In 1976, we elected our first born-again president and John Travolta was practicing the hustle. Now we have the Christian Coalition practicing politics and Travolta reborn as a symbol of irony. In the following pages, we look at 20 other big changes. Before you take a look, make a list of your own–and let us know what we missed.
It’s been like a class reunion. School newspaper veterans that we are, we wandered around the room–in the ’90s we suppose you’d call it a virtual room–with our tape recorders, notepads, and PowerBooks, asking old classmates what they’ve been up to. Our lead question for some 40 scholars, journalists, curmudgeons, and poets was: “What has been the most important change in the past 20 years?”
Mostly we talked to friends, but we also spoke with longtime adversaries, who, like adversaries sometimes do, reminded us of some things we may have always shared–in this case a passionate concern about where we’re all headed. Reviewing our notes hte next morning (virtual time, remember), we added up their ideas and got 20 of them–a nice, round number, don’t you think?
One: The world is smaller
Computers and other technologies have generated unprecedented international interconnectedness. New data–whether collected from 1,000-year-old Mayan hieroglyphs or from today’s Singapore stock market–are instantly relayed via satellite and the Internet. This knowledge of each other has become critical to our survival and inseparable from our evolution as a species. Will this new global consciousness catalyze a new global conscience?
- Estimated Number of Internet hosts worldwide in 1988: 5,089
- Estimated Number of Internet hosts in 1995: 6.6 million
- Increase since 1976 in americans with pagers: 3,000 percent
- U.S. long-distance phone service revenues in 1976: $17.5 billion
- Estimated long-distance revenues for 1996: $71.8 billion
- Number of satellites orbiting earth in 1976: 9,645
- Number orbiting in 1995: 23,691
Walter Truett Anderson is the author of the forthcoming book, Evolution Isn’t What it Used to Be.
The really profound event of our time is not that technologies are converging: It’s that we are converging with our technologies. Our minds are augmented by computers and other devices, and our bodies are augmented by a wide range of evolutionary inventions, from vaccines to artificial organs. Meanwhile, the world is becoming a bionic planet–networked by information systems that monitor its health, forecast its future, and govern its ecosystems. And the world is not separable from those information systems. What you get when you put them together is a true evolutionary transition. Governments make policy decisions about the world’s climate and atmosphere. Businesses succeed or fail on the basis of what they do about fast-breaking changes in medicine and agriculture. Individuals and families have new choices, new powers, and new ways to solve problems. The transition also presents pressing ethical issues and enormous equity issues, because there is reason to fear that the amazing new devices that augment human life are being distributed even less fairly than more ordinary goods like food and shelter.
Two: Business jumped the border
Large capital, aided by technology, has zoomed past national regulators. Competition among American-based computer companies is heightened by using skilled, cheap labor in Thailand. A German mutual fund boosts the retirement savings of an American war veteran, but his daughter is laid off when her factory moves to a Mexican maquiladora. Capital goes where it wants, creating dynamic economic change but also new risks when borrowers, such as Orange County, California, can’t pay investors back. With every economy competing internationally, there is also increased anxiety about just how precarious a place each of us occupies in the global pecking order.
- Number of merchant locations worldwide accepting the Visa card in 1976: 1.9 million
- Number of merchant locations in 1995: 12 million
- Number of multinational corporations in 1976: 10,373
- Number of multinational corporations in 1990: 35,000
Economist Paul Erdman, author of Zero Coupon, believes U.S. businesses have remained the most successful in mastering the new global economy.
Pessimism about the future of the United States began developing 20 years ago and should be dispelled. Lester Thurow’s thesis was that America had peaked economically and was in decline compared to Japan and Germany. He was dead wrong. Japan is in a banking crisis. Germany totally miscalculated the economic costs of reunification, and all of Europe’s unemployment is around 11 percent while ours is under 6 percent.
Wealth is created by venture capital and innovation. We do those best. We are destined to remain the most powerful economic and military power in the world.
