Even Amish values aren't recession-proof

Fancy horses, luxury carriages -- it all goes to heck when the economy implodes

By Andrew Leonard
Published July 2, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

Say it ain't so -- even the Amish fell victim to the seductive lures of the boom-time economy. Such is the hook of a depressing Wall Street Journal article by Douglas Belkin, "A Bank Run Teaches the 'Plain People' About the Risks of Modernity."

For some, the good life is a hot tub on the back porch and plasma HD flat screen. In a 20,000-person community of Amish in northern Indiana, fancy Dutch Harness horses and carriages lined "in dark velvet and illuminated ... with battery-powered LED lighting" were the definition of living large. But no matter what your value system, when the economy turns south and you're suddenly living beyond your means, trouble looms.

Belkin goes to considerable length to show that these Amish abandoned some important standbys of their traditional way of life, while constructing a classic morality tale. As a reporter, his treatment is restrained, but there's also a sense in which we're invited as spectators to shake our heads at these farmers, who in the past made such a big deal of cutting off the outside world, nonetheless becoming entrapped in it.

"People wanted bigger weddings, newer carriages," Mr. Lehman says. "They were buying things they didn't need." Mr. Lehman spent several hundred dollars on a model-train and truck hobby, and about $4,000 on annual family vacations, he says. This year, there will be no vacation.

It became common practice for families to leave their carriages home and take taxis on shopping trips and to dinners out ...

Even the tradition of helping each other out began to unravel, Bishop Hochstetler says. Instead of asking neighbors for help, well-to-do Amish began hiring outsiders so they wouldn't have to reciprocate. "Factory work doesn't eliminate fellowship, but it does not encourage togetherness," the bishop says.

Modernity, yeah, she's a bitch. Ultimately, though, isn't the main lesson of Belkin's story that the Amish are just like the rest of us, albeit with cooler beards?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Great Recession How The World Works U.s. Economy