The 1980s—A Decade of Infamy
Earlier this century a friend of mind whose intellect I admire made a comment that has stuck with me. She said that sometime in the 1980s, America stopped being a society and became an economy.
I was reflecting on this lately because of the recent tsunami of changes, especially as it relates to Trump and now threats to our Democracy. One Facebook friend wondered how we got this way? I wrote three blogs in a feeble effort to answer. How We Got Here—Media Edition, How We Got Here — Christian Church Edition, and How We Got Here — Newt Gingrich Edition. I missed one. This blog could also be titled How We Got Here — 1980’s Edition.
To be sure, when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, the country was reeling from a late 1970s gas shortage, the drawn-out Iran hostage debacle, and soaring interest rates, nearly 20% at one point — nothing to trivialize.
While this blog focuses on Reagan as the critical player, I will note that he may have only been a messenger, or dare I say puppet, and not the instigator, of major shifts happening in our country in the 1980s.
The first economic change I put forth is the acceleration of the shrinkage of the middle class, spurred by the orchestrated attack on unions. Referring once again to a previous blog and the eye dropping 2019 RAND report: “…in the past forty-five years, the bottom 90% of American workers would be bringing home an additional $2.5 trillion in total income if economic gains were as equitably divided as they had been pre-1975. RAND called this the “$2.5 trillion theft.” They cited as causes “decades of failed federal policy decisions — allowing the minimum wage to deteriorate, overtime coverage to dwindle, and the effectiveness of labor law to decline, undermining union power.”
One of Reagan’s first acts was to bust up the air traffic controllers’ union, accelerating the demise of unions. Unions helped keep wages up, supporting a middle class, and their collective contributions to political funds made Democrat candidates more competitive. Remember that.
After peaking at 35% in the 1950s, union membership fell 70% to near 10% of the total labor force today. It is hard to find data sources that agree with each other, but one analysis states that during the Reagan years, union membership dropped from 25% of the labor force to 16.7%, a drop of 33%. Guess who benefited? Can you spell corporations? Note the $2.5 trillion steal mentioned earlier? You ain’t seen nuttin’ yet. The theft is programmed. Middle class? What middle class?
In the 1980s, the minimum wage, in 2020 dollars, began dropping dramatically, having peaked, purchase-power-wise, in 1968 at $1.60 ($11.91 in today’s value). Inflation contributed to that, but who knew that $1.60 was worth $11.91 in 2020 dollars? The graph is not shown here, but the fall in buying power is precipitous. Gobsmackingly, the minimum wage still stands nationally at $7.25, with increases consistently blocked by Republicans. Try living on that — anywhere in the United States.
Early in his first term, Reagan passed the Economic Recovery Tax Act (ERTA), slashing top tax rates from 70% to 50%, and reducing lower rates as well. No doubt my wife and I benefited, though I do not recall much of an impact. I can assure you that it was much less than the 28.5% reduction in the top rate. Any wealthy person who was actually paying the 70% would have fired their accountant — similarly with the new 50% rate. The media will always talk about the top rate, but that is never the effective rate. The cut was so large that it reduced federal tax intake by 2.9%, leading even a Republican administration to restore half of the cuts in 1986. Shockingly (pause for sarcasm), the highest rate did not go back up. A recent retrospective Forbes article concluded this about the 1981 tax cut: “Ultimately, however, it’s the ERTA that deserves the crown for Most Important Tax Law in Living Memory. Because ERTA did more than change the tax system: It changed America.”
Not to be outdone, earlier this century, George Bush passed not one, but two large tax cuts, after Clinton left him with a budget surplus. Trump added a fourth tax cut in 2017. Trump claimed his tax cut was the largest ever — not even close. But, his corporate tax cut was the largest ever. He can claim that.
With the advent of Reagan, the concept of supply-side economics entered our vernacular — and with it, trickle-down economics. This became known as Reaganomics. Trickle-down has been debunked over and over and over and over again, but it surfaced one more time as a rationale for the Trump tax cuts. The bill was called the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Hey, tax cuts create jobs. Trickle down. If a lie is repeated often enough, it becomes true. Okay, history buffs, who taught us that?
Instead of debunking trickle down due to a mountain of been there, done that evidence, the mainstream media (MSM), too often operating like a steno pool, stands idly by. Speak into the mic and repeat the lie. They’ll print it.
Another economic way Reagan changed America was our eventual yawning over the federal debt. The national debt more than tripled between 1980 and 1989 during Reagan’s two terms. In today’s dollars that increase pales in comparison (factoring out inflation) to the debt surges this century under President’s Bush, Obama and Trump. But, the Reagan record stands, and will likely stand — this from the “fiscally” conservative side of the aisle. As most readers should now know, in political-football terms, to Republicans, the debt only matters when Democrats are in charge.
The defense budget began a dramatic increase in the early 1980s, doubling in size by 1990 from around $175 million to $350 million, the largest percentage increase of any decade in my lifetime — and this during a time of no wars or major skirmishes. (Grenada does not count as a major skirmish.) The defense budget became sacrosanct (thou shall not touch or speak ill of the defense budget) and political suicide for any Republican or Democrat to oppose. Today, the defense budget is expected to top $8 trillion over the next decade, an average of $800 billion annually.