Uruguayan historian and writer Eduardo Galeano says globalized capital has further isolated the world’s poor.
In the nations of the South, the deification of the market and the demonization of the forces of change have resulted in the concentration of wealth, the multiplication of poverty, and the devastation of nature. The triumphal religion of the market acts not only on economic, social, and political realities, but also on our consciences. Twenty years ago, poverty was the result of injustice. Today, it is the punishment inefficiency deserves.
More than ever, the countries of the Southern Hemisphere are submitted to the dictatorship of an international market which lends with one hand what it steals with the other. This world of inequality is also a world of solitude. It won’t be saved by giving the marketplace a “social dimension.” Not even Mother Teresa as secretary for economic affairs would be capable of such a miracle.
Three: East Asia rocked
American economic hegemony ended, and the most advanced economies regionalized into three orbits–North America, Europe, and East Asia. The latter was the most dynamic. Exponential growth in China, Taiwan, Korea, and other East Asian nations followed on the heels of Japan’s earlier success, one that for a time gave Americans an inferiority complex. World cultural and political change is likely to speed along the path of this economic boom for some time to come.
- Total value of China’s exports to the United States in 1976: $201 million
- Total value in 1994: $38.8 billion
- Ratio of ATMs per person in Japan: 1 to 1,021
- Ratio of ATMs per person in the United States: 1 to 2,312
Alice H. Amsden is the Richards Professor of Political Economy at MIT. Her books on East Asia discuss its differences from Western-style capitalism.
Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia–all of these countries have transformed in an extraordinary way. South Korea in 1960 had a per capita income of less than $100–now it is $10,000. These countries have urbanized and life expectancies have increased. After World War II, virtually all of them adopted policies to take the high road to industrial development instead of trying to compete internationally on the basis of low wages and cheap raw materials.
Clearly the East Asian countries have done better than countries like Mexico, India, and Brazil, and you have to ask why. In most developing countries, subsidies are allocated under the principle of giveaway. In East Asia, governments never gave anything away. Subsidies were tied to concrete standards, especially export targets, and companies couldn’t indulge in capital flight to other countries. They could have employees work long hours, but they had to give them training and wage increases.
Many Asian countries are under pressure from the West to adopt a Western style of capitalism, but I don’t see much economic evidence of that happening. However, people are simply fed up with authoritarianism. One can’t deny the connection between authoritarianism and rapid economic development in these countries, but I don’t think that a shift to democracy will threaten further development. They have moved beyond that now.
Orville Schell, author of Mandate of Heaven: The Legacy of Tiananmen Square and the Next Generation of China’s Leaders, urged President Clinton to take a more active role promoting democracy in China (excerpted from “Go to China,” Mother Jones, Jan./Feb. 1993).
A society that denies its people their basic rights for an extended time often explodes into chaos, leaving a wake of global economic and political instability, which can be far more damaging to U.S. interests than any passing antagonisms over human rights standards.
Four: Stalin finally died
The 20th century is a graveyard for utopian dreams that degenerated into repressive tyrannies. A bureaucratic command economy, food shortages, and the disastrous Afghan invasion finally toppled seven decades of Soviet communist dictatorship, and a half century of Cold War certainty expired with it. With the global nuclear threat diminished, militaries were left scrambling for ways to sustain their budgets. Meanwhile, democratic governments replaced both capitalist and communist dictatorships throughout the world–in Spain and Portugal, in at least 12 Latin American countries, in East Asia, in Eastern Europe, and finally in South Africa in 1994.
- Decrease in worldwide nuclear arsenal since 1976: 32 percent
- Increase in amount of nuclear waste since 1976: 1,406 percent
- Increase in total number of nations worldwide since 1976: 41
Adam Hochschild is a founding editor of Mother Jones. He is also author of The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin.
When I went to Russia in the late 1970s to interview Andrei Sakharov, customs guards confiscated copies of Mother Jones in my luggage because of an article on the plight of Soviet Jews by Jeffrey Klein.
