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History doesn't repeat it rhymes again

By Dr. Robert Owens
web posted August 15, 2011

When I was studying to become a historian I ran afoul of the professors tasked with helping me arrive at my destination.  When you study for advanced degrees in history you are required to choose an area of specialization and if you are particularly ambitious you might choose two separate areas.  Being an over achiever who has always been blessed with an inquiring mind I choose four and proceeded to complete the necessary class work for all of them.  Near the end of my career as a professional history student the professor in charge of the program told me I had to pick one field that would be my over arching area of study.

By this time I was writing opinion columns for the school newspaper much along the lines of the weekly columns I churn out today.  In each article I would examine an event or situation from current events and place it in a historical and constitutional context.  I called these articles the "History of the Future" which is what current events are.  So, when asked to declare a comprehensive historical interest I told my professor that I had decided to specialize in the History of the Future, and if he was interested he could ask me in ten minutes and I would tell him what his last statement meant.  He didn't think it was nearly as clever as I did. 

Although it was unknown to me at the time my professor was well aware of my writing and was therefore not dazzled by my answer.  He was bemused, he was shocked, and he was angered.  He thought I was irreverent in my approach to history and mocking in my tone toward historians.   Then, as now, I believed that if history doesn't help us to live in the present it is merely curiosity or voyeurism that compels us to gaze upon the past.  I believe I might have said that or its equivalent along the way, and this had not earned me the heartfelt appreciation of those whom I hoped to one day call my peers.

Once I successfully navigated the shoals and received my professional historian's badge I continued seeing history as a useful lens for the interpretation of current events presented in my weekly articles which I continue to call the History of the Future.  However, as I continue to relate the present to the past in an attempt to discern the future I have noted my divergence from common knowledge and accepted wisdom when it comes to the relation of knowledge of history to actions in the present. 

Everyone knows and many people say, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."  I believe that a historical context is necessary for any understanding of the present.  I also believe that a lack of historical context is one of the major contributing factors to the current state of affairs in America.  I do not however believe that historical events repeat.  Yes one war seems to inevitably follow another, but they are always different wars.  World War Two followed World War One and in many ways completed one war in two acts but it was a war as different in strategy as it was in tactics.  They were two different wars.  Just as the current Great Recession follows the Great Depression and although they bear many similar aspects such as government complicity in their depth and duration they are most decidedly two separate catastrophes.

All of which leads me to my heretical belief that history doesn't repeat it rhymes.  Take for instance the current spate of sweetheart deals and cronyism that has led us down the road to the crash of 2008, the downgrade of 2011, and the ongoing inflation default as we attempt to print our way to solvency.  Although this is unprecedented in size and scope, though it is the first economic crisis that threatens to cause America to spiral down from the first rank of nations, this is not the first time craven politicians and their crony capitalist supporters have sought to turn the public treasury into a personal ATM.

In 1863 the principle stockholders and executive officers of the Union Pacific Railroad Company launched a new venture Crédit Mobilier of America. The venture also had the support and protection of high level political leaders.   This construction company officially sought to build and maintain the first railroad to span the continent. Unofficially the company looted the federal treasury of as much money as it could while doing as little actual construction as possible.  The venture made enormous profits for some before causing a panic that ruined the fortunes of many innocent people resulting in a loss of faith in the practices of both business and government..

Crédit Mobilier was initially founded by Thomas C. Durant who was the vice president of Union Pacific.  Within a short time actual control of the company was assumed by two well connected brothers from Massachusetts: Congressman Oakes Ames and his brother, Oliver. 

Here's how the scheme worked:  The men who owned Crédit Mobilier controlled the Union Pacific Railroad which was at the time racing the Central Pacific Railroad to meet in the middle of the country and unite a nation mired deep in the Civil War.  These men used their positions at the railroad to award no-bid contracts to Crédit Mobilier to complete the construction.  They awarded contracts totaling $94,000,000 when the actual costs were less than $54,000,000.

A large percentage of the money had been provided to the Union Pacific from Congress in the form of low interest loans and enormous land grants.  As the sums involved became larger and the Railroad plunged into unsustainable debt Congressman Ames sought to avoid oversight by selling stock to leading politicians for prices well below their perceived value.  Like all pyramid schemes this one eventually ran out of enough new investors to keep the perpetual motion going.  And as in all pyramid schemes first ones in and first ones out made fortunes while last ones in and last ones out lost their shirts.

In 1872 public indignation and economic ruin finally moved Congress to investigate.  The resulting scandal ruined the reputations of numerous high officials including the Vice President, leading Senators, and Congressman.  The crony capitalists were also exposed as grafters, and the first in a long line of Robber Baron looters who have used political connection and government preference to walk off with the public's money.  After a thorough investigation which left not one stone unturned although the principle actors were revealed no politician was thrown out of office, no one was ever prosecuted, and those who built the pyramid got to keep the cash.  In 1897, the Union Pacific was completely reorganized and the present Union Pacific has no relationship to a scandal that rocked the nation and impacted millions.

Today crony capitalists and the politicians who advance and protect them have brought our economy to the brink of disaster.  Once again after brutal investigations and maximum exposure no one has been expelled from the corridors of power and no one has been prosecuted.  These same politicians who have spent the income of unborn generations are walking away with pensions and benefits, their crony capitalist pals are laughing all the way to the bank, and the citizens are left holding the bag.  Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute the headlines continue to reinforce my belief that history doesn't repeat it rhymes. ESR

Dr. Robert Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College.  He is the author of the History of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com View the trailer for Dr. Owens' latest book at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ypkoS0gGn8.  Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook. © 2011 Robert R. Owens

 

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