Ignoring The Lessons Of History

Jul 31st, 2021 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

History teaches us lessons that we should learn both individually and as a nation.  Whether we study the decline of the Athenian democracy in the 5th century BC, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, or the tragic demise the British Empire, wise American leaders can learn from the decline of these giants of human history.  Furthermore, the Bible is filled with narrative history (e.g., 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles), which wise leaders should observe and apply.  For most of our national leaders right now, history is irrelevant.  Whether Republican or Democrat, there is the strong sense that America is immune to the laws of history.  We will never experience the decline that Athens, Rome or Great Britain experienced; America alone is the exception. Such hubris is tragic and, ultimately, self-destructive.

I want to consider three examples of this remarkable hubris that permeates the political, economic and financial culture of America in 2021.

  • First is the debt crisis in America.  In 1994, President Clinton asked then Senators Bob Kerrey and John Danforth to chair the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform.  Among other things, he charged the Commission to study the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and make recommendations to assure the viability of these entitlement programs.  The Commission reached this conclusion:  Because they consume an ever-growing share of federal spending, entitlements in the US were on an unsustainable trajectory.  “In 1994 the budget deficit was $203 billion (2.8% of GDP) and the national debt was $3.4 trillion (47.8% of GDP).”  Today, these numbers are manifestly insignificant compared to our current crisis:  The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated in January 2020 that annual budget deficits will exceed $1 trillion and that the debt (then $17.2 trillion) would more than double as a share of the economy over the next 30 years.  As Kerrey and Danforth observed in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “these numbers don’t take into account $65 trillion of unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare.”  The CBO now predicts that, under current law, the annual deficit will reach $1.9 trillion in 10 years and the debt will sky rocket from 102% to 202% of GDP within 30 years.  As Kerrey and Danforth forcefully and correctly declare, “Today, neither Democrats nor Republicans seem to care.  Under President Trump, the national debt grew from 76% of GDP to 100%.  [Indeed, the debt grew by $7.8 trillion in 4 years!!!]  Under President Biden’s first budget proposal, the debt is expected to reach 117% of GDP by 2031 . . . Despite the urgency of the problem, nearly every elected official in Washington is an original co-sponsor of the ‘do nothing’ plan.”  Whether you are talking about 5th BC Athens, 3rd century AD Rome or 19th century Britain, national debt issues played a decisive role in the demise of these important states.  American leaders are ignoring the lessons of history.
  • Second, America is building an entitlement society.  Both Rome and Britain chose to support greater numbers of their citizens at the national level, creating a paternalistic society of increasing dependency on the state.  For Rome it was the “bread and circus” culture; for Britain it was a democratic-socialist experiment before World War II, which exploded after the war.  The entitlement mindset sapped the economy of its productivity and increased dependency on the state among an ever-increasing number of citizens.  Both Rome and Britain offer lessons America can apply.  Consider the American Families Plan (AFP) proposed by President Biden.  This legislation proposes to extend the reach of “federal entitlements to 21 million additional Americans, the largest expansion since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.”  For the first time in American history, more than half of working-age households would be on the entitlement rolls if this plan is enacted.  As John F. Cogan and Daniel L. Heil of the Hoover Institution at Stanford demonstrate, the AFP proposes several new entitlement programs.  “One promises students the government will pick up the entire cost of community-college tuition; another promises families earning 1.5 times their state’s median income that Washington will cover all daycare expenses above 7% of family income for children under 5; still another promises workers up to 12 weeks of federally financed wage subsidies to take time off to care for newborns or sick family members.”  Of the 21 million Americans added as entitlement beneficiaries, 57% of all married-couple children would receive federal entitlement benefits, and “more than 80% of single-parent households would be on the entitlement rolls.”  Astonishingly, Cogan and Heil show that “most of the Biden plan’s entitlement benefits would go to middle-and upper-middle-income households.  Households in the upper half of the nonelderly income distribution would receive 40% of the new entitlement benefits.”  As they conclude, “Improving the safety net is one thing, but spending more than $1 trillion on mainly middle-class entitlements and financing this expenditure with debt robs future generations while enriching today’s.”
  • Finally, consider the nation of Afghanistan.  America has fought its longest war there.  The US began that war after 9/11 to root out al-Qaeda and end Afghanistan as a haven for Islamic terrorism.  Former President Trump vowed to end America’s role in this nation by May of this year; President Biden has extended the date by only a few months; America will completely exit Afghanistan by August 2021.  Has terrorism ended in this nation?  Has the Taliban been neutralized?  Is the national security of the US still threatened by what is going on in Afghanistan?  Is it a wise policy decision for the US to withdraw from Afghanistan?  In 2019, retired US Army general David Petraeus and Vance Serchuk of the Center for a New American Security argued that “a complete military exit from Afghanistan today would be even more ill-advised and risky than the Obama administration’s disengagement from Iraq in 2011 . . . In Afghanistan, by contrast [with Iraq] the Taliban are far from defeated, while some 20 foreign terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS retain a presence in the region.  It is unlikely that any will join a peace deal.”  What are the chief concerns if the US completely pulls out of Afghanistan?
  • First, “the idea that the US can leave if the Taliban promises to combat rather than conspire with these groups is also wrongheaded.  Until the Taliban demonstrate they have both the determination and the capability to work with the Afghan government against international terrorists—and there is ample reason to doubt this—common sense dictates the US must retain its own means to pressure extremist networks plotting against the American homeland and US allies.”
  • Second, as the US exits Afghanistan, the result will be “a full-blown civil war and the reestablishment of a terrorist sanctuary as existed when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.”
  • Third, the Taliban leaders have made clear that once the US leaves, they will seek to topple the present Afghan government and re-establish the medieval Islamic rule they fostered before 9/11 in Afghanistan.  Such a development would likely “reinvigorate the flagging fortunes of Islamist extremists worldwide and the global terrorist threat—which, despite the destruction of Islamic State’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria, is by no means defeated.”  History has shown that when Obama abandoned Iraq in 2011, this opened the door to the development and growth of ISIS.  “If the US abandons Afghanistan to chaos, this pattern is likely to repeat itself and the resulting crisis will once again dominate Washington’s foreign-policy bandwidth, to the detriment of its ability to manage other challenges, including China” and Russia.”

As the Wall Street Journal editorially observed, “Biden and Trump will own the bloody result of America’s withdrawal.”  America’s leaders—both Republican and Democrat—are defying the laws of history.  The cost of these foolish public policy and foreign policy decisions will be borne by the next generation.  That is the legacy our leaders are leaving to our children and grandchildren.

See Bob Kerrey and John C. Danforth in the Wall Street Journal (21 June 2021); John F. Cogan and Daniel L. Heil in the Wall Street Journal (29 June 2021); editorial in the Wall Street Journal (25 June 2021); and David Petraeus and Vance Serchuk in the Wall Street Journal (10-11 August 2019).

Comments Closed