Are we headed back to the 1970s? Politicians and pundits from across the political spectrum insist we are. They also make clear that nothing could be worse. Why is the decade so feared? What kinds of policy do the grim warnings justify? On episode 56 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene speak with the writer Aaron Timms about “nostophobia,” a term he coined to describe a condition that is something like the opposite of nostalgia, and “’70s syndrome,” the variant currently gripping our collective imagination. It’s hard to see how we fix the problems of today with the same failed policy solutions of the 1970s—but that isn’t stopping anyone from trying.
Kim Reynolds [news clip]: It feels like President Biden and his party has sent us back in time.
Larry Summers [news clip]: We’re going to have a situation like we did in the 1970s.
Niall Ferguson [news clip]: Let’s consider the possibility that the 2020s could actually be worse than the 1970s.
Laura: The 1970s were the decade of strikes, recession, oil crises, stagflation,
crumbling cities, rising crime.
Alex: Even as those years recede from living memory, they linger
in the discourse as a cautionary tale.
Laura: The experience of the 1970s is used to justify tough-on-crime policies.
Alex: It’s also used as a cudgel against labor: “If workers demand too much, we’ll be back to the ’70s.”
Laura: These warnings have been circulating for a long time, but
since Joe Biden took office in 2021, fear of the 1970s has peaked.
Alex: Economists and pundits now insist we are already replaying
the ’70s with inflation, the fuel crisis in Europe, and war.
Laura: Today on the show, we’re talking about why people are so
afraid of the 1970s, and whether we are really headed back there. I’m Laura
Alex: And I’m Alex Pareene.
Laura: This is The Politics of Everything.
Alex: It seems like everyone on television and in newspapers is
warning these days that the U.S. is on the brink of returning to the 1970s.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said the 1970s were the decade to which nobody wants to return.
Gerald Baker, former editor of The Wall Street Journal,
said American cities became
hellscapes in the 1970s. One economist called the decade a horror movie. On the right, the left, and the center, there’s a palpable anxiety that the troubles of that era are
descending again. We’re speaking now with
Aaron Timms, who recently wrote an article for The New Republic about this fear of the 1970s. Aaron, thanks for
coming on the show.
Aaron Timms: Well, thank you for having me.
Alex: What was so bad—in this view, in this telling—what was so bad about the 1970s? What are these people
warning that we’re returning to?
Aaron: The most immediate source of
the analogies is inflation. Inflation reached double digits in the middle of
the 1970s and was a persistent problem throughout the 1970s, and it
was driven by factors that feel familiar to the situation that we’re in today.
There was an energy shock; there was a food crisis. When I talk about inflation today, of course, we’re in the
position where supply chain shocks have
caused consumer goods prices to increase.
That’s the basis for this analogy. But thinking sort of more broadly about what was so scary
about the 1970s, yes, inflation was this big intractable problem, but I think a lot of these
references to the 1970s are driven by a fear of lawlessness, especially in
cities. The caricature, if you like, of the
1970s is as the decade of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and The French Connection—this sort of
very dark, gritty time when there was a lot of crime in the inner cities and white people especially were fleeing to the suburbs.
Alex: It seems like the people who are speaking about the return of the ’70s
in these sort of apocalyptic terms—they’re not just
making an economic argument about inflation and interest rates, there is a moralistic part of
it that I think you touched on.
Aaron: There is absolutely this sort of moralistic argument.
You had this culture of permissiveness and freedom
that came out of the 1960s, so people felt emboldened to press their claims on
the state, which led to a rise in activism, let’s say, very generally speaking.
You combine that with kind of these problems with law
and order, with urban insecurity. I think it just feels like the kind of decade
where the economy was spiraling out of control, law and order was spiraling out
of control, and people were becoming, generally speaking, too entitled. And that’s really what we need to be scared of.
Laura: When you hear people saying “We can’t go back to the 1970s,” is that
coming from the right or the center? How
widespread are these warnings?
Aaron: I think it actually cuts across political
lines. You get a lot of Trumpist figures, let’s say, like Peter Navarro and Larry Kudlow, warning about a return to the
1970s. But then you get sort of slightly more respectable conservatives, like Niall Ferguson. I’m not sure that he quite fits that
description. Then you have figures who are very much part of the Democratic establishment, like Larry Summers is
someone who’s warning pretty much every day now about a return to the 1970s.
So it is fairly widespread and shared across partisan lines and across the professions as well.
Laura: Before we get into talking about how some of those ways of
thinking about the ’70s might be wrong. I want to talk about the
fear itself, because in the piece you coin a term: “nostophobia,” fear of the
past. Just talk us through that term, how you came up with it, what you’re
thinking about it.
