History teachers across the country are now, or recently have been, studying the 1920s in America.
One of the dominant features of that roaring decade was the new preoccupation with “buy now and pay later” spending habits. “Possess today and pay tomorrow” was the message directed at buyers. Once-frugal descendants of Puritans went ever deeper into debt to own all kinds of newfangled marvels — refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, cars and radios, to name a few.
Mass advertising — and the object of its desire, mass consumption — touted instant gratification as a reward for living in an era soaring expectations. Buying on credit satisfied that desire but it also created a false sense of prosperity and an overhanging cloud of debt.
Ultimately the nation’s economy became increasingly vulnerable to disruptions in the credit structure.
“Sound familiar?” I ask my students. “Is history repeating itself, or have we learned something from that period which ended so disastrously?”
There are some questions that should be asked at various intervals in every history class, starting when children first become acquainted with our past: What can we learn from this? What are we doing now that is an improvement on then? What safeguards have we put into place? How determined are we to not repeat the mistakes of the past?
These are good questions for the uninitiated and better questions for our policy makers to grapple with. What have we learned when some of the same problems that brought us a 10-year Depression back in the ’30s have once again cropped up? Pick up any history book and see what happens in a society where wealth is increasingly concentrated in a very small group of people while the middle and lower classes correspondingly suffer.
Consider the banks and credit card companies that are informing customers that their interest rates will rocket to almost 30% if they miss a single payment. Take, for example, Citigroup or Chase or Capital One, and a gang of others who have all received tens of billions of bailout dollars from our government and who simultaneously bleed their customers dry with outrageous interest rates and penalties.
Last week I received a mass-mailed letter from Target Inc. informing me of our new financial arrangement. I was put on warning that interest rates would possibly climb to 30% if I were only slightly derelict in my payment. Add to that penalties and fees and a greater picture comes into focus, and it’s not a pretty one.
A lot of people are eating it, to put it bluntly, and are beginning to realize that the hardest thing to swallow is the fact that these unwarranted moneys will flow into the pockets of the people who contributed heavily to our present economic miseries. People more deserving of contempt and punishment rather than reward. But all indications are that they will be rewarded, nevertheless.
I’ll be paying off my balance to Target and am not likely to return to that store any time soon, if ever. They have gone the way of credit card companies, who are nothing more than giant leeches who suck in the money from the many and siphon it off to the few at the top. They are companies that have established their headquarters in the few states allowing excessive interest rates — what we used to call usury in this country — and have hit on a money-making scheme that harms the most vulnerable and makes its assault on the people in the most desperate of times.
Some of you might remember the line in the movie “Wall Street” when Michael Douglas intones to an audience of investors that “greed is good.” I know it’s only a movie, but I think it accurately represents a philosophy that is embedded in all societies, in all times, and in all places. When self-interest leads to discovery and innovation that helps others, it is a positive thing, but when it leads to greater and greater disparity between the very rich and the rest of society, it is a perversion of our, and any economic system.
I teach that the 1920s was one long, uninterrupted party and that the 1930s was an even longer hangover. In looking back on those times, the question remains, “What have we learned?”
DAN KIMBER is a teacher in the Glendale Unified School District, where he has taught for more than 30 years. He may be reached at DKimb8@ sbcglobal.net.