Entry from October 5, 2011

“Historians Politely Remind Nation to Check What’s Happened in the Past Before Making Any Big Decision” read a headline in the allegedly satirical Onion the other day.

With the United States facing a daunting array of problems at home and abroad, leading historians courteously reminded the nation Thursday that when making tough choices, it never hurts to stop a moment, take a look at similar situations from the past, and then think about whether the decisions people made back then were good or bad.

The Onion’s imaginary professor, Doug Collins of Columbia, is quoted as saying, “It’s actually pretty simple: We just have to ask ourselves if people doing the same thing in the past caused something bad to happen.” This is not intended ironically, but as something so obvious that only someone as dumb as a Republican — in this case Senator John Cornyn of Texas — would have to be reminded to do it. “I just wished they’d told us about this trick before,” the Senator is quoted as saying.

The guys at The Onion are usually smarter than this. Of course, the “trick” is, if not the oldest one in the political book, the second oldest — conceived, no doubt, by analogy with the oldest. It is engaged in constantly and usually disingenuously by those on both sides of the political divide. Its misuse is almost guaranteed, however, by the “pretty simple” fact that people today can never, ever, do “the same thing” as people in the past. They can only do things that are more or less similar. Inevitable differences, alas, are therefore routinely elided or forgotten by eager analogists. As a result, historical parallels cited for political purposes tend to be at best misleading and at worst mendacious. Yet they continue to be cited for their own sake, as part of an attempt to stake a claim to history on behalf of one party or the other.

The political struggle for the possession of history in the last Bush administration centered on Munich, 1938. The Bushites were wont to claim that not going to war in Iraq would amount to a repetition of the mistake (assuming it was a mistake) of the “appeasement” of Hitler by Chamberlain and Daladier — the role of Hitler being played by Saddam Hussein. The historical parallel was a clumsy one at best and, in my view, actually got in the way of better arguments for the war — though I wasn’t crazy about most of the better ones either. I found it interesting, however, how little it seemed to matter to either side that the same dubious parallel had been much in the mouths of apologists for the Vietnam War forty years earlier — perhaps because the bigger myth of Vietnam as “quagmire” and “unwinnable” was already in requisition by the anti-war side as their favorite inappropriate parallel.

In any event, the better “lesson of history” would have been that the example of Munich does not travel well. No more, as we are learning under President Obama, does another old favorite from the 1930s, the Great Depression and the New Deal. The partisan struggle for possession of the narrative of the New Deal began for most non-specialist economic historians with the publication in 2007 of Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man, which sought to wrest from the left one of its historical prizes by debunking the post-war consensus about how Franklin D. Roosevelt “saved capitalism.” Rick Perry, ex-Democrat, is just one of the Republicans today who has taken up the anti-Roosevelt argument, and the most recent counterblast from the other side was directed at him by Michael Hiltzik, author of The New Deal: A Modern History, in yesterday’s Washington Post. Mr Hiltzik — like Miss Shlaes, a journalist rather than an economist — is particularly exercised over the fact that Mr Perry writes of Roosevelt’s measures as having “failed.”

Although Perry repeatedly pins that label on the New Deal, he never quite specifies what he means. That’s unsurprising, given that the U.S. economy grew at a blistering 8 percent a year through most of the New Deal period and that its most important component, Social Security, today provides benefits to 54 million Americans, at rock-bottom administrative cost and without a whiff of scandal.

I hasten to add that I am not technically qualified to adjudicate this politically-motivated quarrel, but I can see that Mr Hiltzik here and elsewhere in his column is not actually addressing the argument of the other side. Eight per cent growth a year would be “blistering” today but “through most of the New Deal period” it was not, given the economic devastation that had preceded it — not to mention the fact that this formulation is crafted so as to exclude the severe contraction of 1937-38. Industrial production had only returned to its 1929 level by 1937, and then it promptly plunged again.

The unemployment figures are at least arguably a better measure of success or failure and the only one of those given by Mr Hiltzik is from the end of 1939, when the European war was already beginning to give a kick to the US economy — and, at 11.3 per cent, it doesn’t sound much like success anyway. Until then, it had stood at 13 per cent or higher since 1931. Nor do the numbers of those receiving Social Security, its administrative costs or the absence of scandal have anything to do with its actuarial unsustainability today, under very different conditions from those of the 1930s, which is the point of Mr Perry’s comparison of it to a Ponzi scheme. To be sure, it’s not fair to blame Roosevelt for that, but this is just another argument for avoiding misleading squabbles over historical parallels in the first place — though politicians will undoubtedly continue to find them an irresistible temptation. You might have thought that the fact would have supplied some good satirical material for The Onion.

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