Friday, February 24, 2017

A Brief History of the World (That I Lived Through) Part One

There's no doubt that our country is deeply divided. It's hard to put a finger on when it started to happen or how, but there are some pretty clear indicators that the cracks started to form in the 1980s. I remember in the late '80s listening to a liberal pundit talking on the news about the legacy of the Ronald Reagan presidency. He said that Reagan had made us comfortable with our prejudices. At the time, I thought it was a pretty mean thing to say, but in hindsight, I think the guy was spot on.

In the 70s. I grew up in a blue-collar town filled with Southern transplants who had moved north to work in the factories that filled our community. I can't deny that there was quite a bit of racism in my community, but it was kept largely out of sight. I'd hear the "n word" dropped fairly casually and the occasional grumbling about people on welfare driving Cadillacs, but there was a general mood in the country, following the events of the '60s, that it just wasn't proper to be openly racist. We even had some African-Americans and other minorities living in the neighborhood, and no one was threatening them or treating them with any hostility.

Most everyone was a registered Democrat because most of the fathers were union men and the Democrats looked out for workers' rights. It was the party of Social Security and Medicare and of generally helping out the little guy. Nevertheless, as the Carter administration chugged along, there was a growing sense that the working class were taking a back seat to minorities, immigrants, and gays. The party was becoming too intellectual, too elitist. All the while, the Industrial Age was sputtering to a halt as automation and competition from other countries was undercutting the strength of the mighty steel and auto industries.

My father was not a blue collar guy. He worked as a cryptanalyst for National Security Agency (NSA). I felt like a bit of an odd ball in school because, while other kids could say that their dads were pipe fitters or they made suspensions for Chevrolets, I never really could explain what my dad did (he couldn't tell me either). I also couldn't understand why other families had boats and motorcycles and took fancy vacations while we struggled just to get by. Only later did I realize that, while my dad was quite smart and had an extremely important job, he was paid far less than my neighbor's dad who spent his whole day bolting bumpers onto station wagons. That was the world we lived in then. Someone from the back woods of West Virginia with barely a high school education could come to Maryland, get a union job, and make more money than a college-educated man who was decoding messages intercepted from the Viet Cong and the Soviets.

But it all started to unravel around 1979. Younger workers were getting laid off. Older workers were being asked to do more for less. Even older workers were given buyouts to retire with a fraction of the benefits that were once promised. The American Dream was disintegrating and Jimmy Carter was droning on about a "malaise," as if all this was somehow our fault.

Then came Ronald Reagan. He was cheerful and confident and telling us that the only thing we needed to do to "make America great again" was to unleash the shackles government had put on corporate America and prosperity would rain down on us once again. That sounded really good to the people in my community. These life-long Democrats voted for the Republican with the big ideas about trickle-down economics. It sounded good at the time. It was simple and straightforward. No fussy intellectual mumbo-jumbo like the Democrats were babbling about.

In 1982, I was turning 18 like most of my senior high school class. We were trotted down to the cafeteria to register for the upcoming election. Many of my classmates registered as Republicans. They were probably the first Republicans in their families, and it was all because of Reagan. Never mind that the unemployment rate had jumped to over 10%, up from the 7.5% it was when Reagan first became president. Never mind that the huge tax break he gave the wealthy never turned into actual jobs. They were not paying attention to the man behind the curtain, but rather were mesmerized by the gleaming face on the TV screen.

During my college years, there was a heating up of the economy, but it was largely based on wild speculation. Businesses were expanding for no other reason than because tax breaks and deregulation had made it possible to do so. I was working as a clerk in a Sherwin-Williams store at the time, and I saw how they were opening new stores all over Maryland at a feverish pace. I talked to one of our sales reps about that, wondering why on Earth they were doing it when we already faced steep competition from Duron, Martin's, and the newfangled warehouse hardware stores popping up everywhere. He talked about how they were being "aggressive" and other business babble, but there was nothing in what he said that indicated a sound business plan for growth. It was simply a case of exuberant optimism.

During my senior year of college, Timbuk 3 had a big hit with the song "The Future's so Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)." I loved the irony of it, but at the same time, I was hoping that all this enthusiasm for a booming economy might actually make it come true. I was about to get my first "real job," and I needed a strong economy to grease my career skids. I graduated in 1987. It was the year that brought the junk bond scandal, the Savings & Loan debacle, and "Black Monday" when the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost almost 23 % of its value in one day. Instead of wearing shades, I was breaking out a flashlight to see where my future had gone.

To be continued...

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