What happened to us? To industry and denial?

Let us call to all the people for thrift and economy, for denial and sacrifice if need be, for a nationwide drive against extravagance and luxury, to a recommittal to simplicity of living, to that prudent and normal plan of life which is the health of the republic. There hasn’t been a recovery from the waste and abnormalities of war since the story of mankind was first written, except through work and saving, through industry and denial, while needless spending and heedless extravagance have marked every decay in the history of nations.
Warren Harding, soon to be president, 1920

Can you imagine a presidential candidate saying this today, let alone one who would go on to win the general election? I can’t. Will any of 2016’s presidential hopefuls call on the American people to save, make sacrifices and put off “heedless extravagance”? I doubt it. But what worries me most is not just that this wouldn’t happen today, but that it did happen so recently. 1921 can seem like ancient history, but more than one million Americans living today were alive when Harding was president. Some even remember this inauguration. In a sense, we’re less than one generation removed. What happened?

Since beginning my masters program in economics three months ago, I’ve become more hopeful about the skills and intelligence of those around me. This country, and the world, is full of smart people who value human rights and civil liberties. People who want to make the world a better place. This is especially true of young people, I think. We are very technically-savvy. We know how to prioritize time and make things more efficient. We’re anything but trapped by old ways of doing things. We’re eager to make a difference. I’ve yet to meet a classmate who doesn’t fit this bill.

In fact, I’m not sure I know a single person who wouldn’t at least give Harding an ear, were he alive and campaigning today. I think lots of people would even agree with him. This is, after all, what millions of Americans vote for when they elect small government, libertarian-ish candidates to office. Despite what some models might predict, every election cycle sees some candidates win who promised anything but more special-interest payouts, short term economic gain, no cuts to spending or benefits.

But then where are these millions of people whose opinions make speeches like Harding’s acts of political suicide? I’m not sure. They’re definitely in the minority, at least of people who vote. Perhaps their influence is exaggerated. Maybe politicians spend too much time catering to a small minority of people whose influence might affect how the media covers their campaign, but who ultimately have little power to say who wins in the end.

I’m sitting in a Panera Bread right now. Three people are reading the Wall Street Journal. Several are working on their laptops. Some are reading old-fashioned books. One old man, at least eighty years old, is reading on an iPad. Do these people really respond so caustically to talk like Harding’s? Granted, my neighbors are mostly well-educated. But they’re also quite liberal. Do most people really not understand why short-term pain is sometimes necessary to achieve long-term gain?

I’m not sure, but I’m hopeful about the future. I think most people can learn to see things properly, if only someone is willing to take a risk and point the way.

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