There is also, of course, the ancient practice of getting drunk. It's no accident that battered U.S. citizens repealed Prohibition in the middle of the Great Depression. "People naturally self-medicate," Lehrer says. "You've had a long day, lots of gloom and doom, everybody's talking about layoffs, the stock market's going down, so you want a pick-me-up." Even the simple act of reaching for your AmEx card has become a kind of drug. "People in a recession are in pain," says marketing guru Seth Godin, the author of influential tracts such as Tribes. "Over time, we've been conditioned to solve pain of any kind by applying the joy we get when we spend money." Which means that the apocalyptic tone of a lot of business coverage may, paradoxically, be intensifying the splurge reflex. Consultant and professor Jean-Noel Kapferer, the author of The Luxury Strategy, compares the phenomenon to what happens during invasions and bombing raids. "This is the same psychological stress as in times of war," he says. "People lose their jobs, they feel very insecure about their future. The basis of optimism—which is 'The future is nice'—is lost for a while." In such a situation, he says, there is a common impulse to huddle in a bomb shelter, uncork the best bottle of red you can find, and share it with a tight-knit group of comrades. "People go out less, but they treat themselves with some very good friends at home," he says. "In times of crisis we need to be pampered somehow."

Besides, if your favorite mutual fund is turning into a sinkhole, you've got to find new things to invest in. Which might explain Kamenetz's doomsday plan. "I had a serious conversation with my husband about whether we should stockpile whiskey," she says. "In the event that the dollar becomes hyperinflated, we could trade our way out of Brooklyn with a case of whiskey."

"And even if that doesn't happen," she adds, "we'll still have a case of whiskey."