As we all become increasingly dismayed by the rancorous partisan divide evident in the impeachment trial of President Trump, a yearning for “the good old days” assumes a romantic glow. But they aren’t easy to pick.
It reminds me of 1981 when I was complaining about the 13% mortgage loan interest we had to pay to finance our first home. When telling my father-in-law about this, I launched into a tirade against the decade of the 1970s I held responsible for our plight. Surely, there were better times than these. He just smiled and took down a volume from his bookcase, saying, “Here, read this.” It was Otto L. Bettmann’s “The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible” (1974).
The book recalled conditions in the last half of the 19th century and early 20th with sections on air, traffic, work, health, education and crime. Every section was a graphic portrait of sheer misery. A lady from Chicago, for example, tartly observed about her hometown, “Its air is dirt.” By way of indirect validation, Mr. Bettmann noted that there were 3 million horses in the streets of America’s cities in 1900, and New York alone had 150,000. He quaintly added that each of these horses unloaded 25 pounds of poop per day. Thus, it was probably not dirt to which the lovely lady from Chicago referred.
Conditions in our cities were squalid. Flimsy wooden houses heated by coal were virtual tinder boxes. In the 19th century, massive fires raged across St. Louis, Chicago, New York and Boston and killed thousands. Fire, garbage, dirt and manure triggered one epidemic after another.
Today, we are scandalized if an epidemic claims 100 lives. In the 20 years before the Civil War (1861-65), 150,000 people died in cholera epidemics. The mother-of-all epidemics, of course, was the flu epidemic of 1918 in which 675,000 Americans lost their lives. This figure is more than the combined number of U.S. military casualties from World Wars I and II.
Throughout my academic career, I had colleagues yearning for the activism of the 1960s and 1970s, the good old days of moral idealism. My memories are different. The 1970s began with the collapse of the Vietnam War leading to its tragic end in 1975. For those of us who served in Vietnam and deemed it a noble cause, the American abandonment of Vietnam has left a permanent moral stain on our national soul. For the activist war protesters, on the other hand, the end of the war was the triumph against American neoimperialist aggression, never to be repeated. I contend that this deep partisan divide over Vietnam is what is being reflected today in the trial of President Trump — two contradictory and irreconcilable realities.
Another major event of the 1970s was the energy crisis triggered by the oil shock of 1973. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) slapped a partial oil embargo on the West and then quadrupled the price of oil that remained in global circulation. This sent Western economies into tailspins. In the United States, we were struck by the novel economic malady of “stagflation” — a stagnant economy in the grip of high rates of inflation. This translated into years of negative economic growth with inflation rates from 15% to 20%, while unemployment hit 12%.
Not surprisingly, a cloud of pessimism crowded out the normally optimistic American spirit. It fed on two developments. One was the real fear of hyperinflation. This fear was founded on the chilling examples of the hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1920s and in several countries in Latin America, where, once such inflation took hold, became virtually impossible to root out, leading to economic chaos.
The second was the theoretical fear engendered by the Limits to Growth movement. This came from a series of academic treatises predicting that the ills of industrial capitalism were pushing the global resource capacity beyond Mother Earth’s “carrying capacity.” This would lead to “overshoot” and the collapse of Western civilization by the year 2000.
So, how does all this apply to today? As opposed to looking backward for better times, we need to be reminded that the 2020s are ushering in an era of unprecedented American prosperity, especially for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. We are also in an era of relative peace where no global war threatens. A recent poll, cited in The Wall Street Journal, found that more then 70% of Americans think their lives are “getting better.”
Certainly, there’s room for improvement. But we can take a cue from the final line of Carly Simon’s 1971 hit, “Anticipation,” and be glad we are here today in 2020 because “these are the good old days.”