WWII was America’s finest hour. Before that, her multitude of sins had always been covered up by her bounty of natural resources, her yet unsettled land, … her offer of opportunity. There was room to grow, chances for people to start over, … In the lead up to, and during, the War, America stepped up. Then, the situation was well defined. Usually, it’s hard to discern what is going on at a given time; what is going on ‘now’. Before the War, we sometimes got away with not knowing what was going on ‘now’; could and did attribute success or failure to fate, to an invisible hand, … . Then, working class Americans couldn’t expect much more than the ‘short brutal life’. After the War, returning veterans weren’t willing to let their government off the hook that easy. They had fought and died for their Nation; now their Nation owed them, had to do better by its people. During the War, working class Americans who had been unable to find gainful employment during the Great Depression found gainful employment; learned that they were quite capable, knew what it meant to have money to spend. A new generation of leaders who had met people from all over the world, had seen how other people lived, stood ready to take over.
During those first few years after the War, America was blessed with her industrial capacity being left intact. She was production-ready when no one else was. Working-class Americans had money in their pockets from all those wartime jobs. They were looking to buy. The world; needing everything, looked to America. In the years following the War, the wealth generated by her production was plenty enough to pay off the War Debt and have some left over for the worker’s savings.
During the 1950s, there were warning signs; like recessions and stagflation. But defense, aircraft and automobile manufacturing, and all those exports, were still generating enough wealth to go around.
By 1965, Europe and Japan were becoming more and more self-sufficient. America, manufacturer to the world, began losing her markets; That was what was going on ‘now’, then. So, what to do?
In the 1960s, it wasn’t uncommon to hear or read that the economy needed war. Business was inclined to blame it on the unions or taxes. Loss of markets was seldom heard. Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam raged on, costing dearly in ‘blood and treasure’. Then, as now, to most politicians, the economy is magic, works on fairy dust called forth with buzzwords; will self correct, …, … . LBJ may have been the best President since FDR at knowing what was going on ‘now’. He foresaw the consequences of 6.5 million southern blacks being displaced by the mechanical cotton picker. He knew that the time had come for Civil Rights, Medicare and Medicaid, The Clean Air Act, … He blew it with Vietnam; came from looking through the lens of the past, I suppose.
Like Johnson, Nixon knew how government worked. Nixon was sure that he had the answer to Vietnam and the economy. Most of all, he really wanted to be President. For Vietnam, he brought in Nelson Rockefeller’s own Henry Kissinger and started bombing the hell out of Cambodia. For the economy, he would show them how it was done; all that was needed was some Republican business know-how. First, he tried New Federalism, a kind of federalism in reverse. Then, having decided that inflation was the problem, he applied wage and price controls. When the good old didn’t work for the economy, he called on Milton Friedman. Friedman was a monetary man. When monetarism didn’t work; Nixon declared that he was now a Keynesian. The ‘now’ was what they all had missed. In 1968, economist Victor R. Fuchs spoke of the US economy as becoming a ‘service economy’. The world had changed.
In 1971, unemployment in California was at 12%. Defense spending was down. Her car plants that had once employed from 5,000 to 7,000 each were closing or automating (40% of the new cars being sold in California were made in Japan). Then, the Silicon Valley miracle happened. — It wasn’t really a miracle; it dated back to Edison and involved a lot of government-funded science.
All of a sudden, once acres of pear orchards were becoming first square miles of chip manufacturers then of manufacturers of Atari, Apple, … The jobs didn’t pay as well as the car plants had, but they were in the right location, at the right time. Saved our butts, they did. It was a time when ‘now’ was changing so fast that no one knew what ‘now’ was. Such stalwarts as Varian and Hewlett-Packard found themselves desperately playing catch-up. One such, Xerox, unknowingly, was holding a bit of ‘now’ in its hands; let it slip away.
Nixon was replaced by Gerald Ford in 1974; Ford by Jimmy Carter in 1977. Carter was a member of the Tri-Lateral Commission. He and they thought that the problem with the economy was too much regulation; they had been looking for ‘now’ but missed it completely. Again, the lens problem. We began hearing the term ‘service economy’ more and more often those days.
