Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Disco Era (1974-81)

The Seventies in the United States began after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973. Notably, it was an anticlimactic end to a turbulent decade.

When U.S. prisoners were released and they asked about the war's outcome, they were given the Pentagon-approved statement "they did not win and we did not lose." Similarly, Nixon's resignation in August 1974 was only one sentence long. Thus ended the two remaining causes of 60's era unrest.

Anti-discrimination laws began to bring about a quiet and slow integration in both the worlds of work and higher education, insofar as color was concerned.

Women began to graduate from universities in numbers never seen before and by 1979 they would become a permanent functional part of the workforce. However, it was only briefly in the past decade, as a result of massive layoffs of men following the Great Recession, that women were for short periods a majority of the workforce, as they are of the overall population.

Gays and lesbians came out of the closet and a popular band called The Village People provided the theme songs to the new egalitarian messages on sexual orientation.

In addition, Baby Boomers began adulthood, leaving adolescence and early youth behind to take on marriage, making money. Former hippies (or wannabes) changed into young urban professionals, or yuppies, whose emblematic wine and condos replaced joints and communes. Thus began a frivolous time accompanied by a musical rhythm called Disco and the turn towards the widespread use of cocaine.

This drug, unlike the recreational hallucinogenic and largely distracting substances of the 60s, induces a a sense of extreme mental acuity leading to frantic mental activity. It was the drug that fit perfectly with the new materialistic zeal and adult indulgences of 70s Boomers.

The quintessential Seventies image is of yuppies sniffing cocaine powder from $100 bills used as funnels to their nostrils. At least, that would be the cinematic scene. I, personally, did not witness it, although I heard of people who engaged in this.

However, life is not Hollywood and many other Boomers, once married and with children, faced the problem of passing on their values, which meant a revival of traditional religion. This was also the spirit of the Jimmy Carter era.

The essential feature of this exceptionally honest politician who came to the White House in 1977 was his authentic religious faith. Carter was a "born again" Protestant, a Baptist who took seriously the call in  John 3: 3, that unless one is born anew, one cannot see the kingdom of heaven.

At that time there were some 70 million Protestants affiliated to one church or another; 13 million were Baptist, making their denomination the second largest in the United States, after Catholics, who then totaled around 48 million people. After Richard (Tricky Dick) Nixon, Americans wanted a leader they could believe in and trust.

Another undercurrent that was invisible at the time (except during a brief oil shortage) was the decline of U.S. economic pre-eminence compared with Europe and Japan.

Today it is a commonplace among economists to note that improvement in the U.S. standard of living more or less halted in 1973, when the median household income stagnated, and later even declined, after having doubled in real terms from 1945 to 1965. Now the whole world parrots Thomas Piketty, who in my view largely parroted Emmanuel Saez, in his pronouncements on economic inequality; but this is now, not then. No one noticed much at the time.

The only evidence of a phenomenon pointing to change that was visible at the time to most Americans was the remarkable appearance of Japanese and European cars and a basket of imported goods never before available to the common consumer. Before the 1970s, everything had been "Made in U.S.A." Japanese goods, as famously noted in the 1985 film Back to the Future, were widely regarded as "crappy" imitations. The Japanese learned to imitate better very quickly.

Economist Robert Reich has offered perhaps the best, most ironic and, once I read it, obvious, explanation of the massive entry of Japanese cars into the American market. According to him, it was an unintended consequence of the foreign policy that produced the Vietnam War.

A side-effect of the conflict was introduction of trans-Pacific cargo shipping in volumes never seen before, a now well-understood staple of American military movements. For the Normandy invasion in World War II, for example, the U.S. military built floating piers to avoid the harrowing effort of having to capture Cherbourg. ("No port? We'll take one with us.")

Here's what happened with Vietnam. Cargo ships went from California to Southeast Asia bearing weaponry and supplies, soon enough shippers realized that they faced an enormous fuel expense of sending back empty cargo ships.  Shipping companies started looking for cargo in the Philippines and Japan to fill the ships and make money on the return trip.

That's when Japanese automakers took advantage of the offer and specifically built the smallest cars possible so they could ship and sell the largest number of units in the United States. Thus, the small foreign car market was born in the USA. Today, in Washington, I drive my Mercedes in a sea of ​​German and Japanese cars; hardly any cars are from Detroit.

Trade competition, which took place in a variety of other industries (textile production, hitherto highly unionized, was destroyed by cheaper Asian imports), also stimulated the export of U.S. jobs and factories abroad.

This had two kinds of huge consequences. At first, this enriched shareholders and executives thanks to savings in labor costs. In the long run, however, it led to the progressive destruction of a whole layer of the broad middle class: the industrial worker who by then could dream of sending children to college.

An important part of the American social fabric began to fray and few became aware of it until someone pointed it out, as we shall see.

* This is the fifth in a short series of posts that attempt to sketch contemporary U.S.cultural and social history, dwelling on how the time and place felt from a personal perspective, with the history whose first draft appeared in the newspapers in the background.

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