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The Real '80s : If You Think It Was Just a Decade of Greed, You Missed the Revolution

November 13, 1994|Daniel Akst | Daniel Akst, a writer based in Los Angeles, chronicled the business of the '80s for the Wall Street Journal and The Times

One does not speak well of the 1980s in polite company. In right-thinking circles, the decade merits at best a grim shake of the head; we recall it without fondness as a period of orgiastic consumption presided over by a Claymation President bent on crushing the poor, engorging the rich and impoverishing future generations; a time of crooked financiers shuffling and reshuffling assets, of debt and deception and the selling of our birthright to the Japanese. Oddly, for all the sense of potlatch that goes with the era, we also think of the '80s as a deeply conservative time, a pathetic attempt to relive the '50s and return to an imaginary America that, despite the weight of our nostalgia for it, really never existed. Yet the strongest sense is one of sickening excess. The era's enduring images, for many of us, form a neat trinity: the windowless hulk of an empty factory, a shiny BMW driving past a bread line, and perhaps the funereal specter of financier Ivan Boesky--his black suit, gaunt face and elongated teeth giving him the cast of a carrion eater.

Fortunately, this is a cartoon.

Oh, there was greed, there was Ronald Reagan, there were crooked financiers in funny suits and bad toupees. But the truth is, they weren't as important as, say, the rise of the microchip or the increasing porousness of national borders. In fact, this image of the '80s as a kind of moral inferno is a dangerous one, and not just because it's distorted and false. It's dangerous because it could blind us to what is really important about the decade, which is that it was a time of enormous, even radical change.

What the changes had in common, mostly, was personal freedom, which increased in the '80s not just in this country but almost everywhere. Personal freedom in America had been expanding for years, but for most of the postwar era, freedom and equality had gone together. As opportunities opened up to more and more Americans, regardless of their religion or ethnicity or gender, the middle class grew, and the gap between rich and poor narrowed.

In the '80s, though, freedom and equality were in opposition, and equality was largely the loser. Having schooling or wit became vastly more lucrative than not having these things. Women who became lawyers married men who became physicians, while waitresses married deliverymen, further widening the gap between rich and poor. Those trends aren't likely to reverse themselves any time soon, and, as it turns out, the usual suspects deserve little of the blame.

What happened in the '80s has vast implications for our society. World markets are only likely to get freer. The rewards to intellectual capital are only likely to grow. In a global economy that pays for brains and enterprise, what can we do for those with only strong backs or steadiness to offer? What are the limits of personal freedom in a heterogeneous society? Can we survive the diminished sense of obligation that accompanies the unfettered movement of capital, people and goods?

The changes of the 1980s are still playing out. They are shaping the '90s and beyond in America, regardless of who is in the White House or what happens on Wall Street. Now that the period's most cartoonish excesses have been swept away, there is good reason to look back at the decade for a peek at where we're headed and how we ought to handle things once we get there.


Much of what happened during the 1980s seems obvious. We saw the savings and loan industry immolate itself, the peace dividend disappearing in the flames of a burlesque Sun Belt Gotterdammerung. A jail-bound monomaniac named Michael Milken reinvented junk bonds. There was the corporate raiding, the widening gap between rich and poor, the actor in the White House whose schedule was often based on astrology. Men really did slick back their hair and wear yellow ties. On the global scene, communism collapsed, the Iron Curtain fell and democracy spread, not just in Eastern Europe but in Latin America and elsewhere. Free markets and greed--the greedy are always with us--killed the big bad oil cartel.

But there were a lot of other changes that crept over us slowly, changes whose importance was easier to miss.

In the '80s in America, personal computers became ubiquitous, ushering in the greatest revolution in information management since papyrus. With the adoption of a clever new "packet-switching" data-communications standard, the Internet was born, establishing the paradigm for an information network of such power and scope that, eventually, it will change the world in ways we can barely foresee.

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