Though, in almost every way, it is impossible to fault them for this.
The individual members of the incoming freshman class will have entered this world sometime in 1996 or 1997, a full seven to eight years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. To their active and eager minds, the 1980s meant lots of repetitive electronic pop music, an MTV that actually played music videos, leg warmers, bright colors, big checks and plaids, baggy pants and oversize shirts, top siders, goofy hair styles, televangelists, “duck and cover” safety from nuclear weapons, general happiness and prosperity, and John Hughes movies. It was a time before time, an era without wardrobe malfunctions, wacky chief executives, or reality TV.
Not all of these memories are wrong, of course, just selective.
From what I can tell, most current students idealize the decade in much the same way my generation—coming of age in the 1980s—viewed the 1950s. That nearly perfect decade represented peace, prosperity, primitive rock music, American assertion of power without lots of consequent deaths, innocence and naiveté, white t-shirts with packs of cigarettes rolled up in one’s sleeve, poodle skirts, leather jackets, James Dean shades, motorcycles, Marlan Brando cool, and tail fins on huge cars.
Everything, of course, was in black and white as well in the 1950s.
Well, so we thought.
But, two things must be remembered by those of us who lived in the 1980s and who want to teach our students the truth.
The Overriding Fear
First, and very important, the Cold War was never a joke, and simply because we escaped a nuclear confrontation does not mean the struggle was somehow superficial. For any of us who lived during the time, we know how much possibilities of a fire-blasted world shaped our psychologies and accelerated our fears.
Having grown up only miles from a Titan II missile base, I still have a recurrent nightmare of nuclear destruction. For some reason—perhaps, in a kind of twisted dream logic—I am visiting the capitol building in Topeka, Kansas. As three Russian nukes detonate nearby, I find myself planted to the green grass of a lush park, unable to move and, thus, escape. As I have grown older, the dream has changed only in that I now have my kids next to me as all of this happens. Such responsibility only deepens the anxiety. If our students really want to understand our apprehensions, they should watch The Day After (1983).
But, I never meant for this post to become melancholic. The original intent was to focus on the second thing.
In the 1980s, at least from the memory of one who lived it—I was in seventh grade when Ronald Reagan entered office, and I was a first semester senior in college when the Berlin Wall fell—the 1980s were at their best about the pursuit of excellence in politics, culture, manufacturing, industry, and the arts.
In large part, I believe, this came from our fear of the Soviets and our belief that we could outcompete them in every aspect of life, thus, as Mr. Reagan put it, “transcending communism.”
I also believe that we greatly feared what our allies could do, especially when we looked at Japanese companies such as Sony and Toyota, or Germany and BMW and Mercedes. Even the Swedes and Volvo made us a bit nervous. By the end of the 1980s, of course, we had not only competed well with our great economic allies, we had—to put it crudely—blown them out of the water.
Beginning in 1982, the United States experienced 92 straight months of solid—perhaps astounding—economic growth. It is worth quoting at length the Wall Street Journal from 1992 in its retrospective of the previous decade.
“From World War II until 1973, real economic growth averaged 3.6% a year. After 1973 the economy staggered, growing only 1.6% over the next nine years. But after 1982, growth returned…. From the beginning of 1983 through the end of 1989, growth hit 3.8%” (Wall Street Journal, April 30, 1992).
As one important writer put it at the time, these were America’s “7 Fat Years.”
Again, from the Wall Street Journal retrospective:
“Technological Power? Despite challenges from the industrious Japanese, America still dominates scientific innovation. Its university system is unparalleled. While it educates many foreign nationals, many of them stay in the U.S. Many transnational corporations, even if based in Germany or Switzerland, locate their research labs in New Jersey or North Carolina. Japanese auto companies open design labs in Los Angeles. Above all, the U.S. utterly dominates the single capstone technology of the era, which despite the plethora of earth languages is in every country called ‘software’” (Wall Street Journal, April 30, 1992).
By the end of the decade, the United States had a standard of living roughly forty percent higher than that possessed by Japanese and the Western Europeans. Our economy was 70% more powerful than the Japanese economy, and we had not only beaten Germany economically, but we had, for all intents and purposes, created an entirely new West Germany with our unprecedented growth.
In America, the economic growth and the rise of the standard of living aided blacks and Hispanics as much as it did whites. The predominant color bias was green.
In terms of social stability, the 1980s saw a nearly thirteen percent decline in the murder rate.
