Friday, March 3, 2017

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

In the fall of 1987, as the country was slipping headlong into what would become a drawn out economic slump, I was working two jobs that together only earned me $11,000 a year. Even in 80s money, this was not a living wage. I had been told my whole life that if I got that bachelor's degree, I would have it made. Instead, I was working my butt off just to pay my Mom some meager board and keep my '71 Ford LTD on the road and out of the mechanic's garage. As I drove to and from work in my jalopy with only an AM radio, I noticed that the Top 40 stations were steadily being taken over by conservative talk radio stations. With no other options, I had to listen to a lot of it.

They laid out a curious narrative. Since they couldn't blame their hero, Ronald Reagan, for the economy that never really got off the ground during his presidency, there had to be other scapegoats. There were the Germans and Japanese who dared to make better cars and steel at competitive prices. There were the Mexicans who had the audacity to take jobs in the factories that U.S. corporations built there while shuttering factories here. And, when all else fails, they could always blame the people on welfare (code for African-Americans). The lesson for today: your problems, Mr. and Mrs. White America, were not created by you or our fine Republican government; it's everybody else's fault.

I was a White American who was struggling, but somehow these excuses rang hollow. They rang hollow because the news reports that ran prior to the right-wing gab fests told me about Michael Milken and his junk bond scandal. They told me about how the Savings and Loan assholes took on too much risk with other people's money and were now costing the American taxpayers over 100 billion dollars. There were reasons I was having a hard time finding a decent job, but the culprits were just as white as I was. I laughed at these hypertensive babblers. It was a schtick. It was a snake oil salve placed on a wound no one knew how to heal. I assumed only the most gullible were buying this garbage.

In 1990, I got a job working for a mutual fund company. It was a full-time, permanent position with great benefits. Unfortunately, the hourly wage was not much better than what I had been making before. As an English major, I had to go through extensive training to learn the world of investing and all the tricky byways associated with it. Tax law, securities regulations, retirement planning, portfolio management, and so on. I had to get certifications from the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD). I could have been a stockbroker with all the training and certifying, but instead I was answering shareholder letters about their portfolios and the related issues. It was hard work requiring quite a bit of knowledge and skill. I wonder how confident the investors would have felt, however, if they knew that the guy answering their letters made about the same as a night manager at Denny's. The only way I could make anything like a comfortable wage was to work copious amounts of overtime, not that I had any choice. The overtime was mandatory.

Some co-workers said that it was the new sweat shop. That was a little extreme, but it was a far cry from the days when a guy in an auto plant could raise a family of four just by attaching the same bolt over and over for eight hours a day. This was the new reality that the Reagan Revolution had brought. While the top guys in the ivory tower downtown collected millions in bonuses, guys like me who were keeping the shareholders happy and placated were getting a check the equivalent of one and one half times my two-week salary...AS MY ENTIRE ANNUAL BONUS. Actually that's not completely true. They took out withholding at the highest possible rate, so the check was a lot smaller.

There seemed some sense of hope by 1992, however. Bill Clinton set about disproving trickle down economics by raising taxes on the top wage earners without hurting the economy. In fact, the economy grew at a rate far greater than anything experienced during the Reagan/Bush years. The markets were on a roll and my stingy employer even recognized that they had to pay us better under the threat of stiffer competition. My life got a whole lot better, I had a new car, a house, and a comfortable nest egg. The promise I had been given as a child was starting to come true.

Naturally, the Republicans hated all this Democratic success and had to vote in a bunch a guys to mess everything up. Newt Gingrich and his band of rowdies were unlike the staid conservatives I was used to. There was an edge to their rhetoric. A nastiness in their tone that mimicked the radio talk show hosts I had listened to. While I was toiling away at life, I hadn't noticed that the Republican party had changed. All the extremists whom the party had given lip service to in order to stay elected were now running for offices themselves. The party was shifting further right, but not just that. They were out to draw lines in the sand. This was no longer government of the people, by the people, and for the people. They wanted government of, by, and for a certain group of people and everyone else was going to pay.

The mood was disturbing, especially when the Republicans in Congress shut down the government in 1995. Still, the economy was strong. Clinton was tightening up the budgets. We were at peace. The country felt happy. I kept telling myself it was all going to work out.

In 2000, I had a better new car, a better house in a better neighborhood, and I was about to get married. Confidence oozed out of every pore for this grand new millennium. And then came the presidential election.

To be continued...

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