Why Can’t we learn from History?

A guy running for president, gets on his soapbox and starts talking about change, rich versus poor and so on and so forth, you know the spiel. Some rich guys get together and decide that they don’t like what this guy is saying, so they band together and throw copious amounts of filthy lucre into a campaign against this guy. The rich guys then get some business friendly dope to run against the change guy, hoping for a pawn to manipulate in the white house. Sounds familiar doesn’t it.

I’m not talking about the 2008 election or even the 2012 election. I am referring to the 1896 presidential elections,when William Jennings Bryan, the progressive candidate for change, faced off against William McKinley a pro business moderate who believed in trade protectionism and imperialism.

If you read the sanitized version of history in which all presidents are practically saints then McKinley sounds pretty good. He did get some things right, that did help America to prosper; however most of the prosperity went to the top and was not spread around. What I find most disturbing about his presidency was the way in which he got into office in the first place. The office of the president was bought and paid for by three of America’s wealthiest industrialist, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. Again if you read the sanitized version of history, these men were benevolent Philanthropist. They modernized and industrialized America, made huge contributions to the arts and sciences, created universities and left endowments that still exist. Unfortunately, this is all that most people know or remember about these paragons of America’s golden age of industrialization.

It would take a scholar with multiple degrees to navigate through the nuances and intricacies of this period in our history, but there is an easier way because this is the age of television. Instead of trying to read hundreds of dusty tomes, simply tune into, The Men who Built America on the history channel. All of that tedious drudgery has been done for us. The result is a blistering commentary on America’s most famous and revered business Icons. The creators of this program haven’t pulled any punches about the dastardly deeds and evil machinations of our sainted heroes.

While watching this program I couldn’t help making the comparison between then and now. People working more hours for less money, the widening  disparity between the rich and the poor, high unemployment and a dwindling middle class. The dissatisfaction with wall street is not a new concept. Everything that happened then is happening now, and for the same old reasons, poorly regulated business practices, political corruption and plain old greed. Growing poverty and high unemployment weren’t the only problems. Being a factory worker in the late 1800’s was dangerous and sometimes fatal. The conditions were so bad, that it spawned the labor movement, the progressive movement  and the anarchist movement world wide; which brings me back to William McKinley who was assassinated by an anarchist.

With the death of McKinley, his veep the very progressive Teddy Roosevelt took the office of president. Woe be to those who try to mess with T.R. who rightly went after the big monopolies which earned him the moniker of the trust buster. For the first time a president dared to confront big corporations in the highest court of the land and bring them to heel under the Sherman Anti-trust act of 1890. President Obama could learn something from the first President Roosevelt, by breaking up the oil and banking monopolies that exist today as a result of reckless deregulation. It is obvious that history is repeating itself, which means that we have forgotten the lesson that we once had learned.

What the Men who Built America teaches us is that, what’s good for business is not always good for the people, and this applies to any age and in any era. These industrialist had more money than any of them could spend in a lifetime, so why did they need more? I don’t think that anyone can answer that question; but what history tells us is that their greed and complacency created very dire consequences. The human toll was atrocious by today’s standards, even in third world countries. Long hours and unsafe work conditions killed thousands, including children working in factories and coal mines. The figures on work place fatalities are well documented; but figures for those adults and children that died of starvation, exposure and disease aren’t . All of these deaths can be directly attributed to the economic disparities caused by the greed of a few men.

You could argue that all of the men featured in the series first season, created the America that became a great world power. On the other hand they could have been magnanimous and not really have sacrificed much of their wealth. Henry Ford who shows up late in the first season got it right. He paid better wages and established the forty hour work week and at the same time created a product that the common man could afford. He created a model for the world to emulate. I’m not saying that Henry Ford was a saint because he wasn’t, but he set a standard that created a healthy thriving middle class with leisure time and money to spend. For anyone who wants to learn the difference between a conservative and a progressive, or if you just want to see were we’ve been and how much we have reverted to the old way, I highly recommend, The Men who Built America. It’s informative and intelligent and worth giving it a try.

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