Reagan, originally an FDR Liberal, ran and won in 1980 on the General Electric and Nancy Davis platform as a Republican. Saying to hell with ‘now’, he was intent on returning the country to the 1950s; thinking, no doubt, that ‘now’ was surely under that street lamp. Thought that The Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, … anything that increased the role of government was wrong. No big government solutions for him; said that he only liked small government. Increased defense spending and borrowed money to pay for it; hardly official Republican party policy but politically successful. Missed ‘now’ by thirty years; set the country back by forty. A Presidency awarded for oratory on nostalgia.
Clinton at least got us back to looking for ‘now’ in the right decade; though perhaps using the wrong set of eyes in Summers, Rubin et al. Smartest in a while, but how well did he, they, anyone understand the economics of the times? More of the buzzwords and politician thing? He/they understood the thing about taxes, benefited from Dot-Com, … blew it on globalization. It is possible that they caught a glimpse of ‘now’ only to make a few doctrinal mistakes. If they did in fact glimpse ‘now’, they would be the first to do so in more than forty years. All in all, they did better than anyone had in a long time; too bad about those manufacturing jobs. Under Clinton, the economy did well and they didn’t borrow to bring it about.
Bush II; Harry Golden would have loved the guy. “We can work with this guy,” George Schultz said of both Reagan and Bush II. Karl Rove showed America how it was done. With no idea as to what needed be done or how to do it; Bush II plowed ahead. He hadn’t even heard of ‘now’, but no matter. Just for form, he cut taxes for the rich and started a couple unfunded wars. By 2005, America’s economy was based almost entirely on debt. Damn, 2008 hurt. Still does.
Barack Hussein Obama inherited the worse mess of any president ever; well, at least any since President Abraham Lincoln. Upon taking over, he had no time to look for ‘now’. Didn’t need to, the mess was right there in front of god and everybody. ‘Now’ had come a visiting. An economy based on debt is a house of cards economy. History will say that he and his advisers did a good job; that righting the ship alone was good enough. Let the next President solve the ‘now’ problem.
Trump! We didn’t see that coming; did we? Since January 2017, we have a President who couldn’t even find his own ‘now’ with both hands; a buffoon straight from central casting. After decades of living on a debt and/or service-based, and, of late, more a financial-based, economy, we’ve hit bottom; splat! We should have seen it coming. Production, that wealth generating activity, had deliberately been moved offshore by our own capitalists, and our government hadn’t lifted a finger to stop it or to mitigate the damage. No doubt we will try yet another debt to bust cycle if we get the chance, but there is a limit. Will finance, the fine art of grifting, restore America to greatness? A service economy?
For years, Web, who lived in what was called ‘Jones Holler’, and Eb, who live in the adjacent ‘Henry Holler’, had met the same time of year every year and swapped the same mule for the same rifle and $5 boot. One year, Web would pick up the rifle and walk over the ridge to Eb’s, where, after a couple hours or so of jockeying, Web would agree to swap the rifle and $5 boot for the mule and then lead the mule back over to his place. The next year, Eb would pick up the rifle and walk over the ridge to Web’s place, where, after a couple hours or so of jockeying, Eb would agree to swap the rifle and $5 boot for the mule and then lead the mule back over to his place.
One year, when the time came, Eb picked up the rifle and walked over the ridge to Web’s place. But, when he got there and looked around for the mule there wasn’t hide nor hair to be seen, nor heard, of the mule nor Web. Eb yelled out couple times to see if anyone was home. After awhile, Web came around from the back of his house and mumbled. “howdy Eb.” Eb said, “There you are, howdy Web. I’m here to make a swap for your mule, but I don’t see the mule?” Web said, “Eb, I sold that mule to Hobie over in ‘Page Holler’ couple of months back. He told me that he was needing a mule real bad. Eb shuffled a bit and, after a few minutes, said, “Why, Web, you damned fool, for years we’d both been making a good living off swapping that old mule for this here rifle and $5 boot.”
For these past few decades, the failure to recognize what was happening at a given time has cost America dearly. Too many administrations could have cared less what was really going on; they had an agenda to undo something that was contrary to their ideology, one to change the Nation to one more to their liking, …, they carried their own version of ‘now’ around with them. To some, being President was little more than a feather in their cap. Fortunately for us, others spent their lifetime preparing for the job and strove to make America a stronger, better nation. Ascertaining what is going on ‘now’ is a tough, a sometimes almost impossible, task; maybe the toughest facing the world, mankind. Perhaps, if we concentrate on it a bit more, we can do better.