Those who fail to learn from history…

Sir Winston Churchill famously said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We can debate whether Churchill’s statement is always true, but we can also propose our own version: “Those who ignore history may repeat old mistakes or create new ones.” They may miss opportunities, too. Let’s look at some examples:

A few weeks ago a friend happened to remark, “The Democratic Party has dominated California politics, and particularly the state legislature, for 40 years. We have an entire generation of voters who have never lived under anything but liberal policies.” She was not debating the merits of liberal vs conservative policies; only pointing out that many people seem unaware of any alternatives. 40 years or more of Democratic Party dominance in the California state legislature means that most of today’s generation may not realize there are alternatives to the current policies that steer state government. The state legislature and news media that support them may discuss choices between liberal, more liberal, and really far out liberal policies, but nobody will ask for (or discuss) taking another direction if they have never heard anything but a caricature of it. We double down on the same policy mistakes, and we miss the opportunity to try a different approach.

How about a second example? Congress has been handing off its responsibilities to bureaucracies in the executive branch for decades. Typically, Congress passes a law that sets priorities or goals, but leaves it to the executive branch to implement the law, including defining what it means, fleshing out the details, and figuring out how to make it work. Over time, Congress has forgotten how to do its job, and the voters have forgotten to expect it of them. Don’t believe me? How many times in the past 30 years has Congress followed its own rules and passed the annual appropriations bills that make up the federal budget? You can count them on one hand. In the other years, Congress busied themselves with other things, and kicked the can down the road with omnibus bills, continuing resolutions, or both.

Let’s look at a more pragmatic example. What could be more pragmatic than construction? Legend has it that many decades ago, the state of California knew how to prepare a scope of work, conceptual designs, and a budget and schedule for major infrastructure projects like highways, aqueducts, and the like. Then they would ask the voters to approve a bond issue to finance the project and, with money in hand, actually build it. Legend has it that these projects reached completion without breaking the budget by two-fold, five-fold, or even ten-fold. People seem to have forgotten such old history, so in recent years we (the voters) approved bond issues for major projects (e.g., high-speed rail or projects to make California drought-resistant) and learned to view fuzzy planning, schedule delays of years or even decades, and busted budgets as normal. Why expect anything else if you don’t know anything else is possible?

But wait. What did you say about missed opportunities? These would be opportunities to improve on the past, or at least follow rather than ignoring its formulas for success. How do we get there from here? Let’s pose that as a thought question, and challenge ourselves to wrestle with it. For starters, the answers probably involve exercising our critical thinking, asking hard questions, learning from as much history as we can grasp (and not just from a political slice of history), and thinking outside of today’s boxes. Of course, this involves listening to and evaluating different perspectives rather than simply accepting what we hear from the political or corporate media types. A tall order, but you can do it! And think of the impact if enough of us start moving in this direction.

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