Hits of the '80s

A second opinon about a much-maligned decade

When I asked a local Barnes & Noble bookstore if my new book, What Went Right in the 1980s, was available, he said, "Oh, you mean What Went Wrong in the 1980s, don't you?" After I corrected him, he found the right book on his computer, and I followed him as he searched several sections of the store in which the book might have been filed: current affairs, new releases, business, economics. No luck.

The manager then turned to me and asked quite seriously, "What Went Right in the 1980s--could that be a book of humor?" After I assured him that it wasn't, he queried again: "Fiction?"

No, the book is neither humor nor fiction. It is a serious attempt to dispel a host of myths about the 1980s that are so thoroughly ingrained in people that reactions to the book are perhaps more instructive than the text itself.

Probably the most widespread reaction, even from those who should know better, is that no one could possibly write a whole book on the things that went right during that dark decade--especially not one that extends to 400 pages. When a friend asked for the book at the counter of the local Brentano's, a customer standing behind her muttered, "Short book, no doubt."

A telephone interview I had with a reporter from a major metropolitan newspaper is typical of media calls. He started his interview, as others have, with the question, "What did go right in the 1980s?" I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was prepared only for a short and inconsequential listing. I told him that, for starters, gross domestic product had risen. He was amazed that production had not fallen.

Yes, during the '80s, national production of goods and services actually rose in constant-dollar terms by close to a third, which is the equivalent of annexing the entire German economy (East and West) or adding once again the production of Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont. And the economy would probably have expanded by hundreds of billions of dollars more if the Federal Reserve had not been forced to throttle the growth in the money stock in order to reverse the inflationary spiral of the 1960s and '70s.

The reporter was obviously taken aback, but he was also confident that all of the increase was in services (with hamburger flipping being the dominant new job) and that the country had definitely "deindustrialized." Not so. I assured him that the industrial production index had risen during the '80s in line with the overall economy and stood at an all-time high in 1990. The country's manufacturing output in real-dollar terms rose faster than overall economic activity during the decade and in 1989 represented a slightly higher percentage of national production than in 1980 or, for that matter, any year since the late '40s.

"Well, we may have grown absolutely, but didn't the country's production decline relative to the rest of the world?" the reporter asked hopefully. Nope, not in the '80s. U.S. output as a percentage of world output did decline in the '60s and the first half of the '70s. But after the mid-'70s, the United States held its own vis-à-vis the total production of all other major industrial countries combined (with Japan being a notable exception). U.S. output as a percentage of the rest of the world's output, including Japan's, was the same in 1989 as it was in 1975.

With obvious astonishment, the reporter asked a concluding question: "Why then are so many people across the country convinced that the 1980s were a dreadful decade?" A tough question, no doubt, with no obvious single answer.

Clearly, a part of the answer is that hardship sells a lot of newspapers and magazines. So the media perhaps have an economic incentive to play up the failures and losses of the decade and to ignore the successes. That makes for a distorted picture of overall economic life. Another part of the answer may be that the country did lose more than a million manufacturing jobs during the '80s. But the country probably would not have been a world-class industrial power at the end of the decade had those jobs not been destroyed, largely through productivity increases.

The loss of manufacturing jobs was a worldwide phenomenon. Still, competition got tougher for many Americans, and the overwhelming majority of Americans responded by getting tougher themselves. Ford would not have the best-selling automobile in the country today, with quality to match, had it not faced the challenges it did in the early and mid-'80s. The '80s were a period of what the late great economist Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction." And although the '80s had some of both, there was much more creativity than destruction.

I'm now convinced, however, that many people just don't want to know the good news about the decade, a point that has been driven home by encounters with university colleagues. What continues to be remarkable about the reaction to What Went Right in the 1980s is people's inclination to find pat phrases to dismiss everything in it. Scientific fiction is one such term, used by someone who obviously wished that even the data on national production were not believable.

At a recent happy hour attended by university staff and faculty, for instance, an administrator came in waving a local newspaper that featured a column of mine summarizing the themes of my book. "I'm not believing a word in this," she proclaimed.

"Sounds like Stalinism to me," snapped another administrator, without even reading the column. I asked politely how he could equate a recitation of many readily available facts with the work of one of the most ruthless men in history. "Well, it's this revisionist history thing," he explained, as if anyone who dares to correct a mistaken view is necessarily seeking to distort reality. I suggested that he read the book, knowing full well that he would remain content in his knee-jerk, uninformed assessment.

In a more private conversation at the end of the happy-hour table, a medical professor challenged me politely but confidently on several fronts. "Surely the 1980s were a decade of greed," said the doctor.

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