Those Who Remember History Are Doomed To Debate It

Poet and philosopher George Santayana is widely credited with having first coined the phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To this I’d like us to add, “Those that do remember history are doomed to debate it.”

Debating history is what we see happening now as the U.S. navigates its way through our current economic crisis—greatest of its kind since The Great Depression, we’re constantly reminded. The Obama administration’s efforts to revive the economy with a large economic stimulus bill and bring further regulation to the finance industry have engendered a plethora of tedious comparisons to President Franklin Roosevelt, and they have fostered a historical debate that revolves around either criticizing or supporting the government’s current efforts.

With respect to the way FDR guided America out of the Great Depression, two opposing schools of thought are emerging. The first—critical of the way that the current administration is handling the crisis—contends that the Franklin Roosevelt administration simply prolonged the Great Depression with its spendthrift ways; the second, made up of people who believe that President Barack Obama is on the right track, says that the Depression lasted as long as it did because FDR did not spend enough and pulled back on his New Deal plans in the face of concern over profligate spending during initial signs of a turnaround.

There are enough nonpartisan, independently-minded folks on both sides of the argument here. Do we want to suffer the consequences of being too cautious to and potentially wait in vain for the economy to recover? Or, do we want to spend money we don’t have and potentially saddle our grandchildren with massive debt and a growing healthcare bureaucracy?

What has been lost in much of this debate is the fact that there are some glaring differences between the country that FDR presided over and America today.
FDR faced a panicked run on the banks and unemployment more than twice what exists today. Obama is trying to wind down a war in Iraq, bail out the automobile industry and overhaul our health care system at the same time he is trying to revive the economy.

Roosevelt’s solutions, rightly or wrongly, were made to fit his time. To hold Presidents Obama and Franklin Roosevelt in such close comparison to one another is to be unfair to both. So I urge both sides to let FDR rest in peace.

History at least serves one constant that everyone seems to agree with: That it was World War II that finally brought the U.S. out of the Great Depression. With that perspective maybe we can agree that Obama is no FDR, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

 

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