The day I got my first paycheck in my first post-college job, I walked into my old campus saloon — the gang hardly recognized me in a suit — leaned on the bar and ordered a Heineken. Not a pitcher of whatever watery suds were on sale to the penurious undergraduates, whose wretched lot I shared only a few weeks earlier. Nope, I asked for an imported brand. And you know, for once I didn’t have to worry about it.


That was 20 years ago. I don’t know when I drank my last actual Heineken, but in a way, I’ve been a Heineken man ever since. That is, though I’ve never known wealth in my working life, I’ve also never had to do without, not in any serious way. There has always been money for Heineken. Live that way long enough, and you begin to think that the easy availability of Heineken is the natural order of things.

My father, he drinks whatever’s on sale and doesn’t care. That’s his way. He was a child of the Great Depression. When I was a senior in high school, I tasted my first Heineken in, no kidding, Holland (cheap flights, a strong dollar — ah, 1984). When Daddy was a senior in high school, he installed the first indoor plumbing in his family’s house.

Same planet, different worlds.

I have a lot of conversations these days involving the word "depression," and believe me, we’re not talking about the blues. An economist of some note confides that the banks are essentially insolvent and that there’s really no way around a serious and painful reckoning. A college professor friend e-mails of a conference he recently attended at which "very highly placed people with serious government credentials" were extremely worried about the near future.

In my back yard the other night, we sat by the fire, several of us, talking about what we’d do if hard times came and realizing that we have no idea, no idea at all. None of us have serious debt, but we confessed that we’d spent these fat years drinking too much Heineken and saving too little. Who has much in savings, anyway? Old folks like my father, that’s who.

Sometimes you get to thinking that a stiff slug of forced austerity might be good for us all. It would compel us to become more self-reliant, to focus more on our families and communities, and to cultivate simplicity. I’m susceptible to this fantasy, but then I remember how my grandfather had to be away from his wife and kids for four grueling years, on the road trying to make a living. Many nights, if my dad or his brother hadn’t shot any squirrels in the woods that day, there was no meat on the table.

Besides, sudden shattering poverty and the subsequent social unraveling in Weimar Germany didn’t work out so great for the world, did it? Show of hands: Who’s confident that contemporary America, which lacks the social cohesion the nation had in the 1930s, would be able to pull together as it did during the Great Depression?

Still, would it be such a bad thing to emulate the lessons of the Depression generation and learn to live far more frugally than we do? In her must-read new book, "Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front," Sharon Astyk says that we have no choice but to live a radically more simple life — and she shows how. This doesn’t mean embracing a freakish level of austerity; it just means learning to want less and to need less. As she writes on her blog:

In 1945 we used 80 percent less energy per household than we do now. Your parents and grandparents lived that way — they heated the rooms they used most often and closed off the other ones, wore sweaters and walked more than they drove. They took the bus. They ate less meat. They grew Victory gardens and ate food grown near them. They shared with their neighbors more, and they worked together on what was then the greatest challenge facing the world — the rise of fascism. What is most needed isn’t a move to the third world — it is a return to a familiar past.

Astyk was responding to a New York Times article that had implicitly raised questions about the sanity of her and her upstate New York farm family, given their frugal lifestyle. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is trying to restart an economy blown to bits by debt by encouraging Americans drowning in debt to resume spending money that they don’t have for things they don’t need.

You tell me: Who’s crazy here?