Remembering the Recession on St. Patrick's Day

Even as President Obama and members of Congress celebrate St. Patrick's Day, I doubt they'll dwell on the worst chapter in the history of the Emerald Isle -- the Irish Famine of 1846 to 1850.

Yet shamrock-sporting politicians everywhere should pay heed to the depths of that calamity. An inadequate response and misplaced priorities of the government in London added immeasurably to the tragedy.

How horrific was the famine? In the decade before 1851, the population density in Ireland dropped from 335 to 231 inhabitants per square mile. Almost one-third of the population perished, or moved away -- one million peasants died. But sheer numbers cannot tell the horror of the famine.

In Paul Bew's seminal work, "Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006," he includes a passage from a magazine article written at the height of the famine: "In a sort of hutch there lay 4 skeletal children... death-stricken. Had they been removed at this moment to go to the Queen's palace, they could not have lived."

Bew then recorded this report from A. M. Sullivan, a Young Ireland activist: "a sort of stupor fell upon the people, contrasting remarkably with the fierce energy put forth a year before. It was no uncommon sight to see the cottier and his little family seated on the garden fence, gazing all day long in moody silence at the blighted plot that had been their last hope."

As thousands perished in 1846, the British Government under Sir Robert Peel spurred roads and rail improvements in Ireland, imported 12 million pounds of corn meal from India, and lent money for local relief. Those measures proved to be a thimbleful of help in a rising sea of tragedy.

Those grudging half-steps were never Peel's top priority. In 1846, his primary focus was the repeal of the Corn Laws and the tariffs that protected English farmers from imported grain. Repealing those tariffs would reduce the value of the only crop Ireland could sell -- corn -- even as its potatoes turned black. The lure of Free Trade was great. In the debate over repeal, some called reports of conditions in Ireland "exaggerated," "a gross delusion" or even "a pretext." All sides played fast and loose with the truth of what was happening just across the Irish Sea.

Sullivan was later quoted as saying, "It would be utter injustice to deny that the government made exertions which, judged by ordinary circumstances, would be prompt and considerable. But judged by the awful magnitude of the evil then at hand or actually befallen, they were fatally tardy and inadequate."

Fast forward to today. Sullivan's even-handed judgment applies just as well to the Congress and the Obama administration. The original stimulus package was "prompt and considerable." Yet, Washington's lack of focus on the "awful magnitude" of this Grave Recession means any initiatives this year -- or even next -- will be "fatally tardy and inadequate."

Since the Economic Recovery Act became law in 2009, more than 400,000 Americans have filed first time claims for unemployment benefits every week save two. Our jobs crisis still affects over 30 million Americans. Yet, President Obama keeps searching for "solutions on the cheap," according to one adviser quoted in the NY Times Magazine. And Congress seems intent on deep spending cuts even for programs that assist the unemployed.

Right around the corner, in the name of job creation, there are plans to press for passage of the Korea, Panama and Colombia Free Trade Agreements. These NAFTA-lite deals may create jobs across the globe. Here at home, they'll add to our jobs crisis.

What is missing from the White House and Congress approach is any sense of urgency. For millions of 99ers -- Americans who have exhausted all unemployment benefits -- this is a time of blight. Their careers, credit, savings and homes are forfeit. Hunger and homelessness, helplessness and hopelessness -- those are the four horsemen of today's jobless.

Will history judge our government as cruel and callous as Her Majesty's in the 19th Century? I suppose so.

On a smaller but no less depressing scale, American workers today are reliving the hard times that laid waste to an entire island. As the toasts of "Erin Go Bragh" echo across Washington today, the complete indifference of politicians is, once again, on display for an entire continent to see. And our jobless millions won't forget -- for now, forever.

Ironic but true, on the night that the House of Commons repealed the Corn Laws, Peel's conservative government fell. It lost a vote over the Irish Coercion Act, legislation meant to curtail the violence erupting across Ireland. The peasants, ejected from their leased lands and gripped by hunger, were taking matters into their own hands.


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