Looking Backwards

A selective guide to the last 25 years




Dow Jones average = 861

GNP per capita = $4,419 ($17,816 in 1992 dollars)

Federal government spending per capita = $891 ($3,592)

State and local government spending per capita = $646 ($2,604)

Number of pages in Federal Register = 21,000

Number of lawyers in the United States = 260,000

Number of Fortune 500 employees = 13.1 million

Total U.S. employees = 82 million

Federal deficit = $25.8 billion ($104 billion)

Republicans howl about the $26-billion deficit (2.7 percent of GNP), but Wise Men of the Kennedy-Johnson clan explain that the deficit isn't a problem "because we owe the money to ourselves." And after all, deficits stimulate economic growth!


Richard Nixon, a lawyer, becomes president. He maintains professional loyalty by establishing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission during his first term.


Nixon buries free-market economics, saying, "We are all Keynesians" now. Keynes soon to be discredited.

Nixon institutes wage and price controls. Inflation is 5.8 percent. Nixon heralded as bold and decisive by The New York Times, but Milton Friedman predicts the controls will cause shortages.


Shortages occur. Gas lines start forming before the oil embargo.

Arab oil embargo. More price controls!

The Federal Energy Administration, a "temporary" agency, is created.


Alan Greenspan becomes chief economic adviser to new president, Gerald Ford, despite being questioned during confirmation hearings about his long association with Ayn Rand. Greenspan soon to mistake the Tidal Basin for Galt's Gulch.

Ford holds economic summit. Result: Whip Inflation Now campaign. Inflation skyrockets to 11 percent but WIN buttons are superb collector's item.


Galloping inflation, 9.4 percent, together with mass unemployment, 8.5 percent, not supposed to occur. "Stagflation" replaces Phillips curve in government policy manuals.


Jimmy Carter's $50 tax rebate becomes national joke. Keynes finally experiences the long run.

Carter urges "moral equivalent of war" to combat energy crisis. Americans experience financial equivalent of bankruptcy. Carter asks citizens to turn down thermostats during winter. Jimmy's pet conservation scheme: Instruct children to turn in parents who overheat their homes.


First wave of the tax revolt storms the coast. California's Proposition 13 slashes property taxes by an average of 57 percent.

Alfred Kahn deregulates airlines. Travelers will save more than $100 billion during the next decade.


Appointed chairman of the Fed, Paul Volcker quickly institutes tight-money policy and plunges country into inflation-led recession, just as Prof. Hayek warned. Last New Deal liberal retires to Florida.


Dow Jones average = 891

GNP per capita = $11,995 ($20,424 in 1992 dollars)

Federal government spending per capita = $2,706 ($4,607)

State and local government spending per capita = $1,621 ($2,760)

Number of pages in Federal Register = 87,000

Number of lawyers in the United States = 525,000

Number of Fortune 500 employees = 16.2 million

Number of U.S. employees = 106 million

Federal deficit = $73.8 billion ($125.7 billion)

Carter deregulates trains, trucking, and cable TV.

Candidate Ronald Reagan attacks fiscal mess created by Carter administration, promising balanced budget in four years.


Within days of taking office, Reagan lifts oil price controls. Centers of learned opinion uniformly predict massive price hikes; instead the real price of oil begins decade-long plunge.

Budget director David Stockman honestly tries to cut spending. Gets head handed to him by Republican interest groups. GOP learns to feed at federal trough. Democrats learn to bitch about the deficit.

Kemp-Roth cuts reduce income-tax rates by about 25 percentage points over three years.


Corporate-tax loopholes closed to gain revenue and cut the deficit. Congress promises three dollars of spending cuts for each dollar of taxes. Promises is the operative word. Deficit grows.


Alan Greenspan's Social Security commission commissions a huge tax increase on middle-class workers, precisely those who failed to report extra income after the 1981 tax cuts. Serves 'em right.


Deficit balloons to $185 billion. Turns out Reagan meant he would balance Nancy's budget.

AT&T, the world's largest corporation, divested in consent decree ending antitrust case. Policy makers admit failure of regulation; competition increasingly respectable.


Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction plan, featuring automatic spending cuts, enacted. Congress does want help: Stop me before I spend again!


Bob Packwood, Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, backs income-tax reform. Radical overhaul wipes out a host of distorting loopholes, cuts rates to 28 and 15 percent. Republicans should win Good Government Award. Instead, they lose Senate.


Stock market crashes. Every commentator predicts collapse of the U.S. economy.


Dow bounces back to record levels. Crystal balls go on sale at Pic 'n' Save.