Aaron: I just took the word nostalgia and turned it on its head,
and I think this is quite an interesting concept, I say as the person who wrote the piece, but those of us
who weren’t alive in the 1970s or have no
living memory of inflation, when we think
about sort of the past or the postwar past, I
consider that it’s been idealized more in nostalgic
terms. We think of nostalgia for the immediate postwar era. Even today there’s
some residual nostalgia for the 1990s, even though it’s, in many respects, a decade that reflects a lot of the
problems that we live with today. This is the
first instance that I can think of, certainly in my lifetime, over the last 40 years, since the 1970s, where the past, a period of the past, from the postwar era is held up as a
source of anxiety, as a source of fear. So instead of nostalgia, which is a
longing for return to the past, it’s more in the nature of nostophobia. It’s a fear of return. Yeah, I
think it’s risen to the level where it describes the general syndrome and not
just something that attaches to one or two discrete personalities.
Laura: So nostophobia is the fear of the past. And then you have
this nice phrase in the piece, “’70s syndrome,” which seems to be the dominant strain of nostophobia, like that’s the thing that we’re really scared of,
specifically in the past.
Alex: Right, exactly. What I found really
interesting about this is the hold that it has
on a lot of members of the media and the
political class. Obviously it’s increased in
the last two years or so, but there have been inflation hawks warning about this for
my entire adult life in the face of consistently deflationary, like the actual
economy was consistently deflationary over that time. But I found it fascinating that the hold that it had
as the ’70s themselves
were treated further into the background and
as fewer and fewer living people had any
memory of what the ’70s were actually like to
live through. Do you think that as fewer
people remember them, does that make it stronger or weaker in its mythic hold on people?
Aaron: I think
it’s at the sweet spot right now where it’s at the absolute peak of its
strength because you have enough people who have a living memory of the 1970s
and they’re relatively senior figures now in politics and media and business
and so forth. But
then you have enough people who don’t have any memory of the ’70s, so you can kind of call on the expertise as someone who
lived through the ’70s, you can present
yourself as a ’70s expert, and your expertise is beyond reproach or beyond question. It occupies this sweet spot of being—I think the median age of the U.S. population today is
about 39—so it’s the point where there’s this almost perfect balance between people who
remember the ’70s and those who weren’t around
Laura: After the break, we’ll be back to talk about how this fear
of the 1970s is being put to use. What do the nostophobes want us to do to avoid a return
to that era?
speaking with the writer Aaron Timms about a condition he’s identified among
politicians and commentators: ’70s syndrome, or the fear of the 1970s. Aaron, let’s talk
about the uses of this fear because it’s being invoked to justify policy choices right now. One, for
instance, Larry Summers warned about going
back to the 1970s. What kind of things is he recommending that we do today?
Aaron: Yeah, he’s been very explicit about it. He
said we need
unemployment and the way to get unemployment is through interest rate hikes. So
it’s basically a plea for a return to the
years of the Volcker shock. Paul Volcker, of
course, the chair of the Federal Reserve from
1979 onwards, instituted this very punishing regime of interest rate hikes to
get on top of inflation. So it’s really an argument for going back to that
and doing exactly what was done in the early
1980s when interest rates got up to 20 percent to break the back of inflation. What you get from that, of course, is you disincentivize
businesses to invest. As a result, the businesses
don’t do as well and they have to start laying people off so you end up with unemployment. But it’s kind of remarkable how the solution that is proposed is
not simply, “We need interest rate hikes.” It’s: “We need unemployment; we must discipline
must make them take the medicine of unemployment so that we can get on top of
Alex: Yeah. I mean the Volcker
shock, I assume probably a lot more people,
I’m talking about people who weren’t there for it, people my age, I assume a lot more of us know about it now
than maybe did a few years ago. But it’s fascinating that it’s presented still as, again, a
morality story or in which, essentially the bad, bad workers asking for too
much were punished. Volcker in Reagan’s first term
induced a recession, an actual recession, crashed the
economy and then after, I mean, you can tell
us the rest of it, but stock markets began soaring a little bit after that, but
the jobs didn’t come back. Yet that’s
presented as not just a success, but one of the central policy successes of the
Aaron: Yes, absolutely. It’s kind of this holy grail or this thing
that you cannot question that the Volcker shock is something that finally broke the back of
inflation. I think we do need to recognize that inflation was this really
damaging and intractable phenomenon throughout the 1970s. But it’s bizarre to me that the conversation today is still
very much centered on what the Fed and the Fed alone can do to get on top of
inflation whereas there are many economists,
especially those on the left, who are calling
for a much more sophisticated and targeted understanding of this very complex
phenomenon of inflation and who recommend other actors, especially state actors
to take on the responsibility for taming inflation. But the sort of nuance of that conversation is completely lost and
the object lesson of the Volcker shock is still held up as the template for what to do in this situation.
