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Jay Evensen: Utahns vital to debt debate in Depression era and today

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 6:40 p.m. MDT

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Quick, guess when the following quote appeared:

"How far have we gone in this country along this primrose path to financial disaster? The figures have reached such astronomical dimensions that they leave no impression on the mind. They have broken all records, of every kind, for all governments in history, for spending in time of peace. We have had an unbalanced budget for nine long years."

Sorry, there aren't many clues there to help you. It easily could have been last year, nine years after the last balanced budget of 2001. The tone fits that of any modern tea party rally. But no, it was said by Neil Carothers, dean of the school of business administration at Lehigh University, as reported in the New York Times of May 17, 1939.

Apparently, the primrose path is quite long.

The danger in glancing at historical parallels is that it's too easy to assume one era is exactly as the next. We emerged from the Great Depression and did not experience "financial disaster," (although a little thing called World War II intervened and changed some calculations). That does not mean a similar lack of political courage today will necessarily yield the same result.

And yet some parallels can be interesting. One of those has to do with the role of Utahns both in those Depression years and in the current debates over how to reform federal spending before lifting the debt ceiling.

Last week, it was hard not to notice the role of Utahns in Washington. Sen. Mike Lee was the one who introduced the Cut, Cap and Balance Act of 2011 in the Senate. That idea suddenly gained traction when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed to be a co-sponsor. Then Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz sponsored a similar version in the House, a much more sympathetic body that ended up passing it before the end of the week.

Meanwhile, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch is no stranger to the idea of a balanced budget amendment, having sponsored six of them, and co-sponsored 17 more, through the years.

Eight decades ago, other Utahns were playing key roles in an eerily similar debate. The most important of these was Marriner Eccles, an Ogden native appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt to head the Federal Reserve. But he was hardly from the same mold as today's prominent Utahns in Washington.

By 1939, when many people were growing weary of deficits and lingering bad times, Eccles still was strongly defending the need for government to spend more than it collects.

"The same government credit that can be used to protect human lives in time of war against the encroachment of a foreign enemy can also be used in times of peace to protect these human lives against demoralization and despair," the Wall Street Journal quoted him as saying.

He also said he was anxious to balance the federal budget, but 1939 wasn't the time. Congress and presidents haven't found a lot of suitable times since then, either. We have learned, however, that the supply of lives threatened by "demoralization and despair" never runs out.

Another Utahn of the day, Sen. William H. King, would have fit in more nicely with today's group, although he was a Democrat. The Times quoted King in 1939 as worrying about the encroaching power of a newly aggressive federal government, egged on by special interests.

"They want the schools taken over by the federal government," he said, "and when the schools are taken over your children will be indoctrinated with socialism."

Mortality can be cruel. People seldom live long enough to view the consequences of their own acts with any meaningful historical perspective. But that doesn't excuse people from trying to learn from the events and people of similar, though distant, times.

Today we can look at the trajectory of entitlement spending and see the consequences of wanting government to protect lives against despair. But we also can see some benefits of deficit spending in extraordinary times.

What we can't do, unfortunately, is put the Utahns from the '30s into the same room as today's bunch and listen to a fascinating debate.

Jay Evensen is associate editorial page editor of the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.

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