Our Era of Amnesia

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Once again, U.S. automakers are arguing that stricter fuel efficiency standards will ruin their businesses. Evidently, they prefer to do that themselves. But maybe they think we’ve forgotten that we just bailed out their sorry rear bumpers. Maybe they think we’ve forgotten that they spent decades clinging to their gas guzzlers and fighting off efficiency rules, while getting those rear bumpers kicked by foreign competitors who coped with much stricter rules by building much greener cars.

And maybe they’re right. We do seem to be living in an amnesiac age.

Less than three years after a global financial collapse, Wall Street is in the midst of a public effort to roll back financial regulations. The Japanese nuclear meltdown, the BP oil spill and the Massey coal disaster barely registered in our energy debates; neither has the fact that the last decade included nine of the ten hottest years on record.  The Republicans who alchemized giant surpluses into giant deficits are in high dudgeon over red ink. And I keep reading about President Obama’s unwillingness to touch entitlements, when I vaguely recall that back in the day he passed some kind of health care bill that sliced $500 billion out of Medicare. Weren’t there some ads about that? Some chatter about death panels?

This isn’t just a situation where those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. I mean, we’re doing that, too; our policymakers seem intent on replaying the mistake FDR made in 1937 when he choked off a recovery with a premature embrace of fiscal austerity. The GOP’s Cut, Cap and Balance plan is even more ahistorical, an effort to make sure the government can never respond to a recession again.

But the current debate in Washington doesn’t just ignore the distant past; it proceeds as if the last few years never happened. You’d think the automakers would be a bit chastened after running their businesses into the ground. You’d think Wall Street would be a bit chastened after running the global financial system into the ground. You’d think climate deniers would be a bit chastened by the overwhelming evidence of their folly. You’d think Republicans would be a bit chastened after the unpaid-for tax cuts, wars, prescription drug benefits and earmarks of the Bush era. But why should anyone be chastened, when there’s no penalty for chutzpah?

The media have turned into that Mr. Short-Term Memory character that Tom Hanks played on Saturday Night Live, starting the world anew with every news cycle. (I suppose in that analogy the deficit must be Tony Randall.) So it makes sense that our political debates have turned into Groundhog Day. It doesn’t really matter what the facts are today, because the slate always gets wiped clean tomorrow.