Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Thomas Borstelmann, The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality (Princeton, 2011)

The years between 1973 and 1979 took me from high school through college, a time during which I worked in my first job, cast my first vote in a presidential election, and generally prepared for life as an adult. Historians have labeled the era “a kidney stone of a decade,” but, from the perspective of teenage me, they were pretty great times. Between the end of the Vietnam War (I fortunately fell into the age group that avoided having to register for the draft) and the onset of the Reagan years (during which I engaged with life as a yuppie), life felt carefree, as I imagine it did for many a young person raised in suburban middle-class comfort during those years.

Lately, as I’ve mused over the way we were (to borrow the title of a 1973 Oscar-winning film), I’ve started to recall some not-so-great things that were only at the very edge of my consciousness at the time: an oil embargo, stagflation, unrest in the Middle East, and post-Watergate distrust of and weariness with politicians. No doubt, in retrospect, these were weird times, characterized by, as historian David Kennedy once observed, “the odd blend of political disillusionment and pop-culture daffiness that gave the 1970s their distinctive flavor.”

It turns out the decade was also a pivotal time in our nation’s history, during which, as Thomas Borstelmann concludes in the The 1970s, the seeds of our current discontent were sown. Borstelmann explores two predominant trends during the era: (1) “a spirit of egalitarianism and inclusiveness,” which saw an explosion of identity politics and gradually increasing acceptance of diversity, and (2) “a decisive turn toward free-market economics,” which led to deregulation of the economy and lower taxes—and also to deepening economic inequality. “A society increasingly committed to treating everyone equally,” he writes, “was, in practice, increasingly unequal.”

Without a doubt, the economic changes that began in the 1970s boosted entrepreneurial activity. It’s interesting to note that the President who nudged us in this direction is widely regarded as not having been a very good executive, though an upstanding man. Jimmy Carter, Borstelmann writes, “brought to the White House a depth of entrepreneurial experience and knowledge not seen since Herbert Hoover fifty years earlier,” and was instrumental in moving the country “on to a path of pro-entrepreneurial deregulation.”

Sometimes things just didn’t happen the way you remember them.

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