Opportunity and agency.

During the 1970’s novel opportunity was found in music, art, drugs, sex, civil rights, meditation, war, commerce, banking, recycling, energy, science, and conversations that confronted generational change, new workplace opportunities for women and minorities. It was everyone’s chance at reinvention. The idea was that each person could become an agent of their own personal transformation through an exploration of new experiences. Job interviews were more relaxed than now. They didn’t use an algorithm. Hiring was about trying to find someone who wanted to work and had basic qualifications. The 1970’s had stagflation and people were trying to use less and make a little money go farther. Do-it-yourself tables made out of wooden cable spools were popular. President Carter put solar panels on the roof of the White House.

Interest rates went higher under Paul Volker’s leadership in an effort to stem inflation, from 10.5% to 20% in 1980. By 1982 there was a recession. After the 1970’s people had a hangover and the consequences of all that ’70’s exploration were making people a little miserable. They were looking for prosperity and hoping to find some. President Reagan had his “Morning in America” ads about people finding work and making money. Reagon got rid of Carter’s solar panels. Reagan wanted America to know that we weren’t really running out of energy while he paid a lot of attention to the Middle East and its oil resources. Reagan deceived everyone in his national speeches about American involvement in the politics of South America. The idea of outsourcing to get cheaper labor was transforming the world of entrepreneurs. 1986 was the year of Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of the London Stock exchange in the Big Bang. The Savings and Loan crash happened in 1987.

By the 1990’s times were changing because of the personal computer and the cell phone. Both were starting to transform people’s lives in a small way. London’s Big Bang was affecting global trading as hot money travelled the world bringing newly arrived capital to some nations and then destroying capital and leaving huge piles of debt behind as large capital holders gobbled up assets all around the world. The Gulf War erupted in 1990 and started a spate of wars in the Middle East that would divert capital for decades into its hungry maw. It was still possible to get a college degree and have a long term career. But scientists who worked for corporations or government lost the right to own royalties from their inventions when most of the places where scientists worked put that into their contracts. After that, the money for science inventions went to employers instead of inventors.

The World Trade Center was destroyed in 2001. A recession followed. In the twenty first century, there seemed to be less going on in terms of new kinds of opportunities. Banking was growing. The real estate market was booming. But the world of invention was slowing down. In 2007 and 2008, the sub-prime mortgage crisis led to bank closures and foreclosed properties. President Obama was elected as a president promising hope and change. Homelessness and hunger grew across America. Real estate lost 30% of its value overnight. After a few years, investors started buying properties and flipping them for a profit to drive up the price of housing. Wages continued in a long-term slump and job security evaporated during a frenzy of mergers and acquisitions. Real estate seemed to be worth more but only because houses had become a traded asset by asset investors not by home owners. Many couldn’t find a good enough job to pay for an expensive mortgage and health insurance cost as much as mortgages had cost in the 1990’s. Debt soared. School tuition costs doubled and tripled. Lots of people with college degrees couldn’t get a good job. Several government programs rescued bank investments. There were cross border capital flows at low interest rates. We saw TARP and ZIRP and QE. Banks were too big to fail according to the Federal Reserve.

The Obama Administration brought Obamacare which failed to improve healthcare but cost a lot in terms of healthcare inflation. The Obama era created a lot of minimum wage jobs. Eric Holder failed to prosecute for torture in the Middle East. The economy dragged along.

Now it’s 2020. Where is opportunity in America today? Our quiet resolve to endure economic upheaval has left us with bigger regrets than we had after the 1970’s. And when will these large upheavals end? Only a few years ago the disruptors were bragging about their transformation of our economy but they’ve grown quieter about upheavals lately. What can Americans hope for and what can we actually achieve in this neoliberal reality where government and industry have partnered up and split the economy between them? What can any of us achieve to change the world into one that comforts people with economic security? What is the reward for hard work when disruption undermines every person’s efforts? That is the question that everyone faces today.

If you would like to learn about economic and political change over the span of American history, buy a copy of Political Catsup with Economy Fries at Amazon.com.

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