The seventh year of economic expansion, a peacetime record. While the president slept, America prospered.


Expansion ends, deficit grows. Rather than allow "draconian" Gramm-Rudman-Hollings spending cuts, Bush agrees to tax hike in exchange for future spending cuts. Right, George. The only thing that gets cut is you.


Recession bottoms out in March. But shhh—don't tell anyone until the election's over.


Dow Jones average = 3,300

GNP per capita = $23,475

Federal government spending per capita = $5,781

State and local government spending per capita = $3,172

Number of pages in Federal Register = 69,000

Number of lawyers in the United States = 760,000

Number of Fortune 500 employees = 12.5 million

Total U.S. employees = 125 million

Federal deficit = $325 billion

Bill Clinton's election transforms the economy overnight. "Worst economy in 50 years" on November 2 becomes "robust recovery" on November 4.

Landmark McKinsey Global Institute study finds large U.S. lead in worker productivity—over 20 percent above Germany or Japan—is due primarily to deregulation of services such as transportation and telecommunications.


President Clinton wishes he could make the deficit disappear as quickly as his campaign promise to cut middle-class taxes. It's still the economy, stupid.



M. L. King and Bobby Kennedy assassinated. The Democratic convention bursts into violence, with face-off between Yippies and Mayor Daley's police.

White backlash/silent majority elects Richard Nixon, only second Republican president since 1928.

Warsaw Pact tanks sweep into Czechoslovakia, crushing the Prague Spring. Communism in action keeps setting back the cause of socialism in theory, while Alexander Dubcek gets a new job as a top-flight bus driver.

Spiro T. Agnew, a curious Maryland governor and progenitor of the "satellite cities" urban-renewal program, elected vice president. Principal effect is to soften public for Quayle candidacy 20 years hence.


Nixon White House features stellar advisers: Henry Kissinger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Arthur Burns. Proves talent ain't the problem.

Nixon declares war on drugs.

Red Lion case gives Federal Communications Commission right to impose "fairness" on radio and TV stations. A dark cloud over free speech in the electronic age.


Congress approves the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Aimed at gangsters, RICO will eventually ensnare local governments, booksellers, and junk-bond dealers. Meanwhile, the mobsters are crushed by ultracompetitive Colombians investing in long-term commercial infrastructure.


G. Harrold Carswell and Clement Haynsworth rejected for U.S. Supreme Court. Sen. Roman Hruska (R–Neb.) supports both, suggesting that "mediocre" Americans need representation just like everyone else. Soon the federal courts will incorporate this policy into national law.

Forced busing to desegregate America's public schools approved by the Supreme Court. Children will never again attend segregated, ill-equipped schools. Right?

Nixon announces he will go to China, ending 20 years of isolation and driving a wedge between the Sino and Soviet empires. You were as crooked as the little toe on my left foot, Tricky, but you were a crafty devil to the commies, too.

Eighteen-year-olds given the vote. Sound-bite journalism soon to explode.


George Wallace wins the Michigan primary, taking an astounding 51 percent against a crowded field. Democrats expel Mayor Richard Daley from the national convention and nominate George McGovern. Party coddles limousine liberals at the expense of old-time party stalwarts, white ethnics, and the working class. Republicans set up to win next four of five, even with such off-the-bench talent as Nixon, Reagan, and Bush.

The Munich Olympics erupt in violence as Arab terrorists murder Israeli athletes in cold blood. The age of terror politics has begun.


Roe v. Wade.

Politics becomes fun again. Agnew busted for taking $2,500 bribe, pleads nolo contendere, and resigns in disgrace. That's a little more like it, guys.

Watergate, a political junkie's dream. Too bad it came before C-Span! John Dean, John Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Nixon. G. Gordon Liddy! Favorite story: Nixon, drunk and depressed, makes Kissinger get down on all fours on the Oval Office carpet. Bleary-eyed and besotted, the jovial president looks at the secretary of state and jokes, "Let's nuke 'em, Henry!"


Nixon's own tape-recorded White House messages reveal he was in on Watergate cover-up. After House Judiciary Committee votes to impeach, Nixon quits. Gerald Ford, the V.P. whom Nixon appointed, becomes first president elected to neither position. Ford promptly pardons Nixon, disproving the thesis that politics is entirely devoid of honor.

Solzhenitsyn exiled from Soviet Union.


Vietnam falls; U.S. retainers beat a hasty retreat in choppers. Laos and Cambodia fall as well, and school will soon be in at the reeducation camps.


A man who smiles like Jimmy Carter gets elected president of the United States. Goofy guys are "in." Man-of-the-people routine inspires great popularity—for about a week. "Style over substance" memo leaks during the first days of the administration and, with his game plan exposed, it's all downhill from there.

