Parting Thoughts: We’ve Seen It All Before

All of the haggling over taxes, budget deficits and spending reminds me of the small collection of old magazines I have.


All of the haggling over taxes, budget deficits and spending reminds me of the small collection of old magazines I have. Magazines are about the only thing you can collect that, no matter what happens in the world, will not go up in value. Trust me on that. They’re nothing like stamps or art. You have to have other reasons for keeping a fire hazard like a disintegrating stack of paper in your office, basement or garage. For me, it’s because of history.

For example, I have some Fortune magazines from the 1930s in one of those stacks. One of them, from 1938, is about new sources of energy, including alternative energy, which would be available in the United States after the oil runs out. Texas was the Saudi Arabia of the pre-World War II era.

Except for its retro style, the article, photographs, illustrations and charts could have been published today. It lists natural gas, ethanol, hydropower, wave power, geothermal energy and shale oil as new sources of energy and fuel. They’re the alternatives we are discussing now.

The magazine has pictures showing how each solution works. Photographs show cars running on natural gas, while others show scientists generating electricity from the sun. The only source of energy the article missed was nuclear. Maybe in the far-off future, the authors write. Well, maybe.

Another Fortune article, written in the midst of the Great Depression, wonders whether factory automation will destroy jobs. Another one, from the same period, shows the astonishing speed and efficiency with which the now-defunct New York department store, Gimbels, receives orders and drops products into the mail. If it weren’t for those old-fashioned pneumatic tubes, pulleys — and men in double-breasted suits — you might think you were looking at black-and-white photos taken at the Zappos division of Amazon.

Another article contains a first-person account of a journalist’s visit to Russia to see what he calls the “Soviet experiment.” His conclusion? Forgetaboutit. It’ll never work. He was sure right about that.

I bring this up because we sometimes think, erroneously it turns out, that the period of time in which we live is unique. That our problems could never have been encountered before, and that the solutions we propose, to spending, say, are new. And yet, just the opposite is true. Since the beginning of time, people have wrestled with recession, depression, debt crises, unemployment, political bickering, shortages and collapsing levels of confidence.

It turns out, according to one of my old National Geographic magazines, that 6,000 years ago, when the Sumerians wandered onto the scene in present-day Iraq and invented civilization, their in-baskets contained the same long list of problems to solve as ours. Except their lists were written on clay.

Back then, they had to concoct ways to bail out city--states that piled up too much debt, they had to play with interest rates to spur growth and pay for infrastructure improvements, and they had to raise and lower taxes on the wealthy, which were paid with grain. They had to do all this while preserving the value of the talent and shekel. They did all this to create wealth and preserve jobs.

What I’m saying, and what my musty pile of magazines proves, is that we’ve seen all this bad political behavior before. Way before. According to my magazines, after everything is resolved, we’ll probably see it all again. Nothing really changes.

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