A few years later, copies I tried to take into East Germany were seized at the Berlin Wall. To be found subversive by regimes like that was an honor. Today, happily, Russians can read what they want, watch what they want on TV, and can travel the earth if they can afford it.
However, justice and democracy don’t come easily to a country that has known neither–before the Russian Revolution or after. Russia’s electoral system is shaky.
A huge chunk of the economy, both untaxed and unregulated, is now run by organized crime. Civic and labor organizations are weak. The gap between rich and poor is widening cruelly, as old former Communist Party bureaucrats cheerfully privatize factories into their own hands. And, ironically, a new Russian law makes it impossible for the majority of a company’s directors to be employees–a far steeper barrier to cooperatives and employee ownership than anything in the United States or Western Europe.
Five: Tribes raised their flags
The collapse of the bipolar world unleashed terrifying ethnic and racial wars. The success of Lithuania and the other Baltic states in 1990-92 alerted every separatist from Kazakhstan to Quebec to the advantages of a state of one’s own. Opportunistic politicians, usually looking for economic gain, have been willing to stir up old ethnic rivalries–as in Croatia’s separation from poorer states in Yugoslavia–with frequently bloody results.
- Civil wars in which more than 1,000 were killed in 1976: 16
- Civil wars in which more than 1,000 were killed in 1994: 34
- Increase in United Nations’ operating expenditures for peacekeeping since 1976: 2,379 percent
Shortly after midnight, I was released. The commandant offered a toast to Magic Johnson who had just led the U.S. basketball team to victory over the Croats in the Barcelona Olympics.
The tribal map is being reasserted and the tribal soldiers are wearing Levi’s. They are moving away from the nation-state–backward toward the tribal dawn and forward toward the 21st century all at once. “The first thing we will do when our country is recognized,” the Serbian commandant had told me, “will be to apply for membership in the European Community.”
I asked him why. “So we can then do the second thing–arrange the banking connections that will allow us to have satellite television,” he answered. His dream, the commandant said, was to watch the NBA playoffs in a country of his own.
Six: Mother Earth developed a weight problem
Explosive population growth in the nations of the South accelerated ecological degradation and massive rural migrations to cities, from Mexico City to Lagos. Population and environmental pressures also increased in the North, where consumer lifstyles–beamed out through the world’s televisions–disproportionately strain the earth’s resources.
- Chances that a human was a refugee in 1976: 1 in 1,485
- Chances in 1994: 1 in 245
- Increase in world population since 1976: 36 percent
- Number of immigrants to U.S. in 1976: 398,613
- Number of immigrants in 1993: 904,292
In an essay published by Mother Jones (Sept./Oct. 1995), population experts Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and Gretchen Daily argue that improving women’s lives could significantly aid population control.
In nearly all developing regions, there is a strong connection between education of women and lower fertility. Even with a few years of schooling, a woman may apply her education to better manage her family’s well-being. she learns to obtain pur water, use sanitary practices, and choose more nutritious foods; as more children survive, she becomes more receptive to birth control….Societies in shich women have substantial rights also have relatively low fertility rates. In particular, women who work outside the home and earn some income of their own consistently tend to have fewer children.
Donella Meadows, co-author of the 1972 bestseller Limits to Growth and its 1992 sequel Beyond the Limits, is concerned that we have not yet fully comprehended the finitude of the planet.
Twenty years is roughly the doubling time of the world economy. That means twice the number of cars and twice the tons of coal burned. World population is doubling slower than every 20 years, but other things are doubling faster. If we don’t do anything, 20 years from now there will be twice as much pollution and drawdown of resources. I am very disheartened to hear the political debate just talk about growth, growth, growth. We’ve had 250 years of industrial growth. Poverty is still with us. How much will it take?
Seven: The ’50s ended
Ever since America’s astounding postwar productivity slowed in the ’70s, the rich have gotten much richer, the poor poorer, and most everyone in the middle squeezed.
