By J.F. McKenna
My Aunt Lucille was a business-savvy gal who knew that mistakes usually teach lessons better than successes. Herself a product of the sage but hard Irish thinking of my Grandma Mary, dear Aunt Ceal often concluded an analysis of any miscue, great or small, with this benediction for those involved.
“Oh, honey, everyone makes mistakes,” she said, speaking in her ever-present sarcastic tone. “That’s why there are rubber mats under cuspidors.”
In time a youthful yours-truly learned from Aunt Ceal not only the definition of cuspidor but the many and winding ways of practical economics—an expression of redundancy as far as my mother’s aunt was concerned. (For more about my dearest economics instructor, read ‘Pinch Mom’ and Business Teacher — http://clevelandbusinessreview.org/2012/03/30/pinch-mom-and-business-teacher/ .)
Current societal norms have relegated the cuspidor to the darkest corners of the flea market, along with the rubber mat. But mistakes, particularly the big ones designed and constructed by government, remain in plain view. And substituting for the rubber mats below them, if ineffectively, is just high-sounding rhetoric. (If you don’t believe me, just scan today’s front page or an Internet news budget. Point made.)
That’s why Aunt Ceal, now surely a contract manager for the archangels, would absolutely love Burton A. Abrams’ latest book, The Terrible 10: A Century of Economic Folly,” published by The Independent Institute. The good Dr. Abrams, an economics professor at the University of Delaware, didn’t allow his graduate studies at Ohio State to create yet another mainstream practitioner of the dismal science. His is a genuinely engaging account of 20th century economic flops in America.
Toting a well-loaded blunder-bust with him, Dr. Abrams shoots straight from the start: “Reflecting on the painful lessons of history not only helps us avoid repeating them, but constitutes an important first step toward finding solutions for lingering problems. Some of the worst economic policies of the past one hundred years are recent and will continue to create problems for us as we go further into the twenty-first century.”
Like other good economic historians, Dr. Abrams toes the line as best he can chronologically, with a deviation here and there for the insightful aside. Unlike most economic writers, this widely published commentator and author can keep his reader’s attention not only with the content but with his clarity and style. Case in point is his analysis of Prohibition, the first act of his fiduciary follies. Here the good doctor writes:
“Prohibition was a paternalistic/maternalistic law, reflecting the desire of a minority of Americans to impose their views of morality and proper lifestyle on the majority. It was government-imposed morality. The effort failed miserably. In hindsight, most Americans—and especially those who lived through it—probably view Prohibition as a bizarre, foolish, and even dangerous experiment: a massive, precedent-setting governmental intervention in personal freedom….Prohibition produced many more costs than benefits and clearly belongs among the worst economic interventions of the last one hundred years.”
Yep, that’s the same analysis Aunt Ceal rendered—minus the frequent accompanying puffs on a Kent cigarette. My aunt, by way of backstory, picked up that lifelong bad habit during the Great Depression, when she was the only member of her household to have a job. “And damn lucky to have one, too,” she would add, referring both to the job and to the smoke.
From Prohibition, Abrams’s runs his scholarly Last American Century to the end of its line, making stops at such stations as The Hawley-Smoot Act, Social Security and the Decades of Deficits. The author keeps a good pace and stays on track even if the nation can’t.
In his penultimate chapter, Government Failure and the Great Recession, Abrams predicts the country “is likely to perform economically like old Europe, not the old United States” for the rest of this century—lower growth rates and unemployment rates like the last half of the last century. To blame, he writes, is Uncle Sam’s inability to balance the budget.
Abrams is a closet optimist, though. Just like Aunt Ceal when pressed hard on the matter.
“The twentieth century,” Abrams writes, “was the American century. It seems that it is hard to repeat centuries, but it is possible. Or will the twenty-first century belong to the Chinese? The distribution of good long-run economic policies across countries will hold the answer.”
J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a veteran business journalist and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. His online work also appears on the site Steinbeck Now. A native of Cleveland, he and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at email@example.com .