FreedomFest Forum

“Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used to Be”

A few weeks back I was hunched over breakfast of french toast and eggs at the counter of a genuine Fifties-era diner in my hometown in rural northern California when a fellow sitting a couple of stools away started to wax nostalgic about the “good old days.” To him that meant the late Fifties, the supposed “golden age” when Lim’s Cafe, the restaurant where we were sitting, had opened in Redding on a commercial strip of state highway known as the “Miracle Mile.”

“I’d go back there in a minute,” he said.

Really? I thought. I was a carefree five-year-old in 1957 (the fellow at the other stool looked to be a bit younger than I) but even then I think I knew that Fifties America wasn’t some sort of utopia.

I didn’t have to resort to the smart phone in my pocket to come up with a bunch reasons why my dining companion was mistaken.

The Cold War and the Red Scare. Segregation. The “vast wasteland” of “lowest common denominator” network television that gave us the “Beverly Hillbillies,” America’s No. 1 show for many years running. Life before the Pill and safe, legal abortions. Polio. The world before angiograms and heart bypass surgery. Back when women were pigeon-holed into teaching and nursing careers and when being gay condemned one to a life of fear and shame.

But I knew where my counter mate was coming from. A few minutes earlier he’d been discussing with the waitress and another patron the local crime problem (mostly petty theft by drug addicts) and remembering “the good old days” when people hereabouts could leave their cars and homes unlocked.

Still, I couldn’t imagine giving up the world we have today—with all its options, personal freedoms, mobility, and miracles of medicine and technology—for a “simpler” bygone time, just for a false sense of security.

The conversation in the diner that morning reminded me of one of my favorite books, the 1974 classic by Otto Bettmann: The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible!

If you don’t know it, buy it, read it and pass it on.

Born in Leipzig, Germany, to Jewish parents, Bettmann fled Nazism in the mid-Thirties, and arrived in New York with two trunk-loads of photographs, engravings, line drawings and other material that became the core of the lucrative Bettman Archive, a go-to resource for publishers for decades.

In The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible! Bettmann, known as the “Picture Man,” used some of his vast archival material to debunk the nostalgia for life in America between the end of the Civil War and the early 1900s.

In the brief introduction he wrote: “I have always felt that our times have overrated and unduly overplayed the fun aspect of the past. What we have forgotten are the hunger of the unemployed, crime, corruption, the despair of the aged, the insane and the crippled.”

The past we nostalgically pine for, he argued, wasn’t “spared the problems we consider horrendously our own, such as pollution, addiction, urban blight or educational turmoil.”

The 207-page volume is organized into 11 chapters—from “Air,” “Traffic” and “Housing” to “Work,” “Crime,” “Food and Drink,” “Health” and “Travel.”

Before the advent of the automobile, horses—three million by one estimate at the start of the 20th century—befouled our streets, “attracting swarms of flies and radiating a powerful stench.”

Manure and garbage dumped on the sidewalks of our fast-growing cities rotted to a slimy mess that smelled “like bad eggs dissolved in ammonia.”

Industrial pollution in places like Pittsburgh killed trees, grass and flowers.

Poorly constructed housing and commercial buildings became firetraps for residents and workers.

In city slums children “slept under doorways…gravitated to prostitution and crime.”

Life wasn’t much better in rural America, Bettmann writes. Women faced endless drudgery. The “young country wife…soon acquired the calloused hands, stooped back and careworn features that marked her station.”

Workplace accidents were tragically common and child laborers toiled for “$1.50 to $2.50 a week.”

Poorly-lit streets favored the criminal element. In Chicago, “muggings were commonplace, even in daylight.”

Corruption and graft, from policemen to politicians, were widespread. Citizens sometimes took matters into their own hands. The “lynching epidemic” of the late 19th century was “perhaps the darkest stain on the history of the United States,” Bettmann writes.

Before improved transportation and refrigeration, fresh produce, fruit and meat were at a premium, even for the well-off. In 1872, Harper’s Weekly “complained that in markets throughout New York there were cartloads of decayed fruit such as bruised oranges and rotten bananas ‘to partake of which was almost certain death.’”

Milk and butter and other foods, including candy, were routinely adulterated.

Doctors, Bettmann writes, “were mocked as ‘inveterate prescribers’ feeding medicines of which they knew little into bodies of which they knew less.”

(In my hometown, circa 1900, toxic vapors from copper smelters to the north and west denuded hills and killed fruit orchards dozens of miles away— and led to a pioneering class-action lawsuit and injunction. A lynch mob strung up two brothers charged in a stage hold-up and left their bodies hanging for passengers on the Central Pacific Railroad to see.)

By surveying the “not so good old days” Bettmann concludes: “we will find much to be grateful for. We are moving forward, if but slowly.”

In the years since Bettmann wrote The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible! the pace of progress has picked up dramatically. At the risk of sounding Panglossian I don’t think there’s been a better time to be alive than the present.

If I run into the fellow from the diner again I’ll give him a copy of Bettman’s book and gently admonish him that “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.”

In the meantime I gave a copy to my daughter, a sophomore at UCLA. Just in case she starts feeling nostalgic about the Nineties, her good old days.

Freelance writer Marc Beauchamp lives in far northern California. Among this former jobs he worked for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Kyodo News Service in Tokyo, Forbes magazine in Los Angeles and the Nasdaq Stock Market in Washington, D.C.

FreedomFestForum is a publication of FreedomFest, the “world’s largest gathering of free minds,” held at Paris Resort Las Vegas July 11-14,2018. For ticket information, go to www.freedomfest.com.