- Top-Rated TV show in 1976: “Happy Days”
- Top-Rated TV show in 1995: “ER”
- Number of hours average U.S. worker works per year: 2,000
- Number of additional hours since 1976 that average U.S. worker must work to purchase a home in 1994: 10,000
- Odds that a U.S. worker was in a union in 1976: 1 in 3
- Odds in 1994: 1 in 6
Stanford University economist Paul Krugman is the author of Peddling Prosperity.
By the early 1970s, throughout Western Europe and to a large extent in the United States, we had managed to produce societies with relatively equal income, relatively little poverty, and all sorts of opportunities for upward financial mobility. While we were a long way from Utopia, you could look around the Western world and say, “These are the most decent societies the world has ever seen.” There are no longer any societies that fit that description.
The current best story for this decline is that technological progress threw us a curve ball. Technology continues to make us richer, but very much devalues the work of people who are not exceptionally talented, and greatly increases the income of a very few. The United States is responding with a flat hostility to the welfare state.
At some point, people will realize just how well-off the well-off actually are, and I don’t think they can continue to blame our decline on government programs. I’m not saying we should instead blame the rich; I’m just saying we should soak them.
Edward Wolff, a professor of economics at New York University who has drawn fire from conservative economists for his extensive studies of wealth inequality, says government intervention will be needed to reverse the trend.
In the past 20 years, we’ve seen a growing inequality of wealth, by which I mean savings, assets, home values, etc. Only the top 20 percent of American families are enjoying any real increase in income. This has put lots of pressure on middle-income families, and has shown up in declining savings rates. Financial assets–the kinds of things people call on in an emergency–have dwindled for middle-income families.
The safety net has been tearing, and people are misconstruing their financial troubles as the government’s fault. In fact, I think the government can do quite a bit to fix things: index the minimum wage to inflation, get welfare benefits up to where they used to be, get unemployment coverage up to 60 or 70 percent, and have a tax on wealth, as most Western European countries do.
American labor unions have undergone a precipitous decline–from 28 percent of the workforceto only 16 percent–in the past 20 years. The AFL-CIO’s new president, John Sweeney, was elected on a platform of aggressive grassroots organizing and increased confrontation with management. Richard Trumka of the United Mine Workers is Sweeney’s secretary-treasurer.
American workers have seen their hours increase while their wages decrease. We’ve seen that translate to a lower standard of living, and that’s tragic.
The good news is that we are about to see a rejuvenated AFL-CIO. We want to organize the mid-level managers who take it on the chin every time during these “mergers.” You’ll see us becoming more geared toward the rank and file, toward grassroots activism and less toward Washington, D.C., and the state capitals. We have to help workers help themselves.
Eight: Reagan got his revenge
When Ronald Reagan came to office, he liked to illustrate the trillion-dollar national debt as a stack of $1,000 bills reaching 67 miles high; his legacy was a stack reaching 313 miles high. The debt’s increase, brought about by tax cuts, increased military spending, and growth in entitlement programs, choked government’s ability to fund programs. Many argue it was done intentionally. Yet even as programs targeted to middle- and lower-class families lost funding, money was found to bail out S&L gamblers.
- Change since 1976 in value of minimum wage, measured in current dollars: -$1.70
- Number of times federal debt has doubled since 1976: 2
Laura D’Andrea Tyson is chairperson of the National Economic Council.
The simplest way to characterize the most significant event of the last 20 years is to say “Reaganomics.” By that I mean a series of decisions were made to reduce revenue flows and increase spending in a way that was not sustainable over time and could only increase the debt of the nation. We borrowed a lot from the rest of the world and now we’re paying interest and dividends out of the country on a net basis.
All some people seem to care about is that we get rid of the deficit, not how we get rid of it. The danger of going too fast is primarily the pain that you have to inflict to programs that are important to the economy. In the long run, it doesn’t matter if you take a couple of more years to bring the budget into balance. But draconian cuts in spending in order to balance the budget too quickly will matter a lot. We have to regain fiscal responsibility. It’s a matter of how we do it.
