begun.
    The Next Depression! Just the sound of these words
    With their intimations of Social Upheavals
    Scares me witless! all my senses tell me that
    Some long neglected institution,
    A festering financial running sore
    Is inching toward the edge, the black hole point
    Where lies unreel to reveal hidden deserts.
    Economic cycles rule: but all know
    That after long years of smug indulgence
    Our expectations had become too fiercely fixed
    And though still cosseted in hope filled dreams,
    Wake’ning soon, a beastly age will dawn.

    © Michael Silverstein…

  10. Still hard to tell what anything’s really worth still, but one measure of good advice is it’s applicability six months, a year, or a decade or more down the road. You might be able to take the man out of the country, but your rural roots and common sense continue to keep me grinning, applauding and wondering where’n the hell you’ve been. Glad to reconnect with your unique perspective once again.


    ‘Clearly it is time
    To become disillusioned,each person to
    enter his soul’s desert
    And look for God – having seen man.’
    – Robinson Jeffers (“The Soul’s Desert”)

    Relegated to rooms, little wonder humans
    become dull and predictable, become old
    within tight pens hung with many diversions

    to keep them calm – little wonder comfort
    and convenience rule this claustrophobe
    with something new each day to work for

    into the future. No man is immune, not
    even the natives, not even the Great Blue
    Heron fishing from steep, concrete sides

    of the Friant-Kern Canal. Progress begets
    fresh opportunities to be swept away,
    new addictions to cling to as we turn

    our backs on the inhospitable ground,
    the jagged edge of granite lake reflections
    we’d grind into gravel if it would pay.

    © John C. Dofflemyer 2009
    Dry Crik Journal

    Couldn’t stand not including a poem!

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  13. Pingback: No Exit—from the Not-So-Great Depression - ARTHUR MAGAZINE – WE FOUND THE OTHERS

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