The Economy And Politics Of 1968: Now Playing In Reruns
In so many ways, 1968 was a great year for middle-class Americans' wallets — and terrible for politics.
On the one hand, gasoline was cheap and unemployment was low. Real estate values were rising, helping average homeowners build wealth. Good times!
Still, many people were not feeling good — at all. In 1968, the tumultuous presidential-election year brought strident clashes at political events, third-party disruptions, calls for "law and order," racial discord and worries about foreign enemies.
In terms of both the economy and politics, we seem to have a summer rerun playing out. Here are some of the parallels on the economic front:
Of course, not everything is the same. These are two big differences:
There's another difference: On Friday, the Commerce Department said gross domestic product, the broadest measure of goods and services produced in this country. rose at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.2 percent in the second quarter. In 1968, GDP growth was running at 4.9 percent.
So on the surface, growth appears far less robust than in the late 1960s. But the current sluggishness is related to weak business investment. On the consumer side, personal consumption expanded at a 4.2 percent rate, much more in line with 1968.
And there's plenty of evidence of that at retail outlets. The National Retail Federation predicts back-to-school spending will hit $75.8 billion — up more than 11 percent from last year's $68 billion. "We are optimistic that overall economic growth and consumer spending will continue to improve," NRF President Matthew Shay said in a statement.
So when you examine data over many decades, both 1968 and 2016 look like good years for average Americans. They sure beat the Depression of the 1930s, or the inflation nightmare of the 1970s or the frightful foreclosure years of the Great Recession. No year is perfect, but there's no doubt you'd be happier working in the summer of 1968 or 2016, compared with 1974 or 2009.
So why such intense political discord, both then and now? These parallels may offer clues:
Maybe this year's political discontent can best be explained by a theory known as the "revolution of rising expectations." The phrase was popularized in the 1950s to describe global upheavals in the wake of postwar decolonization. The idea was that rising economic expectations can made people restless and more open to insurgencies and revolution than during tough times when people are just trying to survive.
In other words, just as the summer of 1968's political tumult came in the midst of good economic times, this year's intense political debates are playing out in an economic environment that's better for average families than at any time in many years.
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