As 2020 begins, history is our guidepost

Twenty-twenty. For most of our lives, we’ve heard the phrase in the context of an eye exam. Now it accurately describes the year, Anno Domini.

But, if popular sayings are to be trusted, hindsight too is 20-20. And “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” So it is an appropriate time to ask what we can learn from the past as we look towards the future.

People party with inflatable balloons as they celebrate the New Year in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)

Three hundred years ago, in 1720, the so-called South Sea Bubble burst. A joint stock company granted a monopoly on South American trade by the British Crown, the South Sea Company never actually generated a profit. Why? Because the Spanish and Portuguese controlled the area.

That minor detail didn’t deter speculators from betting on the stock. The British government got involved, with leading politicians profiting from insider trading. A bubble grew, then popped.

It is a good cautionary tale to consider as the Dow Jones average continues its upward trend. It’s easy to slough off the stock market as a rich person’s game, but those working in the private sector are likely market participants through 401(k) accounts. And Maine’s public employees — teachers, law enforcement, transportation workers — have literally billions of dollars invested in the market through MainePERS, the state’s pension system.

The economy — both in Maine and nationally — has been on a run for several years. While the global economy seems to be hitting a rough patch, the United States continues to forge ahead.  But “irrational exuberance” is something we must always be aware of; for centuries, economic bubbles — and financial ruin — have followed from unrealistic optimism.

Meanwhile, 200 years ago, Maine became a state. Our independence from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was a bit of a Faustian pact. “Maine” was the free state ante for the expansion of slavery through the admission of Missouri to the Union.

In other words, our forefathers compromised. They bought the nation 40 years of measured peace by permitting the spread of a moral stain. However, when it came time to remove the blemish from our nation’s conscience, the stain had set. And the blood of Johnny Rebels and Billy Yankees was required to remove it.

It is a lesson to remember when we consider the seemingly unprecedented partisanship of today. It has certainly reached an apex in the modern era, but we’ve been much worse off before. The squabble over the impeachment of President Donald Trump is solemn and serious. But we are not at the point where Americans are shelling federal installations and declaring secession. It may be a relatively low bar, but we are beyond it.

Finally, one century ago as the Roaring Twenties began, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States passed. It guaranteed the right to vote to women on the same terms as it was granted to men.

It was a watershed moment for our country; 27 states permitted women to vote — in some fashion — before the adoption of the amendment, but adding language to the Constitution placed the principle within the very foundation of our nation. Now, as we enter a new decade in the 21st century, Maine women have earned the confidence of their fellow citizens to take significant leadership positions.

Whether it was economic bubbles arising under mercantilist systems, moral compromises leading to national strife, or efforts of popular movements to create change, our 20-20 hindsight should help us in 2020 and beyond. History is often a guidepost to the future. No matter how many new challenges arise from political and technological change, human nature remains the same.

People want to make enough money to meet their needs and live a comfortable life.  Hard choices are hard to make; compromise and delay might seem wise, but it can lead to calamitous outcomes. But when people refuse to quit striving for what they believe is right and good, dividends may come in years — or a century — hence.

We may not be able to see 2020 with 20-20 vision, but better days can be ahead if we keep the past in mind. Happy New Year.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.