Why we don't value the pastSubmitted by yonemoto on Thu, 03/12/2009 - 04:04
Conservatives often pine for a "bygone" era when people were supposedly so much better off. Now this is not really reasonable because often we're forgetting about the bad parts of those eras and overselling the good parts. But there's a real grain of truth in that sentiment, and I'm going to try to deconstruct it and attempt to explain why this might be happening.
As a society, we are systematically devaluing the past. We don't honor our parents as much, we don't read old literature as much, we time after time fail to learn from history, we don't follow the Constitution, we don't sit down and work to understand the scriptures we claim to follow, and we don't try to learn from those of others (how many of you have read the Ramayana, the Qu'ran, the writings of Buddha, Confucius, or Baha'ulla? Jefferson had read at least the Qu'ran). We ditch understanding for novelty; we buy cheap products that are new and flimsy instead of reliable and featureless products of the past. I see this in my workplace - scientists are always looking for the next new toy instead of really trying to solve problems with tried and true techniques of the past.
The contention that I would make is that this is a philosophical extension of the consequences of an inflationary society. That sounds silly, but you can find strong, indirect mechanisms to explain all of these, usually involving profit changing from a mild incentive to becoming necessary to stay afloat. You'll notice how we're over and over getting pissed of at how once-venerable institutions and individuals have "whored" themselves out for money, for taking the cheap way out instead of the high road. Inflation fundamentally devalues (material and value) contributions of the past, and by encouraging debt creation and defecit spending, overvalues the future. People naturally, and rightfully so, are attracted to novelty (see Bourdieu's "Distinction") but to overvalue novelty, especially when directly coupled to survival - is dangerous.
If we can continue to meet these inflated expectations, we're alright, even if what we're doing is morally questionable. But there's always immense pressure to try new things to keep up - and when we fall short of what we'd hoped for, there's chaos as a whole lot of misplaced value has to unwind itself. The best we can hope for is that it doesn't unwind too violently.
Now, this is not to say the past is always valuable; a lot of dumb things were said and done in the past. But to, with broad strokes, cast a broad, indirect judgement on everything in the past to have been relatively less important than the future, is dangerous, especially since it encourages us to forget about it - we won't be so capable of learning from the mistakes of the past let alone mimic its successes.
The sum point is: economics, and monetary policy, because it is most universally accepted medium of social exchange, comes around to modify society, even if the changes are so gradual and generational that everybody is duped into thinking that's the way things always were. Unfortunately, the more we devalue history, the less capable we are to identify the mistakes we are making today... and tomorrow... even as debt accumulation means more of society is riding on safe passage through the treacherous waters of the future.
So these days, I'm listening to people who are older than me (although I don't have to agree - learning can be learning from other people's mistakes), and working through how I'm understanding things. I'm working on ways to protect my past, while remaining open-minded about the future. I'm learning history. I'm learning economics. What I'm finding surprising is that it's not as hard as I thought it would be.
BJ Lawson had a wonderful notion about an inflationary society and what it means for the environment - the desperation to keep up with inflation means that investors sacrifice long-term, sustainable solutions for those solutions that enable greater returns in the short term - because sour assets can be flipped and the buck can be passed easily. Which goes a long way towards explaining why, for example, capitalism in a regime of secular inflation has failed to deal with the impending crisis of peak oil... And furthermore, conservationist movements which are endowment-based find themselves in tougher and tougher position to maintain their levels of spending and preservation - even as donors' comfortable giving levels decrease.
So we know that economics can have a wrenching effect on society. I think it's also tearing apart our moral fabric and our ability to learn from the past. Sooner or later, we may forget almost everything that happened before us, and when that comes to pass, all hope will be lost.