I will not claim that Reagan’s attitude toward AIDS was a precursor to Trump’s handling of COVID, but they are not unrelated. I am heterosexual, but the AIDS crisis was the first epidemic in my lifetime, killing 60,000 by 1989, more than Vietnam, over a similar 10-year timeframe. These were many of our best and brightest, as were those killed in Vietnam. On the 1980 campaign trail Reagan spoke of the gay rights movement: “My criticism is that (the gay movement) isn’t just asking for civil rights; it’s asking for recognition and acceptance of an alternative lifestyle which I do not believe society can condone, nor can I.” But for Reagan, the AIDs epidemic could have been proactively dealt with and neutralized earlier, and same-sex marriage would have been accepted earlier.
The cost of college surged in the 1980s. The cost of textbooks increased over seven times their 1980 price. In the mid-1980s, I attended an executive MBA program at night at Claremont College. I then noted the rapid rise of the cost of textbooks. But my company paid for it. I asked my brother about this, he, at the time, a professor of PhD candidates at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He, who authored textbooks, acknowledged the inflation, but did not know why.
For public universities, costs rose 31% in less than a decade at public colleges and universities, and 46% at private institutions. From 1980 to 2019, college costs rose 169%, averaging 42% per decade. The fix was in, and stifling student debt skyrocketed.
Disdain for government grew exponentially during the Reagan years, spurred by his famous quote, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” which he labeled the nine most terrifying words in the English language. He delivered that line better than any line he ever delivered as an actor. Ironically, I have never noted anyone returning Social Security checks or refusing Medicare. Those are helpful government programs.
In the 1980s, lobbying surged in DC. Corporations discovered that lobbying G & A (general and administrative) and campaign contributions were the best ROI (return on investment) options available. In 2015, The Atlantic published an article titled: “How Corporate Lobbyists Conquered American Democracy.” At the time of this article, of the top 100 organizations that spent the most on lobbying, 95 represent corporations. For every dollar spent on lobbying by labor unions and public-interest groups together, large corporations and their associations now spend $34. In 2010, the Supreme codified the 1970s ruling that money is speech and opened the door for unlimited corporate campaign contributions.
Screw the workers and consumers. Corporations rule.
I am saving the best for last. In this blogger’s view the worst of the worst of the Reagan years was his repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. I spoke to this in my blog, How We Got Here — Media Edition.
In 1987, Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine. A year later, Rush Limbaugh began his syndicated talk show and averaged 15 million listeners during his reign. Over 20 years later, conservative talk radio shows controlled 95% of the market. Fox News debuted in 1996, presenting us with “fair and balanced” reporting. Today, there remains a near monopoly of right-wing talk radio. Today, besides Fox News, we have OAN (One America Network), Newsmax, and the Sinclair conglomerate which owns 185 TV stations in 86 markets. Their audiences are Trump’s base. Democrats have no such mouthpiece. And if you think that CNN (once called the Clinton News Network by Republicans) is a Democratic Party network, read the headlines any day on CNN’s web site. And if you think the New York Times is a Democrat Party mouthpiece, research their takedown of Hillary and their cheerleading of the Iraq War.
Zeroing in on the 1980s is not to say that the decades of the Civil War, Depression and World War II were not more calamitous. I put the 1980s decade out there as the most consequential of my lifetime, even topping the 1960s.
Today, in the United States, efforts to save our Democracy are hobbled by the events stemming from the infamous decade of the 1980s. Let me connect those dots.
· The neutralizing (I would say neutering) of unions dramatically shrunk their political power to fight for labor and better wages and benefits. Meanwhile, corporate power expanded exponentially.
· The dramatic ascension in the number and power of lobbyists keep the corporations and defense budget sacrosanct and untouchable, thus putting pressure on new spending for social programs, programs that lift more boats and increase equality and equity.
· The federal minimum wage keeps wages low and puts the lower class on edge and disillusioned. History tells us that when the masses are in this state, they are more vulnerable to strong men and authoritarian rule.
· This Supreme Court is no friend of labor and workers, ruling on the side of corporations time and again. The fix is in.
· The scheme by Republicans to take over the offices of secretaries of state, local election officials and school boards is being fueled by dark money, the kind the Supreme Court allows unfettered. I will state it now — there will never be another clean and clear election like 2020 in my lifetime.
· The cost of college is a systemic high hurdle for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and/or poor students attaining a college degree. College degrees increase wages and wealth and equity, and the chance to escape poverty.
· The lack of a Fairness Doctrine keeps a large part of the country not only uninformed, but it also ushered in the Post-Truth Era — the era of alternative facts. Alternative facts have a megaphone at Fox News, OAN, Newsmax and right-wing radio talk shows.
Today it is not what one can do for their country, but what one can do for their economy.
Recently, Elaine Chao, labor secretary under Trump and wife of Mitch McConnell, said this: “We are going to need these workers to do their patriotic duty and come back and help the economy.”
Today, in the United States, economy trumps Democracy. Our Democracy is at risk.
*My first novel, Blackberries Are Red When Green, is available on Amazon. Set in the Mid-20th Century in small northcentral Indiana village, the story, told through the eyes of a 10-year-old, is about coming-of-age, the slow arc of racial change, and a place time has forgotten.