“They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” - March 11, 2013

The quote is attributed to Talleyrand in speaking about the restored Bourbon dynasty after the abdication of Napoleon, and subsequently used against the French socialists and others. It comes close to Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results, though the Talleyrand quote gives us a reason for their repeating mistakes of the past over and over.

America is still a young country, and one of our characteristics is that we are willing to give new ideas a try. But once the ideas have been shown to be a failure, Americans of the past dropped the ideas and looked elsewhere for answers. But Americans in the 20th century and to the present seem reluctant to dispose of those ideas, and will accept one reason after another for that failure; they want to push ahead instead of admitting defeat.

Part of the problem is that when a theory seems right, when a glib and intelligent spokesman explains why the theory will work this time, we find it difficult to resist giving it another and yet another try. So many people seem to find fault, not with the theory, but with the circumstances of its use, as though it was circumstances that failed the theory, not the other way around. Sometimes the theory is then dressed up as new wine in old skins. At other times there is little in the way of cover-up, and Talleyrand really takes over.

Take the Great Depression in the 1930s. America was not alone in going through a devastating depression then. The entire Western world went through that depression, but only in America was it called the “Great Depression.” Others found their way out of experimentation with enormous deficit spending, with taxation that bankrupted the job creators, with make-work schemes for a portion of the enormous legion of unemployed, schemes that not only did not create wealth but were never intended to do so. Other countries did not repeat over and over the failed programs of the past, expecting different results. But America plowed ahead until World War II gave us, first, the market for a revived armaments industry and, later, the entry into the War itself, creating millions of jobs.

So, we’ve learned our lesson from that experience, right? We don’t do such stupid things now, right? Of course, you know the answer.

Sometimes I think part of the cause for this is that ideas are not put in terms that non-experts can see the depth of the problem. Let’s take the $831 billion Stimulus, passed in 2009, and put it in a perspective that all can understand. Suppose you had a very generous boss, who decided to give you a nice little raise, say $1,000 per second (please do not write me, asking where you can find such a boss), and decided to pay that amount both when you were working and when you were not working, so the $1,000 per second raise was for every second in the year. It would take less than seventeen minutes for you to become a millionaire, but it would take more than another 632 years to accumulate the amount of the Stimulus. Now, doesn’t that statistic put in high relief the success or failure of that Stimulus?

Maybe the problem isn’t that we have learned nothing. Maybe it’s that we have forgotten nothing.