I know that other Imaginative Conservatives have explained this as the result of supply side economics, and some have partially dismissed the Reagan years as greedy. Clearly, there is no one “conservative” answer to this.
We can, however, rather readily dismiss the second explanation. During the so-called seven fat years, private charities for the poor increased by 86%, and the amount of charitable giving overall increased by an astounding 48%. Whatever slogans—such as “greed is good”—might remain from the 1980s, they seemed to have represented a rather minority viewpoint.
It should also be noted that the vast number of new jobs and new technologies came from start-up businesses, not from already-entrenched corporations. Thus, what is now properly called “crony capitalism” or, once, regulatory capture, was not the predominant form of economic stalemate in the 1980s. Growth came from energy and new ideas, not from protecting one’s privilege through political favors.
I do not mean to suggest that somehow all were innocent of theft and greed, etc. These, of course, are simply a part of living in a fallen world of sorrows. How many times did the brilliant Russell Kirk warn us against the dreams of avarice. But, the numbers and statistics rather successfully demonstrate that the Reagan years were ones of excellence in innovation and production, not in securing the favors of the powerful.
To my mind, no one better symbolizes the drive for excellence in the 1980s than Steve Jobs. He certainly possessed his faults, but greed was not one of them. Mr. Jobs was a demanding authoritarian, but he demanded in the name of quality, not quantity. He preferred Apple as the best because of what it produced, not because of how much it produced. His father had taught him that all parts of a thing should be built in the best possible manner. A piece of furniture, no matter how well built or expensive, was inferior if someone used shoddy products on the parts not seen. A thing of quality must be entirely of quality, not just in appearance, but of essence. Hence, when Mr. Jobs helped design and produce the Macintosh, he insisted that the insides—perhaps seen only by 1 in a 1,000 persons ever—be as well made and as attractive as that which appears to every owner.
Mr. Reagan has promoted and explained his own ideas on excellence as individual and community genius in his 1968 book, The Creative Society. As president, he lived much of this out by giving strength and power back to the very people he believed promoted excellence. Jobs, whatever his faults, best represented Reagan’s ideal.
Lamentations for a Post-Reagan Economy
What happened after Reagan left office?
Well, I certainly cannot speak as an economist or as a social scientist. But, I can speak as a republican, an American, and a humanist. Let me offer three observations, none definitive, but all, I think, true.
First, not only have we lost our taste for excellence, but we have surrendered much of our power and ability to banks, corporations, and governments over the past twenty-five years. One only has to look at the stimulus packages—the single largest transfer of private monies to public “trusts” in the history of the world—to see how far we have fallen.
Second, we have squandered what Mr. Reagan promoted. When we exited the Reagan years, we continued to live on the capital accumulated until roughly 2008. This really indicates how extremely powerful those seven years under his leadership were: that we could have economic stability for almost two more decades.
But, rather than continue down the same path, investing and promoting, we spent like mad, and, as noted in the first point, when that failed, we gave up the savings of our families and of our children and grandchildren to the ultra wealthy, claiming—ridiculously and with no small amount of evil—that some entities were “too big to fail.” Have we gained from this? Of course not. The rich have gotten richer, and the productive have once again been exploited.
Third, we have expanded our empire into and throughout much of the world. As of this writing, the U.S. has troops stationed in 150 of the nearly 200 countries in the world. Though we have pulled out of Iraq, we still have ourselves spread thinly everywhere. This is in direct contrast to Reagan’s foreign policy that demanded a huge military and navy, but one that first and foremost protected America and the West. When someone struck us during the 1980s, we struck them back with almost unparalleled brutality.
But, then, it was over.
As my great friend Winston Elliott likes to say, it is one thing to strike back at an enemy. It is an entirely different thing to move into his house and tell him how to live.
We have behaved horrendously over the last twenty-five years. Like spoiled children, we have squandered almost everything good, true, and beautiful our parents and grandparents left us. We have not only mocked their values and strengths, but we have used their very gifts in the worst ways possible.
And, not surprisingly, when confronted with reality—such as we were in 2008—we panic and give away not only our resources but our very integrity.
And, yet, the lessons are there. They are there to remember at any point. The 1980s were not about greed—at home or abroad. They were about excellence. We took the bad and fondled it, exaggerated it, and convinced ourselves it was the truth, when it was really a perversion of what was true.
The 1980s were glorious. Not because they were productive, but because they were virtuous.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.