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Wall Street is strangely ignorant of its own history. Many of the self-professed history buffs who inhabit America's financial services sector (of which, there are surprisingly few) are actually antiquarians fixated on minutiae -- names, dates, alleged firsts, obscure certificates -- rather than on what I term the relevant past.

Despite the paths blazed by Sidney Homer, Henry Kaufman and a handful of others conversant with financial history, most financiers today think the systematic study of the long history of our money and

capital markets a waste of time and hence money. That attitude has proven itself a multi-billion dollar mistake.

As I detail in

my blog

, America is currently suffering through its


failed mortgage


scheme. The first six occurred between the Civil War and World War II, a long time ago to be sure, but still relevant because the fiascos all stemmed from the same cause, a skewed incentive structure where mortgage originators received full commissions upon closing. If

Bear Stearns

( BSC), or a major regulator, had investigated the history of mortgage securitization (or the

insurance industry

, which faced a similar compensation crisis) it would be thriving instead of moribund.

If profit-oriented firms cannot be made to see that some of the past is relevant, perhaps even crucial, to today's bottom lines, is there any hope that the federal government can be awakened from its slumber regarding the biggest problem that it faces, namely its deteriorating fiscal position? Not much, but some.

I wrote

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One Nation Under Debt

to add my voice to those of David Walker, Robert Hormats, Peter Peterson and others who are concerned that America's national debt is growing too large, too fast. The explicit part of the debt (

Treasury bonds, not contingent debt like Social Security, Medicare, etc.) alone now stands at almost $9.4 trillion. That's a stack of $100 bills almost 6,300 miles high. In more personal terms, that comes to over $30,000 for every man, woman and child legally resident in the country.

Uncle Sam's ballooning debt is already imposing economic strains. It causes bridges to collapse (due to lack of maintenance, as one almost did in Philadelphia last month and one did in

Minneapolis last year

) and constrains the government's response to economic shocks by forcing a reliance on monetary, as opposed to fiscal, policy.

Unaided by significant fiscal stimulus, the


may save the economy from a deep

recession but in the process push

inflation to levels not seen since the 1970s. That will cause the dollar to depreciate further, oil to continue its ascent and who knows what after that.

Most Americans, especially the poor, will suffer dearly for the government's recent fiscal profligacy one way or the other.

In the past, the federal government has successfully shouldered an even bigger debt load as a percentage of

GDP. But never before has the debt grown so large, so fast, with so little attempt to brake it.

America first went into debt to win and maintain its independence, buy Louisiana, fight pirates and complete other worthy projects. Each time it went into hock, however, it laid a tax adequate to service and eventually extinguish its debt. Politicians debated the merits of different strategies of paying off the debt rather than concocting new ways of running it up. Our forebears knew, by studying the relevant past, that to be burdened with too much debt in time of crisis could prove fatal.

We need to relearn that lesson before Manhattan (as on Sept. 21, 1776) and Washington, D.C. (as on Aug. 24, 1814) burn again.

To hear more from Robert Wright, check out "Gold Isn't a Sure Cure for Inflation" and "History Says Bullets Could Outshine Metals" on TV.


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Robert E. Wright, Ph.D. is a clinical associate professor and the New York University Stern School of Business and is a curator for the Museum of American Finance, located at the northeast corner of William Street and Wall Street in lower Manhattan.