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The 20th century called and it wants the word crisis back, the first half of the 20th century in particular. Back then crises were truly terrifying. Think two world wars that exterminated tens of millions of people, genocides of Jews and Armenians, global economic depression, tax rates that topped out at 90 percent, and so much more.  

Fast forward to the present, and on a relatively quiet day (of which there are thankfully many) one of the most commonly expressed fears on the left concerns global warming born of fossil-fuel consumption. Without presuming to comment on the science here, what a luxurious worry. Back before innovators connected oil to the automation of work formerly done by humans, to cars, and eventually machines capable of cooling and/or warming our homes, weather extremes rendered the indoors and outdoors equally dreadful.  

It's too easily forgotten that air conditioners weren’t a market good until the 1930s, and once on the market, they retailed from $10,000 to $50,000. Fear of excess warmth or cooling care of appliances was well in the future, and worry about outdoor temperatures a likely byproduct of technology that made the indoors so livable. Put another way, if you fear warming or cooling outdoors it’s likely because you suffer neither indoors.   

About the left’s discovery of a problem that relatively hardened humans of the 20th century likely would have turned their noses up to, it should be made clear that worry isn’t just a luxury of the left. Consider the “crisis” du jour for the right about “what they’re teaching these kids today” on America’s college campuses. It’s a concern not infrequently expressed by college grads who were similarly taught by left-wing professors, only for their ideology to survive the alleged indoctrination.  

More important, when the 20th century dawned only 6 percent of Americans had a high school degree. As for college, not only was university education too expensive for an overwhelming majority of Americans, there quite simply wasn’t time for it. The U.S. was still a largely agrarian nation in the first half of the 20th century, and the latter required work of the six-day-per-week, dawn to dusk variety. If you’d told the people of 1924 that the problem in 2024 would be too many young people in college being taught by left-wing professors, the speculation here is that they would have pounced on the problem.   

What does the past say about the present? It first signals that worry is hardly a modern concept. There’s always something. In our case, the somethings that have us up at night would have been viewed as positively luxurious by people who had worries of the world war, mass genocide, and back-breaking work kind that didn’t afford a lot of learning of any type. This isn’t to dismiss what has so many up in arms today, but it is to say that our “crises” are truly modern, and a rather bullish effect of immense prosperity.  


John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, President of the Parkview Institute, a senior fellow at the Market Institute, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors (www.appliedfinance.com). His latest book, set for release in April of 2024 and co-authored with Jack Ryan, is Bringing Adam Smith Into the American Home: A Case Against Homeownership

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