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Relax Everyone! It’s Ok to Be Rich Now
Isn't about time we let the 1980s out of the doghouse?


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Jonah Goldberg

The Nasdaq almost doubled over the last year alone. In a few more months, President Clinton will have presided over what he calls the “longest peace-time expansion in American history” (he says this in public more often than he says “loosen up, baby” in private). Interest rates remain low, homebuilding and employment high. Christmas sales were boffo. Today’s market performance notwithstanding, and my own credit card debt to the contrary, this has been a spectacular economy. According to Larry Kudlow (whose almost daily NR Online exclusive column you should read) the economy has been growing at annual rate of 3.5% for seventeen years. Truly, the Reagan boom continues.

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Some of you may not buy that. So you can give President Clinton as much or as little credit as you like for the economy’s success. Personally, I give him almost no credit for launching the boom, all he did was paddle his surfboard out to the coming wave of the business cycle. But one must grudgingly give him credit for riding the wave this long.

Nonetheless, now that the 1990s have ended with such smashing economic success, isn’t about time we let the 1980s out of the doghouse? Back then, the so-called “paper profits” of Wall Street were a sign of manipulation, fraudulent value, and venal greed. A decade later, Amazon.com — a company that has never made a profit in its history, and it is hard to imagine it ever will — has a greater valuation than the entire airline industry.

In the 1980s “junk-bond king” Michael Milken was the poster boy for avarice and the unchecked, dangerous free-market policies of the Reagan administration. James Stewart, author of Den of Thieves, called “junk” bonds “the greatest criminal conspiracy the financial world has ever known.”

Throughout the 1980s, nightly newscasts and morning newspapers stated matter-of-factly that junk bonds were a “Ponzi scheme” designed to make the rich richer, on the backs of the poor. Steven Reed, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, wrote in 1992, “Wall Street stock manipulator Michael Milken earned $550 million in 1987, and ghetto teens unable to find jobs joined gangs instead.”

Well, in 1993 alone — the first year of our pain-feeling president’s term — junk bonds raised more than $68 billion, which equals the total raised from 1982 to 1986 (the years of Milken’s junk-bond career).

But that’s OK, the junk-bond boom of the 1990s is a good thing. Just like it was in the 1980s. Michael Milken’s junk created MCI, TCI, McCaw Cellular, Viacom, Turner Broadcasting, Time Warner, etc. And if you think Milken making $550 million in a year is an outrage, you should be screaming “off with their heads!” considering how much money Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos make in a year.

What about all of that terrible inequality and homelessness in the 1980s? Well, economists SAY inequality during the Clinton years has been at least as “bad” as it was under Reagan.

The same bogus and flawed measurements left-wing advocates employed to denounce Reagan are equally damning today. Again, that is not an indictment of the 1990s economy, it is an indictment of the liars, frauds and fools who distorted the facts in the 1980s.

The ugly, public homelessness we all remember from the 1980s, according to liberal, conservative, and non-partisan researchers alike, was almost entirely due to the emptying of mental hospitals during the Carter administration. And, by the way, social welfare spending on low-income Americans went up under Ronald Reagan, not down.

But, say the ’80s-haters, the Reagan years were about more than mere financial data and inconvenient policy facts. They say those years were a cultural wasteland.

William Schneider, CNN’s dispassionate senior political analyst, wrote in 1984, “Reaganism is economic elitism. It is the view that hunger in America is merely anecdotal, that the homeless are homeless by choice, and that only the morally unworthy have been hurt by the administration’s policies.”

Now, first of all, I know Bill Schneider and I like him. But, hunger was anecdotal in the 1980s — as it is in the 1990s. The homeless are often homeless by choice because they are mentally ill and a bunch of ACLU yahoos in the 1970s decided that the mentally ill should be allowed to medicate themselves. Others are homeless by choice in the sense that they are unwilling or unable to work at the jobs they are qualified for. That was true in the 1980s and it is true today. As Myron Magnet has pointed out, there’s nothing like the irony of seeing someone panhandle for money outside a McDonald’s with a “Help Wanted” sign in the window. Of course, there are some hard-working, decent, drug-free homeless people. In a nation of 270,000,000, how could there not be? The question in the 1980s, the 1990s, and for candidate Hillary Clinton, is: What should a free society do about that?

In 1989 USA Today summed up the decade thus: “The ’80s were the years of excess. We swaggered through the portals and grabbed as much as we could. We were greedy and gluttonous. As long as we wore starched shirts, we could belch at the dinner table.”

We did? How is it that personal and corporate philanthropy went up in the 1980s? In this decade of the monstrous SUV and the $3 cup of coffee on every corner, does anyone think consumption and gluttony in the 1980s were really so much worse?

In fact, that’s the point. Prosperity has reached the media and the professional Left. Their salaries are going up, as are their stock options. Their retirement accounts are skyrocketing. This admixture of personal prosperity and political bias has transformed the 1990s into a Shangri-La. Perhaps the media is truly responsible for saving Bill Clinton’s job. If he had been covered the way Reagan was, perhaps the polls on his job performance would have plummeted. Of course, if Clinton were a Reagan he would A) never have done all of that and B) would have resigned if he had.

In the 1980s, Newsweek was unapologetic about dubbing it the “decade of greed.” In the 1990s, they recently wrote, “The rich, at long last, are very much like you or me: they’re an idealized version of ourselves.” How convenient.



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