Daring raid on Entebbe allows Israelis to steal back hostages from under terrorist-dictator Idi Amin's nose. World cheers as good guys finally win one.


Gang of Four out, Deng Xiaoping in.


Bakke case ends reverse discrimination. Sort of.

Billy Carter pees in public. President thought to be taking man-of-the-people routine a little far.

Rather than sign a meaningless confession, Anatoly Shcharansky accepts a sentence of 13 years for dissident activities in Soviet Union.

In Pacifica case, Supreme Court says First Amendment does not permit a radio station to air George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" routine. Civil libertarians select one or more of them to complain.


Carter delivers "malaise" speech.

Killing fields exposed in Cambodia.

Iran takes 52 Americans hostage—53, counting Carter. President pledges not to leave White House until our fellow citizens are returned home safely.

USSR invades Afghanistan; Carter claims he is "surprised" by the Soviets' warlike behavior.

Margaret Thatcher elected prime minister of United Kingdom. Sandinistas overthrow Somoza in Nicaragua.


Ted Kennedy runs against Carter in primaries. Carter squeaks by on dependable "I'm no murderer" campaign platform. In Madison Square Garden convention speech, accidentally refers to the late Sen. Humphrey as "Hubert Horatio Hornblower"—the name used backstage at the White House for the obnoxious Minnesota windbag.

The Abscam investigation, with FBI agents posing as rich Arab businessmen attempting to buy political favors, snares virtually every congressman it tempts before being called off in order to salvage some shred of legislative integrity in Washington.

Former Beatle John Lennon murdered by Mark David Chapman in front of his famous apartment building, the Dakota, in New York City.

Carter administration's attempted helicopter rescue of hostages in Iran ends in bloody disaster when airships collide in nighttime raid over desert. Ronald Reagan, an actor, elected president.


Hostages returned by Iranians on day of Reagan inaugural.

Reagan shot by John Hinckley, a deranged upper-income youth seeking Jody Foster's attention. As the president's life is in doubt and confusion reigns at the White House, Secretary of State Alexander Haig attempts to calm the situation by telling the press, "I'm in charge here." People truly begin to panic. Crisis ultimately inures to Reagan's benefit, as majority of Americans now happy the president recovers.

Air-traffic controllers go on strike. Reagan fires them. The strike was illegal, but you can't do that! Labor leaders everywhere fear he can do that—and did. Percentage of U.S. labor force that is unionized shrinks from 22 percent in 1980 to 16 percent in 1990.


Reagan declares war on drugs.

Brezhnev out, Andropov in.

The Equal Rights Amendment, the women's issue of the '70s, dies for lack of confirmation by the states.


Soviets shoot down Korean Air Lines flight 007, killing all 269 people aboard. A lone Arab terrorist driving an old pickup blasts through a "Do Not Enter" sign at the Beirut airport, where U.S. soldiers have been bunkered and denied live ammo, killing 237 Marines. In retaliation, Reagan invades Grenada.


San Francisco Democrats nominate Walter Mondale as their presidential standard-bearer. Gary Hart's pollster calls his party "brain dead." Mondale, however, manages to carry home state of Minnesota by a narrow margin in November. It's morning in America again, and boy, do the Demos have a nasty backache (from stooping over to pander to the party's special interests).

Andropov out, Chernenko in.


Philadelphia police firebomb radical MOVE headquarters, accidentally eliminating a major percentage of the city's tax base in the process. Eleven are dead, 200 homeless.

Chernenko out, Gorbachev in.


Simpson-Mazzoli Act bars hiring of illegal aliens, thereby sabotaging Bill Clinton's administration seven years later.

Let me get this straight. Ollie North did what???


Robert Bork, advocate of letting elected representatives rather than courts decide things, finds the Senate deciding not to let him be on the Supreme Court. Nice theory, Bob; too bad you had to test it. Bork becomes a verb; soon all kinds of Republican nominees are getting "borked" by the Democratic Senate.

The Supreme Court says government regulations can amount to a "taking" of land under the Fifth Amendment, requiring compensation of property owners.

The FCC abolishes the Fairness Doctrine, striking a blow for freedom of the electronic press.


Jesse Jackson draws second-most votes for the Democratic nomination and dominates Atlanta convention. Despite a 17-point lead over Republican stumblebums Bush and Quayle, Democrats still sick; ailment now referred to as Dukakisitis.


Bush declares war on drugs.

Jim Wright. Tony Coelho. Wow. That's leadership.

