Where economics are concerned, it can be useful to take a very long view. Concerns about the strength or weakness of markets for lobsters or oil or even real estate get a little more manageable when we remember that all of these things go up and down over time – most commodities have their peaks and valleys as prices go up or down depending on demand, supply, the cost of doing business, the inclination of the public to buy things, and so on.

Here in Maine the questions we ask should reflect this sort of long-term thinking. Will real estate go back to “normal” – that is, the way it was 30 years ago, costing considerably less than it does in the rest of the country? Will lobsters go back to where they were in the 1930s or earlier, when you made more money in other fisheries and went lobstering only when you had to? Will the summer-visitor business go back to where it landed during the Depression, when once-elegant resorts and summer establishments went on the block for a fraction of what they’d once cost? There was a time, no more than a couple of generations ago, when Maine was a hard place to live – inexpensive, perhaps, but not bustling with employment opportunities.

So where are we now? Are we in the lower reaches of a “recession” from which we’ll emerge as the normal cycle reasserts itself, or is it 1933, when banks were failing and the country faced years (in Maine’s case decades) of hard times. Not a “recession,” as they would have it in Washington, but a “depression.” You’ll hear plenty of opinions on this question to be sure, but no one really knows.

In fact, the past 30 years have been highly unusual in Maine. A state that has been essentially poor since the Civil War has become resource-rich, sort of – low energy prices and federal highway investments made us accessible; out-of-state folks decided they liked our classic houses and waterfront real estate; entrepreneurs built ski resorts and convinced Bostonians to drive to them; the lobster industry went global – and on and on. We built an expensive, multi-campus university system to train our kids for the future; we tied ourselves into the Internet and made it possible for people to telecommute to anywhere. Times became good for a lot of people (not everyone), and they’ve stayed that way for a long time.

Now what happens? Well, if it’s 1933, things will grind to a halt and we’ll learn – fairly quickly – to do with less. Or we may only be experiencing a cyclical downturn, in which case what went down will go back up.

Energy is the joker here. We have become so dependent on oil, coal and other non-renewable forms of it that adjusting to sharply higher costs will be very difficult, and of course there’s the distinct likelihood that the price of oil won’t come back down at all. Indeed, many are predicting it will continue to rise, and if it does, we’ll be in very serious trouble. Former Maine Gov. Angus King observed not long ago that if gasoline rises to $10 per gallon (why not?) this state could become uninhabitable.

Ingenuity can overcome a lot of our present difficulties, of course, and we can learn to live without unaffordable oil. But it will take time. But if it’s 1933, we’ll have plenty of that.