The '80S

THE 1980S WERE NOT SIMPLY A decade of glitz and greed. More important, they ushered in a new era of American history--the triumphant conservatism of Reagan, Rambo and retrenchment. The Reagan revolution was a full-blown ideological response to the anemic liberalism of the Carter presidency that faltered in the face of runaway inflation, sluggish economic growth, the Iranian hostage crisis and the relative erosion of America's place in the global economy. The Rambo mentality harked back to a gunfighter readiness to do battle with an "evil" empire at nearly any cost. And the unapologetic retrenchment took the form of making people more comfortable with their prejudices and reducing public focus on the disadvantaged. The '80s discouraged a serious national conversation on the deep problems confronting us.

For the first time since the 1920s, the political Right-- along with highly organized conservative corporate and bank elites--boldly attempted to reform American society. The aim of Reaganomics-couched in the diverse languages of supplysiders (Arthur Laffer), single-minded monetarists (Paul Volcker) and budget balancers (Alan Greenspan)--was to give new life to the utopian ideology of laissez-faire capitalism. This ideology cast high taxes, regulation and welfare assistance to the poor as the major impediments to economic growth and prosperity. Low taxes, deregulation and cutbacks in liberal social programs were viewed as a means to curtail inflation and generate an economic boom.

The decade brought us the largest peacetime military buildup in American history (about 28 percent of the federal budget in 1988!); it brought us the shortsighted choices of highly compensated corporate executives to consume, acquire and merge rather than invest, research and innovate. Together these developments caused high levels of public and private debt and the starvation of the public sector. There was little money for roads, railways, community development, housing, education, neighborhood improvement and, above all, decent-paying jobs for those displaced by industrial flight.

In the 1980s, the expansion of unfettered markets produced great wealth for the top 1 percent of the population, impressive income for the top 20 percent and significant decline in real wages for the bottom 40 percent. For example, the top 1 percent owned 44 percent of the household net wealth in 1929 and 36 percent in 1989 (in 1976, it dropped to 20 percent). By 1989, the top 1 percent of families owned 48 percent of the total financial wealth in the country. Of course, income inequality is less extreme than wealth inequality--yet the significant increase of both in the 1980s reveals the fundamental virtues and vices of unbridled capitalist markets. These markets yield efficiency and ingenuity in regard to what consumers desire and what products cost. At the same time they increase inequality and isolation in regard to what the most vulnerable people need and which basic social goods are available to them.

The major economic legacy of Reaganomics was to increase the disparity between rich and poor and to downsize the American middle class. Our social structure began to look less like a diamond and more like an hourglass. More hours of work were required to sustain a decent standard of living even as an undeniable decline in the quality of life set in--with increased crime, violence, disease (e.g., AIDS), tensions over race, gender and sexual orientation, decrepit public schools, ecological abuse and a faltering physical infrastructure. In short, Reaganomics resulted in waves of economic recovery, including millions of new jobs (many part-time), alongside a relative drop in the well-being of a majority of Americans.

The unintended cultural consequence of this economic legacy was a spiritual impoverishment in which the dominant conception of the good life consists of gaining access to power, pleasure and property, sometimes by any means. in other words, a fully crystallized market culture appeared in which civic institutions such as families, neighborhoods, unions, churches, synagogues, mosques held less and less sway, especially among young people. Is it a mere accident that non-market values like loyalty, commitment, service, care, concern--even tenderness-can hardly gain a secure foothold in such a market culture? Or that more and more of our children believe that life is a thoroughly hedonistic and narcissistic affair?

One of the telling moments of the '80s came when a member of the Federal Communications Commission boasted that when television was deregulated, "the marketplace will take care of children." And, to a significant degree, this unintentionally sad and sobering prophecy has come true. The entertainment industry, with its huge doses of sex and violence, has a disproportionate and often disgusting influence over us and our children. A creeping Zeitgeist of coldheartedness and mean-spiritedness accompanies this full-blown market culture. Everything revolves around buying and selling, promoting and advertising. This logic leads ultimately to the gangsterization of culture--the collapse of moral fabric and the shunning of personal responsibility in both vanilla suburbs and chocolate cities. Instead of reviving traditional values, the strong patriotism and social conservatism of the 1980s has ironically yielded a populace that is suspicious of the common good and addicted to narrow Pleasures.