Nine: The Great Society slumped
Federal programs failed to heal our racial wounds, guarantee a good education for our kids, or protect us from factory closures. Watergate-style disclosures and lobbyist corruption have combined with Great Society failure to cause much of the public to lose faith in the government’s competence–and its ability to act on behalf of ordinary Americans. The Republican Party capitalized on this anti-government sentiment and routed the party of Roosevelt.
- Number of political action committees in U.S. in 1974: 608
- Number in 1995: 3,954
- Amount spent by Jimmy Carter in his successful 1976 presidential campaign: $11.3 million
- Estimated amount to be spent by the successful 1996 presidential candidate: $44.7 million
- Percentage of Americans in 1976 who said they had “a great deal” of confidence in the president: 13
- Percentage in 1995: 9
Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s Magazine, believes Americans need a new public narrative.
The big shift in the last 20 years has been from the public to the private sector. The word “public” has become a synonym for corruption and futility. All things bright and beautiful flow forth from the clear stream of the private sector.
Politics was a public thing; the state was something we held in common. Now it’s everyone’s favorite enemy–including those in Washington. The public sector is not a living presence protecting, animating, and inspiring, but has become a dead carcass, a beached whale we Eskimos are going to strip of all its blubber.
It’s a shocking change. Common thought and ideas have declined. I think democracy is over as it was conceived in Philadelphia. We don’t know what the narrative is. That’s why we hate the public. Whose public? Who is the “we”? The times demand a writer or writers who can write the new American narrative.
Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard and author of Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, suggests what a new American story might be.
From the 1940s to the 1970s, there was a bipartisan consensus that government had a legitimate role in most spheres of life. In the past 20 years, that consensus has eroded. There are three possible outcomes of this trend. One is that the current shift in the political spectrum will self-destruct because the Gingrichites are moving faster than the public wants them to. The second is that this is a sea change as great as the New Deal, and that means that the sea won’t change back in my lifetime.
The third is that there will be a new story created. Leaders change people’s minds by telling a story and embodying that story in their own lives, so that you look at this person and say, “It makes sense for that person, and it makes sense for me.” There has not yet been a counterstory to the pro-market story of Newt Gingrich.
I don’t think people want extreme answers. Somebody like Colin Powell might have been able to come out with an appealing new story. He’s seen as pro-business and pro-entrepreneur, but he also has a history in government and supports it. He’s family-oriented and appreciates the values of the past, but he is also very comfortable with the technologies of the future.
Ten: Big media got bigger
By 1993, 50 percent of the nation’s newspapers, magazines, and television stations were owned by only 20 corporations. Today, these companies, like the newly merged Capital Cities/Disney group, are vertically integrated to control both the “hardware” (TV stations, publishing houses) and “software” (copyrights to movies, books, etc.). While media conglomerates have responded to the public’s desire to know more about the powerful–a growing trend since Watergate–they have generally delivered exposés heavier on prurience than probity.
- Percent of americans who had a “great deal” of confidence in the media in 1976: 18
- Percent of Americans in 1995: 6
- Number of evening newspapers in 1975: 1,436
- Number of evening newspapers in 1994: 947
Bob Woodward first gained fame as part of the Washington Post team that broke Watergate.
The legacy of Vietnam and Watergate still lives. People say to the politicians and the media: “Don’t let that happen again.” So this is the age of full disclosure. That is, by and large, very good. But it creates a feeding-frenzy, gotcha environment. Look at the inconsistency, the inadequacy, the corruption. In the age of disclosure, political life becomes harder. It’s not even a searchlight. It’s a proctoscopic exam.
Bottom line: It’s real, inevitable, and generally leads in the right direction, but people will live in continuing discomfort because of it. While there’s not a direct line between personal character and the public role, there is a line people understand. But there’s not going to be a limit, because you don’t know when connections will bring about knowledge. My headline: The Age of Disclosure Is Here to Stay. Ouch!