The S&L fiasco, a triumph for the Dukes of Moral Hazard.

The Berlin Wall crumbles, and the last Marxist true believers on earth hole up in a smoke-filled café in the Berkeley hills.

Keating Five scandal. Michael Milken indicted.

Congress says the First Amendment does not protect flag burning; the Supreme Court says it does. Burn, Old Glory, burn.

Bush invades Panama and nabs Noriega by playing loud, foul rock music outside the diplomatic safe house in which the dictator is ensconced.

Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.


Saddam takes Kuwait.


Saddam gives Kuwait back. Bush's favorable rating at 88 percent.

Sandinistas out, Violeta Chamorro in.

Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. Senators discuss pubic hair on national television.

Soviet Union collapses, as Boris Yeltsin informs Gorbachev that neither his services nor his whole stinking country are needed any longer. Cold War ends; we won, and we didn't even have to nuke anyone.

Supreme Court rules that nude dancing is not protected by the First Amendment. How about nude flag burning?


Bush travels to Japan to demonstrate that he is engaged on the economy and pukes all over the prime minister.

Bush, queasy for the rest of the year, never gets into "campaign mode." Keeps looking at his watch during final days.

Bill Clinton, running as a New Democrat, gets it. Bush, running with Pat Robertson's 700 Club out in front, loses it.


Clinton, selling his inaugural rights to HBO, produces a star-studded gala and parties 'til dawn with the Hollywood Rich and Famous, before becoming president so that he may attack those who prospered in the '80s. Like his cabinet. Hey, who better to know about vulgar acquisitiveness than he who has so recently grabbed?



Mean K-12 spending per pupil = $773 ($3,116 in 1992 dollars)

Mean K-12 student/teacher ratio = 26.8:1

Mean SAT verbal score = 466

Mean SAT math score = 492

Barbarella, best Jane Fonda film since Cat Ballou.



Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

There's a war in Asia. Quayle joins the Guard. Clinton goes to England. Mass demonstrations here at home.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour canceled by CBS after making fun of Sen. John Pastore (D–R.I.), a member of the Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC. CBS smart network.


Nixon invades Cambodia, prompting fury on the campuses. Kent State tragedy claims the lives of four protesters, as inexperienced National Guardsmen panic.

Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers captures the employment of liberal ideology for fun and profit.


Ken Kesey's book Sometimes A Great Notion becomes a movie. One of the few contributions from '60s culture to survive the evening it was created.


Ludwig von Mises dies in New York.

On advice of Milton Friedman et al., Richard Nixon ends the military draft, freeing college dropouts to start computer revolution.


Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia argues that consenting adults should have rights outside the bedroom as well. He's either a libertarian—or a libertine.

Henry Aaron breaks Babe Ruth's lifetime home-run record by slugging number 715 against the Dodgers' Al Downing. Most memorable part of the action is watching Dodger left fielder Bill Buckner scale the wall in a futile effort to retrieve the baseball. A collector offered $10,000 for the historic orb. Two decades later, it will be hard to imagine a Major Leaguer doing anything for $10,000.

F. A. Hayek wins the Nobel Prize in economics. I'll be damned.


NBC launches Saturday Night Live. At last, a legitimate reason for having no social life.


Tom Wolfe labels this the "Me Decade." Not to be confused with the '80s, which come later and are dubbed the "Greed Decade." (Different still from self-indulgent, irresponsible '60s, which were altogether distinct from the self-contented, bigoted, head-in-the-sand, Ozzie and Harriet '50s.)

Milton Friedman wins the Nobel Prize in economics.


Annie Hall released. Woody Allen establishes himself as the foremost satirist of contemporary liberal society.


Saturday Night Fever.

William Simon's A Time for Truth becomes runaway best seller.

The Rev. Jimmy Jones leads 911 little lambs to their eternity in Guyana, South America. Carter administration allies deeply sorrowful over the loss of so significant a voting bloc.


Herpes: a social disease that laughs at penicillin. Wholesale lifestyle changes in order. In the '60s, a happy young single person considering sex thought, "Why not?" By the late '70s, that same person, in the same situation, thought, "Why?"

Magic Johnson (Michigan State) and Larry Bird (Indiana State) play in the NCAA finals in the most watched college basketball game in history. After vitalizing the college sport, the two go on to revitalize the professional version.

Milton Friedman's Free to Choose PBS series turned into a book, which stays atop best-seller lists for more than a year. His better book, Capitalism and Freedom, was reviewed nowhere when released in 1962. Now he's a star.


AIDS begins its deadly course. The sexually promiscuous reminisce about herpes.

MTV launched.