The Smartest Girls I Know

When I first met Deja and Zhane, they were living with their mother in a Section 8 housing unit in Yonkers, New York. Their mother was what most people would describe as a “typical welfare mom”—she got a job once in a while, although the risk of losing her benefits if the job didn’t work out made it difficult to get off welfare. But she was proud of those girls! They didn’t go out on school nights, studied hard, stayed away from boys and drugs, and won numerous school awards. When Zhane was offered the opportunity to attend a scholastic camp during the summer, her mother hustled to contact everyone she knew who might be willing to sponsor the girl with a donation of $20, $10, even $5 if they could spare it. I was one of the hustled. More than once. And I was happy to help.

I lost track of the girls when they stopped attending our church, but I ran into Deja recently at the grocery store in my middle-class neighborhood north of Yonkers, where she is working as a clerk and saving money for college. She also works at a Burger King in the evenings, but she enjoys her grocery job better. “I like the customers, and I feel like ‘somebody’ here,” she said. I asked about her sister, and we caught up.

Zhane is also working two jobs, trying to earn enough money to pay off the debts she accrued after one year of college. “She didn’t want to owe all that money,” Deja told me, “so she’s working to pay it off before she goes back to college.”

Smart girl.

According to statistics compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank and the Chronicle of Higher Education, an estimated 40 million Americans are currently saddled with outstanding student loans totaling over a trillion dollars. Many of them are well into middle age now, with little hope of ever paying off their debt. In fact, student loans are the only debt that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, and if the loans aren’t paid off by age 65, when Social Security kicks in, payments to Sallie Mae will be deducted off the top. So add student loans to the inevitability of death and taxes—and don’t plan to leave that fancy engagement ring to your heirs, because Sallie Mae will be first in line when your will is probated.

The average student debt is $30,000, but many students owe well over $100,000 when they graduate, and it isn’t unusual today for graduate students from Ivy League schools to amass debts totaling over a quarter million dollars. Unless you’re fortunate enough to land a six- or seven-figure job, those loans will never go away. Never.

Deja and Zhane might not be in college yet, but they know the difference between “aid” and “debt.” Other college students aren’t so wise. One of my own students, repeating a required English course for the third time, was rather flippant when I cautioned her that she was amassing a huge debt without making any progress toward graduation. “I don’t have to pay for it,” she said proudly. Thinking she meant that her parents or grandparents were footing her tuition bills, I reminded her that she should be more respectful of their money. “Oh no,” she crowed, “they don’t have to pay either. The school gave me financial aid!” This poor, foolish girl thought “aid” meant “help.” She had no idea that it really meant, “Let me hold the door for you as you step into a lifetime of debtors’ prison.”

At the university where I teach, I encourage my students to purchase their textbook, an anthology of classic literature, on Amazon. Cheap, used editions are seldom available at the college bookstore because the book is updated every three years, making the older editions conveniently obsolete. Half the time the new edition is the only option, and they can’t sell it back at the end of the semester because a new edition is usually about to come out. But I don’t care which edition they use. It’s classic literature, after all! Most of my students find the book online for $5 or so (one found it for a penny!), instead of paying $120 for the new edition at the bookstore. However, last semester I received an email from the dean: “Please encourage students to purchase their books at the college bookstore. Remind them that this is to their advantage, as they cannot use their financial aid if they purchase books online.” So let me get this straight: My students are better off borrowing $120 from Sallie Mae and paying 4-8% interest for the next 20 years than they would be if they simply skipped Starbucks for one day and bought the book online with cash? What kind of new math is that?

“Learn-now, pay-later” is one of the main reasons tuition has skyrocketed in the past two decades. When students can enroll without putting a penny down, they don’t give enough thought to how much it’s going to cost them later, and colleges can raise tuition almost indiscriminately. When our daughter began college at a private southern California university 15 years ago, she was awarded a scholarship that covered 50% of her tuition. We were delighted, and budgeted accordingly as we allowed her to select this expensive school. By the time she graduated four years later, however, the scholarship was only covering 25 % of her tuition, because tuition had doubled in those four years. How can anyone plan for college, when tuition is changing that drastically?

I fear for this generation whose future is being sold for a mess of pottage. Fully 60% of students accept some kind of loan for college, without ever considering the consequences. Most of them are mere teenagers when the university’s suave, educated, comforting grown-ups tell them to sign their lives away on the dotted line because “that’s the way everybody does it.” After all, it’s financial aid. The government is helping you get ahead. Aren’t you lucky.

I’m not suggesting that these loans should be forgiven. I don’t really have a solution for the 40 million Americans who are already hopelessly strapped with debts they knowingly contracted. I certainly don’t think free college is the answer. But something has to be done. Banks would not be awarding these astronomical, uncollateralized loans to unproven debtors if the government weren’t guaranteeing the loans by making them undischargeable through bankruptcy, and college tuitions wouldn’t be rising beyond the ability to pay if these loans weren’t creating artificial demand.

As I left the grocery store that day I congratulated Deja again on her wisdom in avoiding debt. By saving her own money for college, she is more likely to spend it carefully on a degree that truly interests her, and she’ll study more effectively because she won’t want to waste the money she has worked so hard to earn. She’ll live at home with her mother and sister instead of paying $1,000 a month for dorm life, and she plans to attend community college before transferring to a university, which will also help keep her costs down. She expects to have enough saved to pay for her first year of tuition by September. And she sleeps well, knowing that her savings account, not her loan balance, is growing. Smart girl.

Jo Ann Skousen teaches literature at two universities and is the co-producer of FreedomFest. Join us at the Paris Resort in Las Vegas in July when university presidents Dianele Struppa (Chapman) and Gabriel Calzada (UFM) will debate Doug Casey and Katherine Mangu-Ward (Reason) on the topic “Is College Worth It?” For tickets go to www.archive.freedomfest.com/register-now/ or call 855-850-3733 ext 202

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