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"Sally Cameron thought she had done everything right," wrote Kevin Carey last week, retelling a story he read in the Washington Post. "But when she hit the job market, her Ivy League management degree didn't seem to matter. The worst recession in decades had pushed the unemployment rate to nearly 10 percent and good jobs were scarce. Sally paid the rent by tending bar and filled her time with volunteer work."
You hear stories like this repeatedly these days. The job market is broken. People's career dreams might be permanently shattered. The economy's in uncharted territory.
Or is it?
"Sally Cameron earned her master's degree from Yale in 1980. The Washington Post story that described her struggles was published in 1982," Carey writes. Today she has a successful career as a senior manager for a consulting company. Whatever she went through in the early '80s didn't last long. Soon after her future looked hopeless came the longest economic boom in modern history.
It's easy to read today's headlines and assume what we're going through is unprecedented. Some of it is, of course. But dig through the stacks of history and you'll find that much of what worries us today was not only experienced, but overcome, in the past. Here are 10 quotes to prove it.
Worried the national debt will bankrupt the country? That was so 1950s.
"Reviewing the astronomical figures of our national debt and deficit financing, Mr. Lintz pointed out the crucial situation which foreshadows national bankruptcy. 'We have come to the end of the road,' he warned, 'and must go back to the philosophy of our founding fathers. We must quit asking the government for handouts, cease non-essential spending, and pare down Federal expenditures.'"
Owosso Argus Press, Jan. 16, 1951
Or scared that the national debt can't be paid off? Been there, too.
"'There is little likelihood that the national debt will be reduced substantially during the next generation,' Simeon E. Leland, chairman of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, told the Chicago Association of Commerce. 'This means,' Mr. Leland said, 'that debt management rather than debt reduction is the important problem before the Treasury in the coming years.'"
Wall Street Journal, May 10, 1945
But it's different today! We've hit the debt ceiling!
"The US Treasury faces a debt crisis from today because the Senate is bogged down in a controversy over a balanced budget amendment to a bill raising the national ceiling to permit more borrowing. The Treasury Secretary, Mr. James Baker, said the Government would run out of cash and borrowing authority today unless Congress passed a bill to raise the limit on outstanding debt."
The Sydney Morning Herald, Oct. 8, 1985
But so much damage has been done that we can't possibly recover.
"Unless this nation's fiscal policy is brought under control and some sense of balance is maintained, we are truly headed not only for a short period of recovery from recession, but the very real danger of almost permanent recession gripping this nation."
Kentucky New Era, March 2, 1983
But even if we pull through, everyone knows China owns the 21st century, right?
"Nearly half the Japanese questioned in a poll released Monday believe Japan will overtake the United States as the most dominant economic power of the 21st century."
The Rock Hill Herald, July 18, 1989
At any rate, our best days are surely behind us.
"The average American is likely to see his standard of living drastically reduced ... unless productivity growth is accelerated, the Joint Economic Committee of Congress warned ... Fundamental weaknesses in the economy would emerge even in the absence of oil price problems, the report stated, because growth in productivity is lagging behind growth rates in all the major trading nations."
The Miami News, Aug. 13, 1979
Still, our leaders have no idea what they're doing!
"[This is not] an economic recovery, no matter what the president says. And after 20 months of Reaganomics -- 20 months during which Congress has gone along with almost every facet of the president's economic plan -- it's about time for some results. Americans need jobs, and if the Reaganomics prescription won't provide them, it's time to change the medicine."
Boca Raton News, Oct. 1, 1982
But yesterday's jobs are gone for good!
"More than 2 million of the unemployed had been without jobs for more than six months. And many of them, perhaps hundreds of thousands, face the prospect of never being recalled because their jobs had been eliminated."
Williamson Daily News, Dec. 19, 1982
But globalization! Technology! It means our jobs are gone and never coming back!
"As a matter of hard fact, automation and improved technological processes have permanently eliminated tens of thousands of jobs ... and will continue to eliminate more in the future ... plagued by foreign competition."
Lakeland Ledger, Feb. 2, 1961
But what little our country does produce today is all fads and gimmicks!
"'[The Internet is] the equivalent of a fad business right now,' said Kenneth F. Abelson, senior executive vice president of the Gumley-Haft brokerage in Manhattan... 'The reason everyone's doing it is not for now,' he said, 'but everybody believes that in three years everyone in America is going to have their own personal computer and be surfing the Web.'"
New York Times, Aug. 20, 1995
Any of these quotes, slightly altered, could appear in today's media and fit right in. All seemed terrifying, stupefying, or insurmountable at the time. Yet all were eventually overcome. There's little reason to think our future will be any different. Problems correct. Markets work.
Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics.