The Great Society Does Not Look So Great after All: "... the Good Old Days of [Our] Distant Youth Simply Have Vanished, Leaving Behind Very Few Traces of the Joyous Exuberance That [Once] Characterized [the Baby Boom] Generation."

By Thomson, James W. | USA TODAY, March 2013 | Go to article overview

The Great Society Does Not Look So Great after All: "... the Good Old Days of [Our] Distant Youth Simply Have Vanished, Leaving Behind Very Few Traces of the Joyous Exuberance That [Once] Characterized [the Baby Boom] Generation."


Thomson, James W., USA TODAY


FOR AMERICAN baby boomers, the good old days of their distant youth simply have vanished, leaving behind very few traces of the joyous exuberance that characterized that generation. The boomers had reached adulthood without suffering the anguish of the previous generation, who had endured the Great Depression and World War II.

Although the Cold War turned hot in Korea and then in South Vietnam, proportionately, few Americans ever paid the ultimate price for those unhappy Asian encounters. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the U.S. never would be the same. Our values had changed. Civil rights for African-Americans finally were assured. Feminist values had gained wide acceptance and reshaped the lives of women, while tens of millions of immigrants entered a predominantly white society that had witnessed few racial or ethnic changes since the surge of European immigration in the last decades preceding World War I. Something else that was important also took place after 1975, but its consequences were overlooked at first--the nation's rapid economic growth rate slowed and the extraordinary increase in American living standards ground to an unexpected halt following the oil crisis and the recession of 1973-74.

The economic basis for the U.S.'s optimism was the substantial growth in economic productivity that occurred from 1946-73. Living standards had doubled by 1973, thereby keeping pace with the doubling of productivity. From WWII's end until 1973, Americans prospered and many were rewarded with unaccustomed wealth after the nearly 20 years of sacrifice encompassing the Great Depression and war years. Optimism was at hand and so was gleeful pride in the U.S. as the wealthiest and most powerful country on the planet.

By the 1960s, our nation's political elite were convinced that this high level of economic growth could be sustained indefinitely. Emboldened by our past success, politicians committed the country to a series of bold undertakings that eventually would transform the nation, including Pres. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, path-breaking civil rights legislation, the Vietnam War, the space race with the Soviet Union, and accepting more than 40,000,000 immigrants from developing societies. Optimism and change became expressions of faith in American exceptionalism. However, all of these prospects were based on the underlying assumption that rapid economic growth would continue to support these ambitious projects. As it turned out, some worked out; most did not. Yet, there is little doubt that these ventures transformed the nation.

In the case of the Vietnam War, Americans soured on this agonizing conflict, as did the congressional Democrats, and with that, the war ended in shocking defeat for South Vietnam in April 1975. The space race sputtered after early Viumphs, especially the 1969 moon landing, but the public soon lost interest and funding became less robust. The Great Society initiatives enjoyed enthusiastic support at first and a number of those policies became the social welfare programs of the present day. However, as the spoil-sport economists pointed out, economic growth could continue only if productivity increased--where productivity is defined as the amount of goods or services that an average worker can produce in an hour---but achieving consistent productivity gains has not been easy. Post-1973, the productivity slowdown and the sluggish per capita income gains acted to limit the popular appeal of many of these policies that had originated after LBJ's 1964 landslide election.

Investigating the causes for the slowdown has engaged the efforts of a small army of economists. Some of them, such as the 2008 Nobel Prize-winner Paul Krugman, divided the causes into three principal groups: technological, social, and political.

Among the causal mix was the shock of steeply rising prices during the 1973 oil crisis--and thereafter--through 2012's sky-high $100 for a barrel of crude oil. …

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