Friday, March 6, 2015

Some Things Were Better 40 Years Ago

When you get to be in your mid-50s, it's hard not to think back appreciatively about how things were when you were young. Though it's all too easy to miss the bad things from back then, especially if they didn't directly affect you.

I know. Things weren't perfect then.

But at the same time, there were some basic standards about how we ran our society. Or at least I thought they were basic standards.

We didn't allow debtors' prisons. (Unlike these days, as shown in Ferguson and many other places detailed by NPR last fall.)

After the 1964 Voting Rights Act, people had the right to vote everywhere and things like literacy tests and poll taxes were clearly illegal. (Undermined by the Supreme Court's stupefying decision on Section 5 and voter ID efforts in 25 states.)

We were on the way to an Equal Rights Amendment.

Labor unions, while not perfect, were thought to be part of how things worked, and almost everyone seemed to acknowledge they generally resulted in fairer outcomes for most people. (Now we've got 25 states, including Wisconsin and Michigan unthinkable even 10 years ago -- with Right to Work for Less laws.)

Workers who were injured on the job got paid through worker's comp. (A system that has been destroyed by recent legislation in many states.)

Books like The Jungle, which inspired government regulation, had brought us safe food. Who would want to go back to the way it had been? Not me or anyone I knew. (But regulation is now thought to be automatically bad for business. Too bad if that food makes you sick, buddy!)

Teddy Roosevelt's antitrust efforts had made companies smaller and more competitive and all of us safer.

Everyone agreed that financial speculation was not a good thing. The robber barons of the late 19th century seemed like the remote past. It was clearly a crazy system that had let them run rampant. (And then the Reagan years happened, followed by the Clinton years, followed by 2008...)

I remember figuring out the part about financial speculators in my 11th grade social studies class. If you had told 11th grade me that in 40 years, all of these achievements (and others I have neglected to mention) would have eroded or even disappeared, I wouldn't have believed you.

But it's kind of like this clip from John Oliver's show:

Maintaining infrastructure -- bridges, dams, water systems -- is boring and no one gets to put their name on it or go to the ribbon cutting. Until the bridge falls down or the water system fails, there's no glory to be had. (I've lived in a metro area where a major bridge fell, and I can tell you it's no fun at all, even if you aren't directly affected by it.)

Maintaining standards for all of the topics I've mentioned above takes work, which not enough people seem to be willing to do.

And way too many of them are actively undermining the standards because there's either profit to be made or political advantage to be had from rolling back these obvious public goods.

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