Are we in the Not-so-Great Depression?

It must suck to be Paul Krugman. I'm sure he'd rather not be the guy who figured out our economy is actually in a depression. Regarding the debate about whether Washington should cut spending or invest in job creation, he had this ray of sunshine:

"...who will pay the price for this triumph of orthodoxy? The answer is, tens of millions of unemployed workers, many of whom will go jobless for years, and some of whom will never work again."

Can't you just hear the ominous soap opera music before the cut to a commercial?

Krugman's not alone. According to Huffington Post Senior Congressional Correspondent, the aptly named Ryan Grim, 2010 looks to repeat the mistakes of 1937, the year Roosevelt got nervous, cut spending and an economic recovery stalled.

On the other end of the political spectrum, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich went on Fox's Sean Hannity to tout his American Solutions and offered exactly Zero Solutions. Likewise for Fox News columnist Liz Peek.

The fact that I'm willing to listen to conservatives reflects just how desperate I am for answers. The fact that they have none is as depressing as the fact that we're in a depression.

In order to figure out for myself what kind of mess we're in, I looked at the most reliable economic indicator I could think of: entertainment. Based on the notion that 1930s audiences comforted themselves with escapist confections like Astaire and Rogers movies, what do our current top-grossing films say about us?

Considering half of the top ten films are sequels and series, and nearly all of them concern magic or super-heroes, I'd say Americans are interested in the familiar and the impossible. Which pretty much describes the debate between Republicans and the Democrats.

However, a look at the top ten grossing films of 1937 surprised me. Sure, they include an insulin shock-inducing Shirley Temple romp, an Errol Flynn swashbuckler and the number one movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But number nine and ten are The Good Earth, an epic drama of Chinese peasants based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Pearl Buck, and biopic The Life of Emile Zola, about the French author, his friendship with Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, and his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair. If directors tried to make those movies today, they'd slam into an industry complaining there were no merchandising tie-ins.

What the list says to me is that people in the 1930s were less escapist than we are now; that they actually went to serious films about real-life problems. Judging by our current tastes, we are barreling toward Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, a society in which we're entertaining ourselves into oblivion. Scarier still, the only people motivated enough to affect change are the bloviators of the Tea Party.

Instead of tweeting and skyping and other verbs that didn't exist five years ago, the rest of us need to start talking about how we're going to make sure Paul Krugman is wrong. Time may be running out. But, after all, if we got Saturday Night Live to choose Betty White as host, just imagine what else we can do.

And that, my friends, is The Upside.
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