Laura: It’s puzzling because there’s this fear of the ’70s, but then the conventional wisdom seems to be that the
only way to fight this similar set of problems is by using the very painful
solutions that were implemented in the 1970s, which I think in the memory of
people who were alive then and if you had family members who were out of work,
if you experienced the effects of living in a recession, are also really
painful and scary and not something you want to go
exactly. Yeah. I
don’t actually even really know how to make sense of it if it’s just sort of a
taste for cruelty or something that’s involved in recommending this especially when, as I say, there are other solutions that
while they may not have the historical track record
of the Volcker shock, are available to us that
involve targeting inflation at its source and figuring out mechanisms through fiscal policy to address inflation.
Laura: You also trace a couple of other shifts that took place in
the 1970s as a response to its various crises such as shift from industry to
finance, production to consumption, welfare state to real estate, the weakening
of labor power, particularly. How do you see those things being replayed now?
Aaron: I think
the most interesting one, the one that’s most relevant to today’s inflationary
situation is worker power.
Alex: Right. It seems like
this fear of rising labor power is based on the
so-called wage-price spiral, which is a
process where as goods become more expensive, workers collectively bargain for
wage increases, forcing businesses to raise prices leading to higher wages, and
so on, and so on, and so on.
Aaron: Absolutely. When people
invoke the ghost of the wage-price spiral
today, I think what’s missing from that conversation is the fact that labor is nowhere near as
nowhere near the level of collective bargaining. There isn’t anywhere near the
level of collective action. So there is this
very interesting parallel and distinction between the inflation of the ’70s and the inflation of today in that today we’ve just come
out of a pandemic where a lot of people were
put out of work and suddenly we have this
very, very tight labor market where people are coming back into the workforce
and there is this huge demand for labor. That
gives workers a kind of power, but it’s
actually not the same kind of power that workers had in the 1970s. What we have
today is strong workers, but they’re totally atomized and the strength of
workers is totally located in the individual worker as opposed to being
something that’s dispersed over a collective. So that’s, I think, a really
Laura: And this goes beyond labor.
Aaron: The other thing I think
that’s interesting in terms of this shift from the 1970s to the 1980s, if you
like, the post-1970s
era, is to think about the role of finance,
this shift of industry to finance. The deregulation of capital that took place after the 1970s is
of course the status quo that we live with today. There’s so much fealty to the market, and so much fealty to how the market reacts to different economic policies that’s
baked into how political actors think of themselves and I think that is quite destabilizing and that again, is
a legacy of the 1970s. It means that we end up
with the situation we’re in today where we
have this problem, instead of understanding it as a problem to be resolved
through politics, it’s conceptualized as a problem to be resolved either by the
Fed on its own or by the markets. Part of the argument of my piece is that this shift of
trying to understand things collectively or trying to understand things through
politics to simply giving up on political contestation and letting the market
decide how to distribute resources, is very much a product of the solutions
that were developed through the 1970s to these problems of inflation and
Alex: What I find really interesting and you sort of make the case
that the ’70s never went away because you’re talking about the the wage-price spiral and things like that, and as you say, it was
treated as gospel by economists for years and years, but it was based on that
historic period where labor had enough power to demand wage increases in line
with inflation, not just to demand in the
sense of a tight job market, but through collective bargaining, through actual
contracts that said wages will rise with inflation. I mean how many people do
you know who have contracts that say that now?
So it seems absurd to cling to that as a law
of economics and not as the thing that happened at the time. The
late ’70s and early ’80s deregulation and interest rate hikes and financialization,
as you say, transformed the entire American economy,
which makes it seem all the more absurd to me that the argument would be,
we should just do that. Because we did it, that happened. There’s not
a powerful labor movement to crush again, because it’s done.
Aaron: Yes. Exactly. It’s this weird
mania for stability that is really popular throughout policy circles and throughout financial
circles, the idea that the worst thing that
can happen is that we can destabilize the status quo. I would argue the
opposite. The best thing that could happen is if we do that, because the status
quo is not working for so many people. But
when people invoke this fear of the 1970s, what they’re really asking for is a
return to the solutions that emerged out of the 1970s. It’s for more of the
Laura: So stripping back more entitlements, the few things that
remain, raising interest rates, doing more austerity.
Yes, exactly and fueling
the further financialization of the economy and increasing, or at least,
preserving the distance between, voters and
the elites—the political elites, the business
elites—and entrenching what I call
the de-democratization of monetary and
economic decision-making. One of the legacies
of the 1970s, of course, is that we have a
very technocratic mode of economic governance and economics is seen as this
priestly preserve of experts and the kind of thing
that ordinary people cannot question. Whereas
in the 1970s, you had a lot of attempts, a lot
of avenues towards political experimentation whereby, economic decision-making
would not be, simply the preserve of elites, but would be more fully integrated
with the democratic process.
