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LEARNING: History & Education | August 6, 1991



THE '20S & '30S)

An Unpublished Op-Ed Piece for Los Angeles Times

The times can be described only as remarkable.

The mass media brought the sights and sounds of the rapid changes to more people, more quickly than ever before.

From sports to business, from movies to military, the public's appetite for celebrities and heroes to look up to could never be satisfied.

As millions of women became established in careers long thought for men only, some Americans relished the rush towards "equality" while others decried the "erosion" of the traditional family unit.

Young people embraced the most outlandish -- and often meaningless -- of fads. Juvenile delinquency and crime were on the rise, especially in the strongholds of poverty.

Millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens spent millions of dollars on illegal mind-altering substances, making organized criminals rich. Gang wars filled the streets of inner cities with the sounds of automatic gunfire and the stench of violent death.

The majority of Americans longed for a return to traditional values.

"That Old-Time Religion" was "good enough" for many a soul, often intolerant of those not likewise inspired, as by the broadcasts of often flamboyant evangelists.

White supremacists recruited new members, and new sympathies, in greater numbers than they had in decades, as many searched for racial, religious, or political scapegoats for the seemingly intractable problems of modern life.

Although politicians won strong majorities of votes talking tough about "law and order", corruption ran rampant through the corridors of power in government and business: Graft almost came to be accepted as the norm; and greed, a necessary evil.

Sizable majorities of Americans voted time and again for conservative Republican Administrations, which triumphed at dismantling federal programs providing social services: After costly actual or perceived failures of "progressive" policies in previous Democratic Administrations, the majority had come to believe that the government was more part of the problem than part of the solution.

Big business was seen as the better caretaker of power, so federal policies catered to the corporate establishment. Regressive sales taxes and users fees took bigger bites from the poor and middle class than progressive income taxes took from those profiting most in the economy.

In the face of growing power and influence from economic rivals overseas, protectionism began to flourish.

Technology produced more and better goods, faster and cheaper than ever before. Consumers were inundated with choices undreamt of just a generation earlier, material goods that advertising insisted more persuasively than ever before they "had to have". Buying on time was the thing to do -- after all, "next year would be only better than this."

The small farmers, however, suffered through some of their worst years ever, more at the mercy of the economic and political climate than of the elements.

Organized labor, too, was dealt its most serious setbacks in decades; and the buying-power of blue-collar workers lagged behind, casting an ominous shadow over the otherwise record economic boom.

Flush with cash -- on paper if not in hand -- millions of individuals, businesses, and institutions rushed to invest and re-invest in often high-yield, high-risk ventures. Borrowing against inflated appraisals and taking credit limits to the maximum, no- or little-money-down speculation fueled much of the economy and tied-up much of the savings of the nation. Government officials not only "looked the other way" (often for a price) but oftentimes encouraged such superficially profitable deals, as with tax breaks and lax anti-trust legislation and regulation.

Then, on "Black Tuesday", October 29, 1929, the house of cards that was America came crashing down: The stock market -- as overvalued as today's real-estate market -- collapsed. Debts were called-in. Portfolios were dumped in a panic unforeseen by most just days earlier. Fortunes and savings were lost, as were lives and families. The Twenties would roar no more. And the ensuing Depression would be greater than the nation had ever had to endure before.

But America had not been alone in her folly, her intoxication with wealth and her seduction by power. In fact, never in history had the nations of the world been so interdependent, dependent upon mutual trade and peaceful relations.

But living high at the expense of others would destroy not only the economy but also the new world order.

The greatest power in Europe had already been devastated, as a consequence of its military belligerence.

Humiliated before all the world, its proud people found their store shelves empty and their currency worthless.

As insecurities grew, so did the desire for scapegoats; and ancient ethnic tensions and hatreds grew as violent as they were unfathomable.

Calls for international help were met mostly with lip service, as chronic distrust and hatred for the old foe festered, becoming acute when the world committed economic suicide, with the lethal weapons of unproductive debt and trade war.

Unfamiliar with the traditions of democracy and fed-up with the failures of newly democratic institutions, people in this and other desperate nations would empower the most charismatic, yet psychopathic of dictators; and after testing their arms, tactics, and strategies in third-country conflicts, the great powers would engulf the world in a war that would come closer than anyone could have ever imagined to destroying civilization itself.

Those who do not learn from history...

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