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June 3, 2011 10:12 pm

Still living in a dream

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Could the financial shock of 2008 end up producing a better society?

Last weekend, my girls and I watched one of our favourite DVDs: Kit Kittredge, a historical film about the American Depression that was produced in 2008 in tandem with the American Girl dolls, books and accessories company. It is a fabulous and thought-provoking way to spend a couple of hours – even (or especially) if you are not the target audience, namely a five- to 10-year-old American girl.

The film tells the story of a community in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the 1930s, as viewed through the eyes of 10-year-old Kit. Her father, a middle-class businessman, loses his job and the family is plunged into humiliating poverty, almost losing its house.

My daughters love the fact that Kit is plucky and resourceful. What fascinates me, however, is the sociology. The vision of 1930s Cincinnati, as mediated through Kit’s story, is one of a community where everybody suffers, including the bankers who had caused the Wall Street crash. But, at the same time, this community is undergoing rapid, adaptive change. After all, as the film portentously notes, following the Great Depression “nothing was ever quite the same again”. Hierarchies were remade; priorities redefined. The mighty were humbled (or some of them were).

In the film, even Kit, a child, is forced to consider what it means to be “American”. This was the era after all the historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “the American Dream” – which he defined as “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement”.

This vision of the 1930s is, of course, desperately sanitised, and sugar-coated to boot. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to consider for a moment what a Kit Kittredge film might look like, had it been made in, say, 2099, about the crisis of 2008. In some senses, it would be different: a 10-year-old child in modern Cincinnati would not see a community of shared pain. On the contrary – and in stark contrast to the 1930s – bankers are generally not being tossed out of their houses on to the street.

But the more interesting question to ask is whether a Kit Kittredge set in 2008 would also show a society undergoing as much adaptive change as in the 1930s. Has the financial shock of 2008 also sparked a remaking of the old order? Could it end up producing a better society?

If Richard Florida, professor of business and creativity at the Rotman School of Management, in Toronto, is to be believed, the answer might be yes. In his book, The Great Reset, he argues that the 2008 financial shock – like that of the 1930s – has indeed ushered in a period of adaptive change. He argues that economic shocks have always forced a “reset” on society: the first big American depression of the 1880s pushed millions of people off the farms into the cities, and the Great Depression sparked the phase of the American Dream that revolved around the idea of home-ownership. In the wake of the second world war, the US embarked on an era of suburbanisation, focusing on the motor car, cheap petrol, inexpensive housing loans and the construction of out-of-town homes and shopping malls.

The latest post-crash world needs to “reset” again: in place of suburbanisation and a national obsession with home ownership, city-dwelling and renting should be promoted, alongside less use of cars and more reliance on public transport. The banks’ economic role must also be reined in, Florida argues. This whole process, he insists, could and should get under way: as families are thrown out of their houses, and the cost of bank loans and petrol rise, Americans will be forced to change the way they live – ultimately for the better.

Frankly, this is hard to envisage right now; indeed, from 2011, Florida’s optimism is apt to seem almost as sugar-coated as any Kit Kittredge film. Most Americans show little interest in relinquishing their home-ownership dream; and government policy still seems to be orientated towards delivering more of the same (ie restarting the housing market, propping up the banks, reducing petrol prices and so forth).

But America is an optimistic country – and it would be nice to think that Florida’s theory has some truth to it. So the next time my girls ask to watch Kit Kittredge, I will happily agree. If nothing else, it is a wonderful way to pass a long car journey – and a chance to look for a silver lining in the cloud of post-crash economic pain and change that is, once again, hovering over the lives of many Americans and Europeans today.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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