The 1980s came to a close with the end of the cold war--yet the culture wars of a racially torn and market-driven American society loom large. A strategy of "positive polarization" (especially playing the racial card) has realigned the electorate into a predominantly white conservative Republican Party and a thoroughly bewildered centrist Democratic Party. This has helped produce a disgruntled citizenry that slouches toward cynicism, pessimism and even fatalism. Nearly half of all black children and 20 percent of all American children grow up in poverty, trapped in a cycle of despair and distrust.

The major paradox of the 1980s is that the decade ended with the collapse of moribund communist regimes of repression and regimentation--as well as the advent of more than 40 new social experiments in democracy around the world--just as American democracy is quietly threatened by internal decay. In other words, the far-reaching insights of Adam Smith's defense of the role of markets loom large in the eyes of former communist societies just as the cultural inanities of capitalism pointed out by Karl Marx become clearer in rich capitalist democracies--especially in the United States.

The market magic of the triumphant conservatism of the 1980s did help squeeze out fat and make American business more competitive in the brutal global economy. But we have yet to come to terms with the social costs. Confused citizens now oscillate between tragic resignation and vigorous attempts to hold at bay their feelings of impotence and powerlessness. Public life seems barren and vacuous. And gallant efforts to reconstruct public-mindedness in a Balkanized society of proliferating identities and constituencies seem farfetched, if not futile. Even the very art of public conversation--the precious activity of communicating with fellow citizens in a spirit of mutual respect and civility-- appears to fade amid the noisy backdrop of name-calling and finger-pointing in flat sound bites.

The new decade of the 1990s begins with Americans hungry to make connections, to communicate their rage, anger, fury and hope. The new popularity of radio and TV talk shows is one symptom of this populist urge. Rap--the major form of popular music among young people -is another. The great American novel of the 1980s, the Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison's "Beloved," yearns to tell a "story not to be passed on"--a story of a great yet flawed American civilization afraid to confront its tragic past and fearful of its frightening future.

This fear now permeates much of America--fear of violent attack or vicious assault, fear of indecent exposure or malicious insult. Out of the '80s came a new kind of civic terrorism--physical and psychic--that haunts the public streets and private minds of America.

Race sits at the center of this terrifying moment. Although a small number of black men--who resemble myself or my son in appearance--commit a disproportionate number of violent crimes, the unfair stereotype of all black men as criminals persists. And despite the fact that most of these crimes are committed against black people, the national focus highlights primarily white victims.

Yet we all must assume our share of responsibility for the despair and degradation. The generational layers of social misery that afflict poor communities were rendered invisible in the 1980s not just by our government but by ourselves. Economic desperation coupled with social breakdown now threatens the yen, existence of impoverished communities in urban areas--with growing signs of the same forces at work in rural and suburban America. The drug and gun cultures among youth are the most visible symptoms of this nihilism. if we are to survive as a nation, the 1990s must be a decade in which candid and critical conversation takes place about race and poverty rights and responsibilities, violence and despair.

The great comeback pop singer of the 1980s--Tina Turner--tragically croons, "What's Love Got to Do With It?" In a decade of glitz and greed, "who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?" And the most talented songwriting team in American popular music of the 1980s, Babyface and L. A. Reid, nod in their classic song, "My, My, My." Maybe in the '90s we can bring back some love, justice, humor and community.

The year 1980 dawned with little faith and less hope. For America, it began with humiliation abroad and a lost sense of purpose. Inflation, that cruelest tax of all, was high. The communist menace seemed as threatening as ever. By the end of 1989, America had changed for the better. We had experienced the longest noninflationary period of growth in peacetime history--almost eight years! Twenty million new jobs had been created. More than 6 million low-income citizens had been taken off the tax rolls.

The world , too, was a better place. For me, the 1980s culminated on a dreary Berlin day one month after the wall came down. As I peered through the openings in the concrete, I felt what I had known for months: after 40 years, freedom had won. Later that day I drove across the Gleinicke Bridge into Potsdam for a meeting with religious leaders. As we talked, I understood how the wall had been breached--not by force of arms but by faith and hope. The decade that began with American hostages in Teheran ended with liberation for tens of millions of Eastern Europeans. Some critics call the 1980 the Decade of Greed. They're wrong. It was the Decade of Freedom.