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Thirty Years Back


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
November 8, 2010

This month's commentary was inspired by IFC's recent rerunning of the cult TV series Freak and Geeks (F&G). The purpose of this commentary is not to remark about the show, its actors, or its producer (Judd Apatow), but rather to contrast the era of the series with the present time. Although F&G began its disastrous (and limited) run in primetime television in 1999, the show takes place during the 1980-1981 academic year, a time when the world that was in more chaos than usual. Economically speaking, 1980 was a disaster. Inflation topped 13.5% for the year and seemed destined to continue to rise indefinitely. At the same time, unemployment rose from 6.0% at the beginning of the year to 7.8%, solid recession territory, before dropping back a bit by year-end.

What is more interesting to me than the sorry state of the economy in 1980 is that it was a fundamentally different world from today, something that F&G does an excellent job of capturing despite an occasional anachronism as well as being completely oblivious to the economic circumstances of the time. Having grown up in the 1960s and having survived the 1970s, the year 1980 was simply more of the same, only with a deepening sense of national impotence. The burgeoning punk movement sang out the message: "No future for you." Despair was everywhere. The U.S. was introduced to Ted Koppel, whose job each weeknight was to keep count of how many days the U.S. was being "held hostage" by Iran. President Jimmy Carter was like an unwanted house guest whose days were numbered. Indeed, if the current 1960s retrospective, Mad Men, showed the 1960s as they really were, one would readily see despite the social upheaval upon which the series focuses, 1965 and 1980 were quite similar in terms of culture.

Radical technological changes had yet to manifest themselves fully in 1980. Although telephones began to sport modular plugs, color televisions were still trickling down through the middle class, and calculators were becoming affordable, the big changes were still in the works. Primitive versions of PCs and the Internet were available in 1980, but they largely remained in the hands of the hobbyists and the academics. Live people still answered corporate phone calls (although given the high cost of long distance, most people sent in their complaints and queries in by mail). Mobile calls could only be made on expensive and unwieldy phones with limited range and even more limited reliability. Radio in all its forms remained the cheap, dominant communications technology, with CB radios becoming a national craze in the late 1970s.

Despite political commentators who wish to compare the present administration with the Carter administration, 1980 and the years leading up to it were nothing like 2010. The year 1980 was a world of infinite privacy by current standards. Closed circuit cameras were so expensive that their use was limited to banks and a few other high-value applications. Indeed, they were so expensive to purchase and operate that most of them were simply dummies that were connected to nothing simply to serve as a deterrent and they were so large that it was difficult to hide them. (Crime was rampant in urban areas for all of the 1970s and well into the 1980s.) Modern database technology had been invented at IBM and Berkeley, but computers were not powerful enough to develop the technology, much less employ it on a massive scale. Analog communications still ruled the world, so wiretaps were still literal taps placed on phone lines. Show like CSI were unthinkable because none of their spiffy technology existed. Compared with today, everyone was off the grid in 1980. Indoor agricultural flourished because a high electric bill did not bring the police to one's door (or so I am told). Despite its recent deregulation by Alfred Kahn, air travel was still a joy, albeit still generally an expensive one; and the skies, notwithstanding the occasional side trip to Cuba, were still friendly.

While the dominant culture features of the U.S. were condemned by many as "artificial" as early as the 1950s, the world of 1980 provided a largely authentic experience, especially as compared with today. While lots of cheap junk flooded the marketplace, authentic versions of many goods, some of them still handcrafted were still available and sold at a relatively small premium to their artificial counterparts. The world was not yet a global village, but rather a globe of villages. The homogenization of culture was still in its infancy, so most places still had their own identity.

I spent all of 1980 in Houston, Texas at the peak of the oil boom. Houston's similarities to the Boston that I had left the year before were just enough to assure me that I was still in the United States and not on some other planet. Outside of its major cities, Texas really seemed like another planet or something out of the movie Easy Rider. Texas circa 1980 was realer than real. Giant people strode in their cowboy boots under the big blue Texas sky.

Texas would have been even more alien, except that it was the place to be in 1980. Even in Freaks and Geeks, the TV show Dallas is ubiquitous. Urban Cowboy, about life in nearby Galveston as portrayed by the not-very-Texan John Travolta and Debra Winger, was the hot movie of the year. Texas was not becoming like the rest of the U.S., the rest of the U.S. was becoming like Texas.

Somewhere between 1980 and 2010, the world changed. While the change came about slowly, if I had to give an exact date when the switchover happened, it would be the fourth quarter of 1988, which just happens to be the time frame in which the cult movie Donnie Darko takes place. The world of Donnie Darko bears only fleeting resemblance to that of Freaks and Geeks. When Nick (Jason Segel) of F&G does not behave as expected, his father sells the drum kit that he had assembled as a shrine to his personal drum hero, Neil Peart of Rush. When Donnie misbehaves in 1988, he is given behavior-modification drugs and talks to a therapist.

The real reason that I picked 4Q1988 was because of two important events that historians have completely overlooked: the banning of the lawn dart (the link points to a later press release where the federal government acknowledges that nine years after the ban kids are still getting "pegged in the head with a lawn dart" as the song goes) and the unleashing of Morris worm. Although it was building for years, by 1988 the U.S. had reached the critical mass of overprotective crybabies. While there are some products that should be removed from the marketplace because their risks are either misrepresented or not obvious, the dangers of lawn darts are apparent to even the lowliest dolt. Lawn darts began the trend where one idiot's misuse of the product would spoil the fun for everyone. And, like most regulation, the banning of lawn darts was not even effective. It turns out that while one cannot buy an assembled set of lawn darts, one can buy all the pieces over the Internet and then easily construct them. Moreover, the government only encouraged the use of more dangerous alternatives, such as the flaming arrow game depicted in Garden State. Your tax dollars at work taking the fun out of life.

The Morris worm was another bit of insane overreaction. Ubergeek Robert Morris (often referred to as "Robert Tappan Morris" to draw the parallel to Lee Harvey Oswald), a computer scientist who was himself the son of a noted NSA computer scientist, wrote a program designed to create a map of the Internet in the days before web pages and crash commercialization. There was nothing intentionally malicious about the program; however, it did not work as intended and crashed good chunks of the Net such as it was a time. As a result of the hysteria engendered by the movie WarGames, which starred a pre-Ferris and pre-SJP Matthew Broderick, Congress passed a law making an overly wide variety of "hacking" activities illegal. (It is always a bad sign for a society when Hollywood fantasies drive public policy.) The young Robert Morris was convicted under that law, but managed not to receive any jail time, more likely due to his government connections that the common sense of the federal judiciary.

Copyright 2010 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to