Alex: I think that’s a really important point. We speak of economic policy, the Volcker shock, we speak of that period
as inevitable, basically, like that was the
only way forward, but it wasn’t understood
that way at the time. There were paths not
taken. What was the debate actually like at
Aaron: Well, it was messy, I think is the best way to describe
had Keynesian economists
who were representatives of the orthodoxy at
the time of the postwar economic orthodoxy who
were grappling with this problem and trying to find a solution through Keynesian
demand management. Then
you had this kind of resurgent vanguard of the
business establishment and business elites and the resurgence of free-market
thinking throughout that decade and of course
it predates the 1970s, but it’s in the 1970s that a lot of this thinking came
to the fore. So you see the formation of think
tanks, like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute,
the Manhattan Institute, places like that. You
have this sort of organization on the
conservative or the pro-business side of politics to push pro-market policies
to the forefront and to make them the fallback
position of politics, which is what we live with today.
Alex: But that shift in political economy was not totally one-sided. There was a debate. There
was a fight over it.
Aaron: Yes, exactly. I think there was a lot of back and forth
between the different factions, the different sides of politics about what the
best response to inflation should be. On the left, you had a few things going on. You had grassroots organizations. You
had civic associations, block associations,
workers’ cooperatives, homesteading, these
local initiatives that were designed to address the problems of inflation and
the end of growth. At a macro level, you had a
lot of debate on the left, especially during the Carter administration, about
introducing things like income policies, which
would cap wages, but then involve some bargain between wage restraint and workplace representation. There was also an experiment with price controls, which I
think is really relevant to the current context because we are now going through this debate among economists
about whether price controls are good or not, and whether they might offer a
solution to inflation that gets around the problem of inducing a recession through interest rate hikes. So there was this very fertile and interesting discussion
that was taking place about solutions to
the crisis. What there wasn’t, which I think is interesting to
reflect on, is much of an attempt to democratize this conversation and to bring
the body politic, the voting population, into the conversation about how deal
with the distribution of resources under conditions of scarcity in the end of
growth, which is basically what the 1970s was all about. That’s something I think that we should be thinking about
much more carefully today.
Laura: Why do you think we’ve ended up with this narrative then
that the ’70s were
this period where everything came to a head and things were nice but it went
too far and you have to crack down and
discipline workers and you can’t always have
welfare state? Why has that been so
successful? Do you think it’s cultural? Do you think it’s because of the way this ’70s has been
portrayed in movies? Is it because the neoliberals won? What is the staying power of this vision of the 1970s?
Because also in the piece, you say that this
has distorted the legacy of the ’70s, like it
was also the era of the founding of the Environmental Protection
Agency and lots of good things. One of the reasons
Alex and I were so interested in doing this episode was because for the last
three years, pretty
frequently when we discuss an issue on this show and we’re like, “Let’s go into the history of this and see when this bad
thing started happening,” it’s always like “Oh … 1978?” It often seems like this is the last moment that things were
kind of good.
Aaron: Right, exactly. I guess it’s because it’s complex. I think
that’s why the caricature of the ’70s is so
powerful because the ’70s themselves were this very complex beast where things were
good in some ways, but they’re also very bad in others. When dealing with complexity, I think people just reach for
the simplest explanation and in this case it’s
that the ’70s were really bad. I don’t want
to do a bad version of cultural studies here, but
I do think that that cinema has played a pretty important role in prolonging this notion
of the ’70s as this irredeemably horrible
decade. This is, like I said, the
decade of Taxi
Mean Streets and films like that, but it’s
also the emergence of the horror genre. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre came out in 1974, and it’s
all about how a family that’s put out of work
by economic rationalization has to start eating humans to feed itself. It’s very explicitly about the economic crisis of the 1970s. So I think it’s that, but I think it’s also the legacy
of this culture of deference to technocrats that we’ve internalized over the last 40 years, whereby the arbiter of
what is “good”
in policy terms—what constitutes a good policy is the market and whatever the
market says is correct—so the moment the market
reacts adversely to something we must correct
course and do things that will please the
market. It’s a combination of all the things that you said is what I meant to say.
Alex: I like the idea that
you could draw a line between the end of the Hays Code
and Hollywood censorship directly to
stagflation and the Volcker shock. All of a sudden people, people went to the movies and were like, “It’s that bad? We didn’t know! We weren’t allowed to see this
before, but they’re eating people in Texas, we’ve got to do something!”
Aaron: Right, yes, I agree!
Alex: Aaron, thank you so
much for talking to us today,
Aaron: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Laura: You can read Aaron Timm’s article, “The
Unquiet Ghost of the 1970s” in the November
issue of The
Alex: The Politics of Everything is co-produced by Talkhouse.
Laura: Emily Cooke is our executive producer.
Alex: Myron Kaplan is our audio editor.
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Alex: Thanks for listening.