Feel free to talk about the glory days of Led Zeppelin all you want, but the point remains that growing up in the 1970s suuuucked. We had no idea at the time that the explosion in crime rates was a function of the high percentage of males in the 18-24 age bracket, we just thought social order was collapsing. Imagine me, at seven or eight years old, flipping through Time magazine and finding a picture of an American soldier carrying the severed head of a Viet Cong. You had to be there, at my age, to understand how unrelentingly bleak the news backdrop was but looking back at the Hollywood heroes of the era can give some indication. Charles Bronson was the Mr Average-turned vigilante who had had enough in Death Wish. Clint Eastwood hit his peak as Dirty Harry, “with his finger in the dike while the whole thing was caving in on him”.
Economically, the wage/price spiral that crippled the economy of the 1970s is now a matter of record. People like my parents, granted a 16% mortgage in the mid 1970s, didn’t start making a dent in the principal until a decade later. There was, over all, a desperate feeling of falling behind as prices skyrocketed that combined with the crime rate , geopolitics and poor general hygiene to make the 70s just miserable.
The UAW, Teamsters and organized labor in aggregate were front and center during this period of economic malaise. Their political power was more or less unassailable – they mobilized members and delivered the votes to the Democrats who dominated Congress. Strikes and job actions seemed a weekly occurrence in memory and their demands were always met. Again, you had to have been there to understand how Ronald Reagan’s first act as president, the threat to fire every air traffic controller, was such a giant relief. The sense was that a pall was being lifted and that some hope existed of the madness coming to an end.
So here we are now with two major market upheavals in recent memory and a political morass where the financial services industry has replaced organized labor as the seemingly unstoppable, Congress-owning corrupting force. A decent-sized segment of the population has taken to the streets, the modern anodyne to the NOW and anti-Vietnam marches, leveraging their influence with modern media.
The problem for me and for any my age is that we saw in the 70s what happens when the lunatics demand to run the asylum and we have no interest in repeating the experiment. We do not, for instance, want to see a new form of soldiers returning from duty covered in the human shit of student protestors. The current generation of protestors learned about activism in books, where the inconvenient details of the 70s can be glossed over or repressed – for them it’s a romantic pursuit akin to the Civil Rights efforts of the early 60s. They know nothing, in other words, about what it was like to live through the excesses of emotion that accompany periods of significant upheaval combined with economic stagnation.
If there is hope in this comparison of eras, it lies in the UAW/Banking lobby equivalence. The rise of the Republicans in the 1980s was in direct response to the excesses of organized labor in the previous decade, and the hegemony of Big Labor in Washington was steadily removed. At some point, which may or may not be now, the same process will occur for the bank lobby. Things change. The inevitable arrogance of having everything your way, and demanding more and more until forced to willfully ignore the dangers of killing the host implies that current trends are not unsustainable. Let’s just hope that the process is less depressing than the 1970s.