Have We Learned From Our Past….Successes?

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana

Most people have heard of that saying, particularly when it comes to politics.  Many politicians are accused of failing to learn from past mistakes, only to repeat them with just as bad of results as when the mistake was made the first time.

I wonder, then, if the same holds true for our successes.  Do politicians take the opportunity to learn from things that actually went well?

I ask with one man in mind.

President Bill Clinton

History has been very kind to the former president.  When he was in office, it seemed that more attention went to things like his philandering, his weight, a referendum on his presidency that led to the biggest Republican sweep in the House and Senate than had been seen in decades, and even his potential impeachment.  Things did settle down as his presidency went on, but now that he’s been out of office for roughly twelve years, most of his sins are behind him, and he seems to command respect from Democrats, Republicans, and foreign leaders alike.  He has become somewhat of a statesman.

I believe that one of the reasons that he is now looked upon more favorably than when he was in office is because he was the last president to see an actual budget surplus.

Yes, there were several years under President Clinton that we did not run deficits in the hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars.  No, we actually paid down some of our debt.

I think they even turned off the debt clock for a couple of years as the number was going backwards.

Now, our deficit is spiraling, hitting over a trillion dollars a year if memory serves.

That’s a mighty big change in just a decade and then some.

Now, I doubt that anybody would suggest that President Clinton was fully responsible for those surpluses, but he was there and he was the man in charge, so history definitely looks back on those days with a different regard, especially when looking at the situation that we’re in now.

I wonder, though, do any politicians in office today, from President Obama to Speaker of the House Boehner to any of the other hundreds of men and women who make our policy decisions (including the deficit) actually take a look at the budgets from those days?

When I get my tax returns back, the account who prepares them gives a three or four year summary, showing how things have stacked up on the income and on the tax side.  This lets us see how things have changed.

I would certainly hope that politicians do a similar thing when preparing our budget, but my guess is that they only do a year or two.  But, do you think any of them put a side by side comparison between today’s budgets and the surplus budgets under President Clinton?

I bet they could learn a lot, if they did.

Now, I get that a lot has changed.  We have expenses such as an increased Homeland Security budget that came about after the 9/11 attacks.  Somewhat tied to that we have a couple of wars that we can’t seem to wind down.  I’m sure that health care costs are a lot higher, and likely Social Security and unemployment.

Still, I wonder if something could be gleaned from doing a what-if scenario.  What if we were taxing and spending in the late 1990’s as we are today?  What would our budget and economy have looked like compared to what it was?  Similarly, what if we did change all the percentages from the 1990’s and apply them to today?  On paper, it could open a lot of doors.  We certainly can’t change things that drastically, but what if it created some insight, some opportunity to apply some of the things that were successful that we’ve perhaps lost sight of over the last 12-15 years?

Isn’t it possible?

I think that many politicians don’t want to look to the past, because they want to be seen as innovative, as thinkers, as doers, and not just as repeaters.

But when we’ve got a President that sat through that successful period, and others that are alive (and likely some still serving in office), why not take the opportunity to learn from the success?

Or are politicians afraid of success, too?

Do you think there are opportunities to learn from the days of budget surplus?  Does it seem like that long ago?