Sunday, August 21, 2011

American History in the News

This year, we will be focusing on 20th century history for our social studies.  This is just kind of how it turned out, as we've been approaching history chronologically and thus marching through time year by year.  But with the elections coming next year, I'm glad my son will be exposed to 20th century history this year.  Increasingly, it appears we are facing deep problems in American society that we haven't faced since the early 20th century, and I will be glad for him to know some more about those times as we try to analyze the arguments of the political candidates who are vying for our votes (OK, my vote at least, although he did participate thoughtfully in the Kids Vote program during the last presidential election).  Plus, facing some of the same issues today will, I believe, make our study of those past policies, failed or successful, richer and more meaningful.

There were two articles I read in the Washington Post today that brought this synchronicity home to me.  In one,  Greg Ip, who is the US economics editor of The Economist and author of The Little Book of Economics:  How the Economy Works in the Real World, analyzes the changing beliefs about basic economics by the current Republican party.  Entitled  The Republicans' New Voodoo Economics?,  Ip suggests that some of the most radical Republican candidates are rejecting not just Obama's economic policies, but the entire Keynesian economic theory that has driven most of the US economic policies for the bulk of the 20th century.  Mr. Ip seems not to be in favor of this trend, mentioning, among others, the belief that it was Herbert Hoover's narrow focus on balancing the budget in 1932 that made the Great Depression more severe.

Keynesian economic philosophy is not something that I know enough about that I can talk intelligently as to its success in the past vis a vis other alternatives.  But believe me, it will be something I will be looking into more carefully when we get to the 1930's in our history studies.  And, fortunately, I have some family resources at hand; my father is/was a professional economist, and my brother just visited the Herbert Hoover presidential library, trying to find out what more there was to the man than a one-term President during the Depression.

The other article goes back even further than Keynes and Hoover.  In The Real Grand Bargain Coming Undone, Harvard history professor Alexander Keyssar writes that the current political debate reminds him not of the Depression, but of the Robber Barons of the late 19th century and the reform efforts to balance their power that were passed in the first several decades of the 20th century.  Keyssar, who also is the author of The Right to Vote:  The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, points out that the public outrage over the excesses of unbridled capitalism at the turn of the century were mollified by such laws or programs as the Sherman Antitrust Act, worker safety laws, banking regulations, the rise of the labor movement, and the establishment of the social welfare programs of Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare--most of which are currently under attack by some Republicans.   He argues that it is this agreement between segments of society--that corporates can run up huge profits if workers have a basic level of protection and a social safety net--that is what really is under attack in today's politics.

Anyway, these echoes from the past that are arising in our current political debate promise to make this year's history studies particularly important and fruitful in raising a young man who can participate intelligently in our democratic system.  It reminds me of the all-too-often misquoted Santayana quote, which I think is worthy of being repeated in its entirety here, especially since the first sentence is what many of us need to consider:
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, Reason in Common Sense, 1905 

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