I recently had a friend ask me why it is that America used to do such great things, but it no longer does. To understand the reason for that, we must understand the last century of United States History. My answer is below.
America Before 1932
In the late 1800s, we had small government and most people lived short lives without much convenience, travel, or certainty. While luxury increased in the 1890s, it only got worse for working class people who became slaves to company stores, died in coal mines, and got mistreated by corporations at every corner.
Then people like William Jennings Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eugene Debs came around and changed that. By 1902, the era of big government had begun. For the first time, the average American could receive basic consumer protections, work safety protections, and a living wage. Trusts were busted, farmers got a fair deal, and life became better for everyone. Then WWI happened.
After WWI, people lost their fight. They went through the most awful experience ever and developed a philosophy of just having fun and relaxing. In 1920, a new president was elected on a platform of “Return to normalcy”, which basicly meant a return to small government. We had small government until 1932.
Big Government, Prosperity, and the New Deal Era
By 1932, we were 3 years into a Great Depression that saw unemployment up to 25% on adults, and even higher on young people. Roosevelt ran for President in 1932 saying that government could solve our problems, and the people trusted him. When Roosevelt got into office, he solved the banking crisis, credit crisis, and so many other things within 100 days. Then he got people working. For those who still couldn’t get jobs, there were soup kitchens, social security, and a thousand other options. We built great memorials and monuments, roads, trails in national parks, explored new farming practices, and really let government turn that tragedy into triumph. Eventually, we went to war and defeated Hitler and the Japanese. After the war, the GI Bill created more prosperity than Americans had ever seen. They moved to the suburbs, went to college, and started businesses. A few years later, in response to Sputnik, we put more funding into education than ever before and created great schools. We did so many big things, but it had a price tag that required the richest Americans to pay 94% on their highest tax bracket. But, having lived through the Depression, that generation was not as greedy. They knew what it was like to hurt, and they knew that government could solve their problems, so even a tax rate of 94% was acceptable.
Social Problems, Corruption, Greed, and the End of the New Deal Era
Eventually, many factors changed those attitudes. To start, that generation had children after the war who had not lived through the Great Depression. Instead of living through depression, the next generation experienced great prosperity due to those new deal programs, high taxes, government programs, research, and development. More than any generation before, they were spoiled from a young age and never had to sacrifice to the same level previous generations had. This created a generation that would be more self centered and greedy than their parents’ generation.
Furthermore, even though this was a prosperous time for families all over America, government had some problems. We got involved in a war most people didn’t agree with, the Pentagon Papers exposed government lies, government coverups like My Lai were revealed, Nixon turned out to be a crook, government destroyed many idealistic social hopes and dreams of different groups in the late 1960s, and government protected abortions, to the dismay of social conservatives, in the 1970s. On top of all of that, government desegregated schools, enforced the Civil Rights Act, and George Wallace went around the country alerting white families that their tax dollars were going to fund the welfare of lazy black people. To add further insult to injury, we had a very well meaning, but, in some ways ineffective president in the 1970s who couldn’t solve problems with Iran, Israel, and gas prices in the way we would have liked.
These things all opened the door for Ronald Reagan to run for President in 1980 on one simple message: “Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.” When he said those words, a generation who had not lived through the Great Depression thought about Richard Nixon, Vietnam, race relations, the Pentagon Papers, My Lai, government opposition to the anti war movement, government support for abortion, government’s lack of ability to free prisoners from Iran, and government’s inability to control gas prices. This all being on their mind, Reagan’s message resonated then with that generation, and it still resonates today.
The Reagan Revolution, The Rise of the National Debt, and The End of American Greatness
When Reagan was elected, he oversaw the largest tax cut in US history, effectively ending the New Deal Era that Roosevelt began. Taxes went down, but immediately, debt like our nation has never seen before began spiraling out of control, and, with the exception of when Clinton raised taxes and made some tough cuts, it hasn’t stopped since. Big projects like we saw in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s came to an end, so much so that the country that could put a man on the moon in 1969 can not even get into space in 2014, so much so that the nation that created the interstate highway system in the 1950s is turning roads back into dirt roads and hardly even dreaming of the transportation programs of Europe and Asia in 2014. Our education systems have went down in the gutter and college tuition has increased steadily as governments have spent less and less to fund them.
And to be fair, this has been a bipartisan problem. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are fairly liberal on social issues, but they are just as conservative as the Republican candidates have been on economic issues. That Reagan message hit hard, and I think we are seeing the effects of it today in many ways.
What we need is to understand, once again, that there are some problems too big for an individual to fix in a dog eat dog world. There are some problems that we have to pool our money together and fix for the greater good of all of us. It worked in my Grandparents generation. It wasn’t perfect then and it wont be perfect now, but it worked. What we are doing now, and what we have done since 1980, doesn’t work.