How do you put the biggest economic meltdown in eighty years into historical perspective? Bwog Money Madame Anna Kelner went to Havemeyer tonight to find out.
Today’s economy is rapidly turning into the stuff of Shakespeare. Headline after headline spells disaster, AIG is handing out multimillion-dollar bonuses, the federal government is bailing out household names like GM and Chrysler, and President Sarkozy is threatening to boycott the G20 summit.
Such drama tends to blind, not illuminate, and on Tuesday night, the Columbia Undergraduate History Council sponsored a panel discussion aimed at demystifying the confusion. At the dialogue between New School historian Robin Blackburn and Columbia professors Eric Foner, Alan Brinkley, and Carl Wennerlind, participants analyzed the crisis’ historical antecedents and offered suggestions for the future.
The discussion began on a disappointing note—Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winner in Economics, University Professor, and the likely incentive for most of the audience to leave the warm spring evening and file into the nearly packed lecture room to hear about our failing economy—could not attend due to a scheduling conflict.
After a collective sigh, the first presenter, Carl Wennerlind, presented the most jargon-heavy and esoteric speech. A specialist in 17th and 18th century political economy, Wennerlind analyzed the first financial culture of credit and England’s resulting economic collapse from 1690 to 1720. Wennerlind declared that “from its origin, the modern financial system has been prone to crisis,” and encouraged his audience to “look for the social relations underlying credit.” Like many of the left-leaning panelists to follow, Wennerlind overtly revealed his political inclinations. He concluded with a quotation from Marx that rained wrath on the heads of the AIG executives and the like: “capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
Eric Foner reinforced Wennerlind’s radical message by issuing a characteristically liberal call to restructure the government’s relationship to the economy. He analyzed the panic of 1837 and the period of economic downturn in the late 1890s, detailing the dramatic sequence of big business, bank collapses, labor strikes, and the rise of the Populist Party. Even after offering a somber parallel to our current economic crisis, Foner expressed hope that such disaster can pave the way to new social relations. Economic downturn, he warned, can produce “conflict not only between Populists and others, but also among racial groups;” however, it can also allow for the “consolidation of a new racial system in the US,” and inspire people to “think in new and creative ways about the relationship of our government to our economy.”
Alan Brinkley tempered the previous two speakers’ leftist biases by fastidiously evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of the New Deal, a possible remedy “very much in vogue today.” In reasoned language reminiscent of every Columbian’s favorite US History textbook, Brinkley both exalted the program’s successes and argued that “we need to learn not only from its triumphs but also from its failures.” He cautioned that the Second World War, not the New Deal, ended the Great Depression—“ a solution we have to owe is not the only one available to us today.”
The final speaker, Robin Blackburn, related the discussion to the present moment with a message far more extreme than those offered by Wennerlind and Foner. He analyzed the period from the 1970s to 2007—a time that he sarcastically denigrated as one “dominated by the rise of so-called neo-liberalism and the dismantling of many of the regulatory controls.” He continued to use a tongue-in-cheek humor to criticize the dying “culture of consumption, self-regard, and economic analysis,” arguing that pervasive inequality in both the domestic and global economy caused the financial bubble to burst. Blackburn, though, reveled in the socialist possibilities offered by government bailouts. “We’ve stumbled into a completely unintentional collectivism,” he exalted, “and the next step should be nationalization, a classic recipe for overcoming crisis in the capitalist system.”
Although these four historians offered definitively liberal views on the nation’s economic woes, their opinions lent the depth and sense of perspective that dramatic newspaper headlines lack.