24 March 2009 Leave a comment
I find myself saying, with some regularity, that certain people’s perspectives lack a sense of history. I began reading a recent Architecture + Morality post, and found the following introductory paragraphs worth reposting:
Nostalgia is a powerful factor in the development of new ideas and policies. As long as people have memories, nostalgia is a perfectly natural response to an environment that’s gradually become uncomfortable, even hostile. It provides us an escape from reality just as much as it presents an attractive vision for redeeming the future by ushering a return to a more virtuous time and place. Since we tend to remember things in fragments, there is a deliberate selectivity in what we want recall, which makes nostalgia an exercise in incomplete image-making. Even if the details of what we remember have never been forgotten, it doesn’t ensure that we understand very well what really happened at the time.
When someone claims to be all-knowing about an event by saying “I was there”, I remind them that doesn’t make it any likelier that you had a complete understanding of that event, since so much of the surrounding context and other related events were not considered to help explain it all. Our perceptions make the events we witness ‘feel’ more real, but they often blind us from acknowledging a larger, more comprehensive reality (much like Plato’s allegory of the cave). This is demonstrated by the notion that hindsight is 20/20, in that we would have acted differently if we had understood the context more competely at the time.
History is a discipline that applies the idea of hindsight and of making sense out of the interrelatedness of events. Nostalgia is a retreat from hindsight, a conjuring of irrational sentimentality of the past, detached from a complicated reality that it was. Policy-making, an endeavour that demands a considerable amount of rational analysis and exhaustive research past policies their effects, should therefore not resort to irrational nostalgic view of the past. The viability of socio-economic policy (or architectural theory, for that matter) cannot be tested in a laboratory, itself a space created to remove as much context as possible. Instead, context is everything when measuring the effectiveness of a policy or theory that will affect the countless people’s lives and all the unmeasurable and unpredictable factors that influence their behavior.
Such thoughts came to my mind when reading Brink Lindsey’s article on economic inequality since the Second World War. In a lengthy essay (30+ pages) Lindsey writes about ‘nostalgianomics’, the tendency of some economists to idealize a past era in order to serve as a model in making policies for the present. Using an isolated set of data showing a relatively low level of inequality from top to the lowest quintile the three decades following the war, left-wing economists like Paul Krugman proceed to call for a restoration of policies friendly to labor unions, punitive to corporate CEO’s and high levels of government intervention in the economy. Since life was swell during Krugman’s childhood in the 1950’s, this should serve as a starting point in assessing what is missing now and what should be done to address it. This mode of thinking seems prevalent among those who have an unshakeable John Kenneth Galbraith-like faith in the prudent role of government in guiding the market economy towards stable prosperity and eventual social harmony.