Saturday, January 01, 2011

Looking Back At America - Part II

This is Part II in the Looking Back At America series, which presents the perspective of what today's America might look like to historians 100 years in the future. This series of articles is most easily understood by starting with the first installment.

In the early 1980’s, as the Greatest Generation reached retirement age and the Baby Boomers grew into their prime earning years, America and many of the world’s most advanced societies began an ascent that can only be described as fantastic.

Ronald Reagan was the President of the United States and the country was on a course of increasing prosperity. America had just weathered more than a decade of hard times, but patriotism was enjoying a revival. The sixties and seventies had been challenging times, economically and politically, but by the early eighties the country was on the mend and people were optimistic about the future. Ronald Reagan was a strong, charismatic leader, the economy was growing, and Americans were feeling good about America.

The U.S. economy was the engine that drove production and growth throughout much of the rest of the world. The economy was fueled by the American consumer and as the U.S. emerged from the doldrums of the seventies, Americans had more disposable income and were willing to spend it. Credit cards also were becoming a staple in the wallet of the consumer, and it was becoming easier to spend money one had not yet earned. But, the economy was surging and all prospects looked good, so there was little concern with debt.

The American middle-class was a powerful force and comprised about sixty percent of the U.S. population. Middle-class Americans generally lived in a house; had a color television set; a phone; a car, maybe two; a grill in the backyard and a basketball goal in the driveway. Middle-class Americans worked hard, but they also enjoyed their recreation. They played bridge, and bowled, and played golf, and the kids played baseball and football and cheered and danced and took piano lessons. They had block parties and cookouts, cut the grass, raked the leaves, and generally treated their neighbors with respect. People, for the most part, were happy and felt positive about their prospects. Life was good and getting better. The collective social mood was on the rise.

Americans were productive, hard-working people and enjoyed an increasingly comfortable quality of life. And they were proud of it. America was the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Many people in the world believed America was the Promised Land, and immigrated to America in search of the American Dream, or for the more practical reason, to escape oppression. Yet to others, America and Americans were to be despised; they were thought of as arrogant and crude, a society of belligerent bullies.

No matter how the rest of the world thought of America, if you were American, you were proud of it. From a global perspective, Americans were the kids at the cool table in the high school cafeteria.

American innovation was carving a path toward the information age, and the U.S. military was the mightiest, most technologically advanced fighting force in the world. America dominated the air and sea, yet frequently found itself in ground wars it could not win. America tried to force her will upon certain regions where it would be advantageous to have an ally in power, but found that she could not win the war short of a pyrrhic victory. In Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the U.S. fought to a draw in wars that drained its coffers and produced no strategic advantage.

The American economy and indeed the global economy were dependent on oil. The countries of the Middle East supplied most of the world’s oil, and this was a region consumed with religious and tribal conflicts; highly unstable and unpredictable. America was the world’s largest consumer of petroleum, and the lion’s share of America’s petroleum was imported from countries in the Middle East. For that reason, America tried to impose her will on this region, supporting certain nations, like Israel, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, while being at odds with others, such as Iran and Iraq. American leaders spoke of peace in the region but often supplied the instruments for war, if not the armies. America wanted peace, but she wanted it her way.

In the early nineties the personal computer and the cell phone exploded onto the scene. Advances in transistor technology and miniaturization allowed for the proliferation of the cell phone and laptop computers as they shrank in size and grew in power. It was during this decade that personal computers became ubiquitous in homes and offices, and virtually everyone had a cell phone.

The mid-nineties brought the proliferation of the internet and the World Wide Web, and spawned the Information Age, where with a few taps on the keyboard and clicks of a mouse, people could access just about any kind of information and it would be delivered right to their desktop. The birth of the World Wide Web gave rise to a global industry that impacted every nook and cranny of society, from business to military to government to consumer.

As America approached the new millennium, the sky, it seemed, was the limit.

Part III continues the construction of the historic perspective.


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