George Stigler wins the Nobel Prize in economics.

Ayn Rand dies in New York.


Eric Hoffer dies in San Francisco.


Charles Murray's Losing Ground catches entire neoliberal crowd napping. They hail it at first, then attack it, finally embrace it. The New Republic is out of the closet—no old-time religion for liberalism anymore.


James Buchanan wins the Nobel Prize in economics.

Rupert Murdoch launches Fox, a fourth broadcast TV network.


Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities frames the firestorms to come.


Fox's The Simpsons and Married…With Children consistently place in the Nielsen top 20.


P.C.: It's not just a computer anymore.


Magic Johnson quits the Lakers after he reveals he is HIV-positive. He becomes the Great Hetero Hope of the AIDS movement.

Ronald Coase wins the Nobel Prize in economics.


Mean K-12 school spending per pupil = $5,238

Mean K-12 student/teacher ratio = 16.5:1

Mean SAT verbal score = 424

Mean SAT math score = 475 (and falling, reversing a decade-long trend)

Los Angeles becomes a literal bonfire after a Simi Valley jury acquits four LAPD officers of beating motorist Rodney King. Fifty-four people die in the second-deadliest riots in U.S. history.

Tennis star Arthur Ashe, a great gentleman of sport, is outed by USA Today as an AIDS victim. He is forced to live his final months as a cause célèbre before dying at age 49.

Gary Becker wins the Nobel Prize in economics.

F. A. Hayek dies in Freiburg.

Crossfire co-host Pat Buchanan announces he'll challenge President George Bush for the GOP nomination.

On CNN's Larry King Live, H. Ross Perot announces his interest in running for the White House.

Saxophonist Bill Clinton plays "Heartbreak Hotel" on The Arsenio Hall Show.

Johnny Carson retires.


Michael Jackson is turning white, as revealed to Oprah on ABC.



FCC allocates spectrum for cellular telephones, a technology made operational in 1947.


Federal government sues IBM for monopolizing computer market after its System 360 meets with overwhelming customer approval.


In a rare moment of fortitude, Congress votes down subsidies for Supersonic Transport plane (SST). Its European cousin, the Concorde, ends up a financial disaster a decade later. Who says turkeys can't fly?


Bill Gates graduates from high school.


HBO becomes first satellite TV network.


Lowell Ponte's book The Cooling warns we will soon freeze to death if trends continue.

First Apple computer.

Atlanta billboard entrepreneur and UHF TV-station owner Ted Turner starts beaming B-grade westerns, The Andy Griffith Show, hourly newsbriefs, and live broadcasts of his last-place Braves to cable systems nationwide. He calls WTBS a "superstation."


First VCRs go on sale in mass consumer markets.


Three Mile Island nuclear reactor springs a leak. Although no one is injured or killed, and prospects for long-term medical damage to human beings are unsubstantiated, political panic effectively brings nuclear plant construction to a halt. Fortuitously released Jane Fonda flick, The China Syndrome, happily cashes in at the box office. "Nuclear meltdown, it's heavy, man," becomes California cliché.

ESPN and C-Span launched.


FCC sets aside spectrum for Direct Broadcast Satellite service. We're still waiting.

CNN launched. All-day viewing shares for CBS, NBC, and ABC total 90 percent.


Government withdraws its monopolization case against IBM, saying it's "without merit." Trial took more than six years, produced more than 104,000 pages of testimony, and had thousands of studies and documents introduced into the record.

That same day, the government announces a settlement of its massive antitrust suit against AT&T. Effective January 1, 1984, company will split off mostly competitive long-distance service from mostly monopolistic local exchange services. Telephone manufacturing completely deregulated. Consumer advocates moan and groan, while telephone customers enjoy lower prices and better service.


After 15 years, the FCC begins awarding cellular telephone licenses.

Ithiel de Sola Pool's Technologies of Freedom argues for liberation of the new media, extending traditional First Amendment protection to the electronic press.


No Orwellian state!


Challenger explodes, prompting tasteless jokes and second thoughts about the space program. Chernobyl explodes, prompting tasteless jokes and second thoughts about the compatibility of central planning and environmental protection.

Digital compact disks go on sale. Don't you think it's about time to lose that eight-track tape deck?


Fax machines become cheap and popular.


George Holliday videotape of Rodney King beating shows that the average guy can use new technology to spy on governments, rather than vice versa.


Software company Microsoft, a little start-up venture by boy genius Bill Gates, surpasses IBM in market value.

Department of Justice considers suing Microsoft…for antitrust violations.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis. His "Selected Skirmishes" column will return next month.