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Inaugural Post: Selectively Remembering the Past

March 11, 2009 • Bruce Weindruch

If it’s any consolation to anyone who’s concerned about the well-being of the next generation, I can confidently predict that today’s infants—and perhaps any babies born within the next five years—will experience absolutely no long-term trauma having joined the human race during the current period of economic turmoil.

I have come to this conclusion having spent the past weekend with my parents in Florida where I marveled at the “Children of the Great Depression” as they lamented the state of their evaporating investment portfolios. “Why are you so surprised that this could happen?” I asked. “Don’t you remember the Depression, or at least recall your parents talking about it?” They didn’t seem to remember the 1930s as being that bad at all.

My parents, both of whose fathers were in the grocery business, reminded me of the family’s oft-repeated adage of making a decent living during the Depression: “Even in tough times, people have to eat.” So despite what the nightly news is showing us—dramatic images of thousands lining up for few jobs and tent cities springing up in state capitals—the folks I talked to aren’t making the connection between today’s conditions and that decisive moment in early 20th century American economic, social, and political history.

The Depression definitely happened, and tens of millions of American families were adversely affected. I guess it’s possible that the senior citizens I talked to were all the lucky ones, but I think it would be statistically unlikely. The experience leads me to conclude that, if the very people who should be the living embodiment of the lessons learned from the Great Depression aren’t, then there’s both a downside and an upside to the observation that “those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.”

The downside is obvious: wouldn’t it be great if we used our memories to avoid making the same stupid mistakes in the present? The upside is perhaps more powerful: by selectively editing painful experiences over time, we maintain the optimism to rebuild again and again. So take heart: the miserable data and undeniable reality of today’s economy won’t undermine the enduring myths and lore that enable us to confidently face an uncertain future.

I take great comfort in being a corporate historian, and not an economist. I would find it extremely demoralizing to make well-reasoned predictions backed by sound historical data only to have them uniformly ignored, leading to adverse consequences. As a historian, I’m satisfied to serve as the storyteller who helps rally the troops before they face the next battle.

I’m regularly asked by skeptical managers, “So, how do you put a value on preserving history? What the R.O.I.?” It seems to me that one must begin by acknowledging that no matter how seemingly well-prepared for the future rational people think they are, they’ll ultimately ignore the past and it will be very costly in the short-term. Having acknowledged that, we can then accept that the ultimate payback from history will be in the future we’ll make from it. Not a bad return, I might add.


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