Saturday, September 5, 2009

Learning From History

"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

George Santayana (1863–1952)
The Life of Reason
Vol. I, Reason in Common Sense

As I write this, it has been exactly one week since the funeral mass for Ted Kennedy.

During Kennedy's funeral last Saturday, his oldest son, Teddy Jr., gave the speech that was considered by many to be the most moving tribute of all the eulogies that were given in his father's memory.

That assessment probably was based on Teddy Jr.'s recollection of his struggle with bone cancer, which cost him one of his legs, and his personal comments about his relationship with his father. Those words certainly were touching.

Equally significant, though, were his memories of how Kennedy used to take him and his siblings and his cousins to Civil War battlefields. He recalled how his father and historian Shelby Foote would visit battlefields on the anniversaries of the battles in order to gain a greater appreciation for what the soldiers experienced.

"He believed that, in order to know what to do in the future, you had to understand the past," Teddy Jr. told those who were assembled in Boston.

If, before he died, Kennedy didn't impart that lesson directly to his countrymen, I hope they got it last weekend. But, with the endless fighting over health care reform and the latest firestorm over Barack Obama's intention to speak to America's schoolchildren next week, I have my doubts.

Obama fancies himself a student of history, but he often seems to lack an awareness of the lessons of history.

Well, if the president needs a little help in that regard, Matthew Rothschild can give him some historical perspective with an article he has written for The Progressive.

"It's Labor Day and the American worker doesn't have a lot to celebrate," Rothschild writes. "Unemployment stands at 9.7 percent — that's 15 million people out of work, officially, and millions more unofficially."

Rothschild goes on to observe that "the richest Americans have seen their wealth skyrocket, so much so that now we have widest gap between the rich and the poor since 1929."

Ah, yes, 1929. There are many years that would have little meaning for non–historians, even though those years brought significant developments, but it seems to me that just about anyone who ever studied American history, especially 20th century American history, would be able to tell you that 1929 was the year of the Stock Market Crash that helped to usher in the Great Depression.

Well, the prevailing belief is that the Depression began with the Stock Market Crash — but, in truth, real estate values had been declining for awhile, and the long–term influence of the crash was not clear to many Americans when it happened. Neither of my parents had been born when the stock market crashed, but my studies of that period indicate that reality didn't settle in until later on, when banks began to fail and an economic domino effect was under way.

But some people understood immediately what the crash meant. There are many stories of folks who did not wish to face what was to come and chose to end it all. Some put bullets through their heads. Others hanged themselves or jumped from tall buildings.

There are some differences between the current recession and 1929. Today, most people believe this will not turn into another Depression. They disagree over whether the actions of the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress are responsible, but most believe an economic catastrophe like the one in the 1930s has been avoided.

And, while historians disagree over exactly when the Depression really began, economists tend to agree that this recession began in December 2007, but things didn't get noticeably bad for most until the economic meltdown late last year.

People were losing their jobs before then, of course, just as there were signs before the Stock Market Crash that the economy was dangerously unstable. And, in the year since the meltdown, the economy has been losing hundreds of thousands of jobs each month. Some of the folks who lost their jobs before the meltdown may well have found new employment, but it isn't much of a reach to say that most of the people who were unemployed last Labor Day are still unemployed.

Consequently, this is the second straight Labor Day that many people have been out of work. The Calculated Risk blog provides ample data showing that long–term unemployment is higher than it has been since the Depression.

And economist/columnist Paul Krugman observes in his New York Times blog, The Conscience of a Liberal, that long–term unemployment is "the most destructive in human terms."

How will the destructive nature of unemployment in the early 21st century differ from the 20th century? Well, I suppose the answer to that really lies in the demographic breakdown of the out–of–work labor force. And, when I say "demographic," that isn't a reference to gender or race or anything like that. It has more to do with the fact that technological advancements not only change the way we all live but also have the power to make certain job functions obsolete.

Certainly, the nature of the economy is changing, No industry of which I am aware has been immune to the poor economy, and a key to each industry's recovery will be which jobs have been permanently lost and what that means in human terms.

That's why I have been saying all along that Obama and the Democrats needed to focus their efforts on job creation. They haven't. They have permitted 7½ months to go by, and unemployment is teetering on double–digit territory.

It may not be too late to encourage job creation, although time has run out for some of the unemployed. But, while they still have huge majorities in Congress and occupy the White House, Democrats must act and act quickly. Unfortunately, they chose now to wage this fight on health care reform. After enacting a pork–laden stimulus package, this isn't the best time to be pushing for tax incentives to encourage employers to hire people — as any student of history would be sure to tell you, the last thing you want to do is wage a two–front war. Ted Kennedy was devoted to the cause of health care reform, but he knew enough about history to know that you must pick the right time to wage certain battles.

Health care is important, but first you've gotta eat and you've got to have a roof over your head and you've got to have clothes to wear.

"Obama and the Democrats have a chance to improve the lives of working people," Rothschild writes. "But if they cave on the necessary policy changes, next Labor Day may be even grimmer than this one."

Well, for those who decide to stick around.

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