I encountered this phenomenon last year in debating representatives of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Thus, when I cited the impact of raising taxes during the Great Depression, the response was that this did not matter. The times, my opponents declared, were different back then. No evidence as to why this was so was adduced — they just were.
Indeed, I routinely confront a comparable lack of historical consciousness in my classes at Kennesaw State University. Many of the students neither know, nor care, about what happened before they were born. They deem this irrelevant to their current circumstances.
The same mindset recently came up with respect to inflation. I began by observing that with the federal government spending far more than it takes in from taxes, elementary economics tells us that something has to give. The Federal Reserve cannot keep printing money without making each dollar less valuable.
When I said this, however, a sea of blank eyes stared up at me. Most of the students had no idea of what inflation was or how it felt. They had not lived through the Carter administration, when I, for instance, paid 16 percent interest to obtain a mortgage. Nor had they read about Germany’s Weimar Republic, where it took trillions of marks to buy a loaf of bread.
For similar reasons, when Bill Clinton assured voters that Barack Obama had dealt with the present economic downturn as well as anyone could, they did not possess the data with which to dispute him. They, for example, had no idea that the reviled Warren Harding got us out of a nasty recession following World War I, and did so much more quickly than Obama.
Nor were they aware that Ronald Reagan also hastened us out of a recession more speedily than our present chief executive. Reagan could even claim that it was “morning in America” during his run for a second term. Had Obama attempted something similar, he would have been laughed out of town.
Amazingly even George W. Bush got better results. The downturn that followed 9/11 was brief, in large part, because of the tax cuts he championed. Nonetheless, when it comes to partisan politics memories can be very short. They are especially short when historical lessons do not fit contemporary objectives.
The upshot is that we are about to experience unnecessarily hard times. Because many Americans refused — and continue to refuse — to learn from the past, they are blandly accepting of budgetary madness. Instead, they allow themselves to be diverted by comparatively inconsequential concerns about gun control.
Barack Obama has no plans to cut government spending — but hey, there is nothing to worry about. Didn’t Mary Landrieu just get up in the Senate to assure us there is no discretionary spending problem? Besides, I’m OK Jack, so let the next guy take care of himself.
Furthermore, even if the economy did go into reverse the last quarter, this was a minor glitch that will go away once the government revises its statistics. After all, didn’t Scott Pelley of CBS tell us so? And he is a journalist so he should know.
Today’s non-history minded Americans, particularly its mis-educated young, swallow disinformation as if it were popcorn. Because, in their ignorance, they cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is not, they treat the two as if they were the same.
The trouble is, they are not. Lies, however artfully told or universally retold, contain little nutritive value. They may taste good going down, but a steady diet of them results in starvation.
Unhappily, a childish desire to gulp down budgetary junk food will eventually hurt us all.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D., is a professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.