Friday, April 3, 2009

USH24: Into the Eighties

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I had high hopes for the eighties. Unfortunately, the decade represented a major change in direction from the sixties and seventies.

It began, I suppose, with the election of Ronald Reagan who brought with him a coalition of rabid conservatives--in particular, those with a bizarre version of economics where you could cut taxes, reduce the deficit, stop inflation, and build up the military--all at the same time. Some of his minions called it 'supply-side' or 'trickle-down' theory. George H Bush (before he became Reagan's vice-president) called it 'voodoo economics' which I think was closer to the truth.

As Wikipedia puts it, the 80s were a backlash against the 60s, "with religion, patriotism and materialism making a comeback." They also point out that "The decade saw social, economic and general upheaval as wealth, production and western culture migrated to new industrializing economies. As economic liberalization increased in the western world, multiple multinational corporations associated with the manufacturing industry relocated into Mexico, Korea, Taiwan, China and new market economies in eastern Europe following the collapse of communism in eastern Europe."

This was the decade that first saw words like 'McJob' and 'outsourcing' to describe work prospects. This was the decade when Walmart grew from 276 stores to well over 1,200. This was the time of corporate raiders, leveraged buyouts, and hostile takeovers, as business became ruthless. The Laissez-faire approach of people like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman was now the economic policy of the country.

And Ronald Reagan was all business--corporate business. His bizarre economic policies became known as 'Reaganomics'. He encouraged deregulation and ignored antitrust laws. He put a businessman in charge of OSHA that hated OSHA (one of his first acts was to destroy the booklets that warned textile workers about the dangers of cotton dust). In fact, most of the people Reagan appointed as agency heads and cabinet members had plans that were nearly opposite to what the agency was supposed to be about--Reagan's ideas about reducing government seemed to mean decimating well-functioning offices. (Think James Watt, Ann Burford, David Stockman...) I joked at one point during that time that if Reagan was consistant he would have put Daniel Berrigan in charge of the Pentagon.

And while the rich got richer under Reagan's administration (and later Bush's, which was more or less a continuation of the Reagan administration), the poor got poorer. Reagan's budget cuts were to welfare, housing, job training, drug treatment, and Social Security (not to mention mass transit and renewable energy). Unemployment soared, inflation soared, and poverty soared. (Another Reagan era joke I heard when I was working in Detroit was that he was the first president that truly loved the poor as they were--poor! In fact, the joke went on, he loved them so much he wanted there to be more of them.)

But for those who had money, this was also the decade (a big part of that trend toward 'materialism') when high technology came into its own. 'Personal computers' (and the first versions of email), compact discs, wireless phones (and early cell phones), answering machines, fax machines, camcorders, VCRs, and even cable television (which had been around since the 1950s but came into its own in the eighties) were everywhere. And it seemed like everybody had to have one (at least) of each.

But this was not all a happy technoconsumer's paradise. The end of the seventies brought Love Canal and Three Mile Island, 1984 brought Union Carbide's toxic gas leak in Bhopal, India, 1986 brought Chernobyl, the nuclear power accident in Ukraine, and 1989 brought the largest oil spill in US history when the ship, the Exxon Valdez went aground off the shore of Alaska. On top of this, in 1986, with hundreds of schoolchildren watching, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded soon after launch.

The one thing that Reagan did build up was the military--and he used it. Reagan sent Marines into Lebanon, and 220 of them were killed in 1983 by a suicide bombing in Beirut. Soon after, the US invaded the tiny island of Grenada after the execution of their Marxist Prime Minister. This was the first major military operation conducted by the U.S. since the Vietnam War. In 1989, at the end of the decade, President Bush ordered the invasion of Panama in order to capture their dictator, Manuel Noriega.

Reagan's administration was also notable for its willingness to talk about and deploy nuclear weapons. Casper Weinberger (Reagan's defense secretary) oversaw dramatic increases in the US nuclear weapons arsenal, production of the B1 bomber, and work on Reagan's favorite military program, the Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as Star Wars. This was also the time of the development of the MIRVs (Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles--missiles with multiple warheads) and long-range 'Cruise Missiles'. Twice in 1983, the US came close to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union--the first time because of a Soviet computer malfunction and the second time, two months later, because the Soviet Union wasn't sure if a NATO wargame that featured a release of weapons was a cover for the real thing. The Soviet nervousness around nuclear weapons was heightened by the Strategic Defense Initiative (which they viewed as an escalation of the arms race into space) and the deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe.

However, perhaps the most notable thing about the decade of the Eighties its conclusion. 1989 featured the so-called "Revolutions of 1989", when the countries of Eastern Europe broke away from Soviet control--including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of Solidarity in Poland, and the 'Velvet Revolution' in Czechoslovakia. Ironically, this was the same time that the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred in China. The Cold War was over--and the US declared that it won.

Quote of the Day: "It was the truly wealthy, more than anyone else, who flourished under Reagan. ... The 1980s were the triumph of upper America... the political ascendancy of the rich, and a glorification of capitalism, free markets, and finance." - Kevin Phillips

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Wikipedia, lots and lots of articles (including ones on the 1980s and the Presidency of Ronald Reagan)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States


SoapBoxTech said...

I was the right age to be one of those schoolchildren but I cannot remember if we were watching it at school or if I saw it at home.

The 80`s is kind of a wierd time to look back at, for me. I went from 6 to 16 during that decade so I was mostly focused on me and my insecurities. I was probably more aware of current events than a lot of my peers, but politically, I think what I remember clearest from the 80`s was the British comedy show Spitting Image.

Austan said...

The day the shuttle blew up I was at work in the Art Dept at a huge screen printer. Only the photographer and I were there (everyone quit but him & me during the year I was there, 3 times- this was during the first time). He was a large, funny Jamaican man, and when he came into the art room I knew something was bad. We both went back into his studio and sat for a few moments listening to the radio. Here I was, in my 20s, he in his 60s. We cried together.

I also remember the 80s as the first time credit was pushed at the pubilc and it became acceptable to be in debt. Prior to then, you were a loser if you had debt hanging over your head, mortgages excluded. It was also expected and possible to pay off your student loans in ten years then.

Look what they've done to my song, ma.