The 80s—Beginning of the Great Divide

Grounded by an Income Gap.  For 30 years the gap between the richest Americans and everyone else has been growing so much that the level of inequalities is higher than in any other industrialized nation;…

As we began collectively to improve our general health, along came the 80s, the beginning of the great divide, financial, ideological, regional, in style and in substance.

The ethos of the 80s came and went in two years in Oklahoma.  The great oil boom really began with the energy dislocations of the seventies.  By February of 1986, it had ended with the price of oil hitting bottom and in a terrible financial crisis from which the state has never recovered.

The concentration of that wealth-to-want period there is a microcosm of what the rest of the country went through, some in the 80s, most in the 90s until the turn of the century.  Still, there were certain dislocations in the country then, too.  The rich got richer and the poor sort of jogged in place.  The inequality in the distribution of wealth in America today is greater than it has ever been in my lifetime.  My children saw the effects of this.  The huge bulge of the baby boomers had sopped up most of the jobs by the time my kids left college.  They have done well, but I have observed the enormous amount of work they had to do to achieve even a modicum of success.  Since I never thought hard work hurt anyone, this is only an observation, not a complaint, but it is an example of the fracturing of America.

The divisions are in the statistics.  Uneven wealth distribution, the racial and ethnic tolerance found on both coasts as opposed to the rise of fundamentalism in the midlands and a hardening of voting patterns reflect the fact that culturally we could be characterized as three nations; East Coast and New South, Mid-America and the Southwest and West Coast.  We don’t think alike, we don’t believe in many of the same things and we fool ourselves that we do.

Even here there are significant changes.  I offer the opinion that at least in one respect, Bill Clinton and George Bush, the younger, are more alike than either resembles the elder President Bush, or any of his predecessors.

The differences in the two men are apparent.  Bush is decidedly center-right and more while Clinton was passionately center-left.  They are each an examples of the age-old debate in the United States over the role of government and what should be its limitations or duties.

The similarity in these two men is this: they are not the products of World War II, and they grew up with television.  As an example, both were old enough to appreciate what was going on in Selma, Alabama and Little Rock, Arkansas.  They saw the dogs, the fire hoses and the dead bodies.

They believe in the diversity of America in a way that their predecessors, with the singular exception of Lyndon Johnson, could not imagine even when they mouthed the words.  There is a reality in their belief that shows itself in the simple ways in which they treat others.

But this reality would come with Clinton’s election the 90s, the decade that would finally free us from the Second World War generation.  They were gallant in the 40s, responsible in the 50s, far-seeing in the 60s, sufficient in the 70s and old in the 80s.

The 80s were a time of fantasy.  There we were, basking in the new light of Roger Ailes’ perfect political ads—a beautiful morning in America—for thirty seconds.  I can close my eyes and still see the images as though they were true.  Reagan played at president; the country played at peace.  We pretended we were aloof from the rest of the world, viewing from our mountaintop the dissolution of Communism and the petty squabbles of the rest of the world.  War was packaged for television with minimal casualties.  We could not be bothered with anything as large as Iran-Contra or as seemingly insignificant as the failure of some bank called Penn Square which would echo loudly fifteen years later in the collapse of Enron.  Both of those financial debacles reflected a “the rules don’t apply to me” attitude which would grow in the 90s.

Once more, though, I am reminded of those cycles.  In the 80s the price of oil went from the high $30s to a low of $10.00 in a very short time, rendering many of the loans at Penn Square Bank non-performing.  Likewise, the price of natural gas went from $2.50 a mcf in 2000 to a high of close to $9.00 an mcf in the spring of 2001, only to plunge again to $2.50 at the end of that year.  it’s hard to operate under those circumstances.  This is only a reminder, not an excuse for blatantly poor corporate behavior.

If arrogance overcomes history, in the end, history trumps arrogance every time.

©2001, Janet Taliaferro