HITTING (BELL) BOTTOM

Playing That '70s Funk Again, but Not in a Good Way

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By Joel Kotkin
Sunday, December 30, 2007

The country is in a funk. Oil prices are at record highs, and the dollar is plummeting. Foreigners are buying out leading U.S. business assets. Environmentalists say the world is headed toward an ecological crackup of biblical proportions.

Today's headlines? Well, yes. But for those of us old enough to remember, they could just as easily be bulletins from one of the grimmest decades in recent U.S. history: the '70s.

That decade, when all the promise of the 1960s fizzled into disappointment, holds up a mirror to our contemporary pessimism. Then as now, Americans felt uncertain about the present and insecure about the future. But we found a way out of the gloom -- and if that decade is our guide, we're likely to do it again.

By the 1970s, the great egalitarian economic boom that had continued, with some interruptions, since World War II was losing steam. Americans were seeing a headlong decline in living standards, the beginnings of a pervasive shift of ever more wealth rushing to the wealthy, and an ebbing of the middle class. By 1980, fewer than one in five Americans expressed a great deal of confidence in Congress, business, unions or the media. When University of Michigan pollsters asked, "Is the government run by a few big interests looking out for themselves?" 26 percent replied "yes" in 1964; by 1972, 53 percent agreed. Consumer confidence in the economy, generally high during the 1950s and '60s, dropped sharply. Sound familiar?

Gloomy views of the American future were widespread. In his 1970 book, "The End of the American Era," Cornell University political scientist Andrew Hacker saw the beginning of the end of U.S. dominance in the Vietnam imbroglio. The United States, he wrote, had arrived at "a plateau in our history" and would inevitably decline. He suggested that our best course was to find contentment along the lines of "a Denmark or a Sweden."

And that was just in the mainstream. At the extremes, dystopian notions ran rampant. On the right, evangelical Christians, borrowing from biblical notions of Armageddon, trumpeted the long-held belief that the nation was doomed to pay for its multiple sins. The popular 1970 field guide to annihilation, "The Late Great Planet Earth," by evangelists Hal Lindsey and C.C. Carlson, foresaw much of humanity facing starvation, disease and ecological ruin, not to mention a highly unpleasant confrontation with the Antichrist. Today a majority of Americans, according to one poll, still believes in some version of this apocalyptic scenario.

The secular foresaw their own version of hellfire, sparked by environmental deterioration, the depletion of natural resources and a nuclear winter. Predictions of a looming environmental crisis -- precursors of today's threats about global warming -- became widely popular during the energy crisis of the 1970s. "The Population Bomb," published in 1968, and the 1972 Club of Rome report "The Limits to Growth" became prophetic gospel to many in the academy, the media and the policy world. Forecasts of mass starvation, and of the imminent depletion of the world's gold, mercury, tin, zinc, petroleum and gas, went largely unchallenged.

Of course, there are many differences between today's funk and that of the 1970s. The Soviet Union, a centerpiece of '70s concerns, no longer exists, although Vladimir Putin's Russia may not be much less threatening. And certainly life on the mean streets of at least some U.S. cities is simply not as bad as it was then.

But as in the '70s, many Americans today are feeling negative about almost everything: the state of the environment, our political leaders, foreign competition (Japan then, India and China now) and our children's future. Almost twice as many Americans today -- 65 percent -- feel that the country is headed in the wrong direction as did before George W. Bush took office.

And as in the '70s, this negativism extends to the highest levels of the business world. Microsoft founder Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffett suggest that the United States is in decline as they justify shifting their assets to China, India and other rising countries. Gates has expressed his enthusiasm about China's state-directed, market-oriented authoritarianism by describing it as a "brand new form of capitalism."

These assessments are widely shared throughout the intelligentsia and academia. Universities have become ground zero for leftists who detest U.S. policies and culture and lead the cheer for its decline. It's hard to imagine that just prior to the '70s, leftists were inspired by idealists such as socialist author Michael Harrington and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Right-wingers are overwhelmed by pessimism, too. The perceived ineptitude of the Bush administration has made declinism popular among conservatives such as Kevin Phillips and Samuel P. Huntington; the right-wing pundit Pat Buchanan sees us "committing suicide" so that "Asian, African and Latin American children come to inherit the estate." The more extreme religious prophets of doom are also doing well in our retro times. The apocalyptic "Left Behind" novels may be the best-selling fiction series in U.S. history.

And there has probably never been a better time for the environmental left. Like fundamentalists forced to keep pushing back the date of the Rapture, environmental activists remain convinced of the current crisis; they're just not sure which will get us first, "peak oil" or global warming. Former oil analyst turned environmental zealot Jan Lundberg predicts the coming of a "final energy crisis" that rivals the most chilling denouements since the Book of Revelations. Once the price of oil reaches astronomic levels, he predicts, we'll see "End time for USA" and "the swiftest empire collapse in history."

Is there anything good to be drawn from this analogy? Sure. After all, the '70s didn't last forever. In the two decades that followed, minus a brief break in the early 1990s, the United States experienced pretty consistent economic growth. The scariest bogeymen of the 1970s -- Japan, the European Union, the Soviet Union -- all fared much worse.

More important, the very factors that propelled America after the 1970s -- entrepreneurial capitalism, immigration and demographic dynamism, stable basic institutions -- have not disappeared.

As in the 1970s, the country's long-term prospects remain fundamentally excellent. By the '80s, the United States was back on top. Silicon Valley led the computer revolution, and then came the 1990s Internet boom. And while it once lagged behind its advanced competitors in productivity growth, the United States has generally outstripped its rivals since the mid-1990s.

In the next decades, breakthroughs in fields such as biology, energy, green technology and others will probably drive our resurgence. Entrepreneurialism and capital will continue to give us a critical edge in global competition.

Even more significant for the future is our striking societal comeback from the '70s. Back then, racial radicals on all sides maintained that U.S. society could never absorb African Americans or other nonwhites. Today we're headed toward a United States in which there will be no ethnic "majority," but rather an increasingly complex composite, including a large population of people of mixed racial heritage. Immigrants started 25 percent of all venture-backed public companies between 1990 and 2005.

Finally, the United States, alone among the major advanced industrial countries, continues to produce children: Our fertility rate is the highest in the advanced industrial world. By 2050, Russia, Japan, Europe, Korea and even China will be entering into the wheelchair phase of their history, with a third or more of the population over 65. Only one-fifth of Americans will be at that mark.

Our biggest challenge may be on the political front. We got out of the dismal 1970s with Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" rhetoric. However hokey and overblown, it seemed to lift the country's spirits. After the early 1990s recession, Bill Clinton epitomized, at least initially, a new idealism and dynamism that ushered in a sky's-the-limit decade.

Over time, we'll once again find a way to slough off our troubles. Any country that could survive the sour '70s is likely to make it through these supposedly dark times as well.

Joel Kotkin is a presidential fellow at Chapman University and the author of "The City: A Global History."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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