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QA with David Sirota, 'Back to Our Future' author

Financially, the '80s excesses led to today's disaster, writer says

By

Did Reaganomics lead to our Great Recession?

Did Gordon Gekko's "greed is good" creed spawn Bernie Madoff?

David Sirota, author,
'Back to Our Future'
Back to Our Future

Back to Our Future

The financial world of the early 21st century was looking somehow familiar to author David Sirota. In his "Back to Our Future," he details how events of today can be seen in the narratives of the 1980s, in everything from politics to Wall Street.

Did Heathcliff Huxtable and "The Cosby Show" set the stage for President Obama's "post-racial" America?

Are we still living in the 1980s?

Yes, yes, yes and definitely yes, according to syndicated columnist and talk radio host David Sirota, whose new book, "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now -- Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything" could only have been written by a culturally obsessed child of that Camelot era of excess.

Since the '80s also marked the explosion of the consumer credit card industry, we thought it prudent to chat with Sirota about the rise of plastic and its ascension to cultural icon status.

CreditCards.com: No wonder these times seem strangely familiar. We've gone back to the '80s!

David Sirota: (Laughs) The thesis of the book is that the '80s have never ended, that we're basically still living in the 1980s. But I think that has become much more obvious in the past few years.

CreditCards.com: How did you make this discovery?

Sirota: The evolution was, I started hearing things in my own work in the political and media world that just sounded really, really familiar, and I was wondering why. There's sort of that deja vu where you don't know where you heard it, but you could swear you've been there before.

CreditCards.com: Can you give some examples?

Sirota: The situation on Wall Street, all the Gordon Gekko "Wall Street" stuff came back out, the "Bonfires of the Vanities" and "masters of the universe." All of that was so iconic of the '80s and then suddenly it was hugely iconic in the Wall Street collapse and its aftermath and the whole debate about executive pay.

And then all the stuff about war. What woke me up to this was this attitude that was really explicit in the Bush administration that the only thing a politician should do is defer to "the commanders on the ground." And you had the [now-retired Gen. Stanley] McChrystal battle where he was giving orders to the president, which offended me as a small-d Democrat who believes in civilian control of the military. I knew I had heard that before because that was the entire theme of the Rambo movies.

Between the Wall Street stuff and the debate over who actually runs the military and all of this stuff about post-racial politics and Barack Obama, which was right off of "The Cosby Show," those things got me onto the idea that we are simply rehashing some of the same narratives and themes and ways of thinking that really dominated and defined the '80s.

CreditCards.com: Do you think that's because they remain unresolved?

Sirota: Yeah, I do. Maybe unresolved is not the right word; maybe it's that there haven't been new narratives interjected to counter those narratives, those stories that we told ourselves in the 1980s. The differences between Democrats and Republicans are variations on the story, but nobody is telling a wholly different story. 

CreditCards.com: How did the tea party emerge from this flashback?

Sirota: The analogs are so incredible. There was that story in the New York Times in 1978 about anti-tax protests that the New York Times labeled the new Boston Tea Party. Pretty creepy. So the most obvious way was the language of that anti-tax crowd; the government-is-evil rhetoric is the tea party's ideology.

The less obvious part, although equally as trenchant, is the tea party's focus on going back to the 1950s, going back before the '60s. The '50s has come to mean in our mind the World War II era through the Kennedy assassination, and the '60s is all of the chaos and none of the progress that came between the JFK assassination into the mid-1970s. So this sanitized idea of the '50s was very prevalent in the '80s as a backlash against the '60s. When the tea party talks about going back to this earlier time, they're not actually talking about the 1950s; they're talking about the 1980s version of the 1950s.

CreditCards.com: The '80s also marked the explosion of easy credit, thanks to the credit card. How did that symbiosis work?

Sirota: There was an obvious connection when we moved to a society that equated the American dream with (the movie) "The Secret of My Success." This meant that the American dream was about amassing huge amounts of wealth in a materialistic way. Ostentatious spending became part of the norm; it became part of "making it." That's everything from the yuppie phenomenon, the deification of the yuppie in movies like "The Secret of My Success" to TV shows that glorified wealth -- "Dallas," "Dynasty," "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

The '80s was the time when the American Express card became a status symbol unto itself. "Don't leave home without it." And there were celebrities who talked about having this special thing; "Membership has its privileges." The outgrowth of all of this was not just spending on credit cards, but actually turning specific credit cards into status symbols of the American dream. It stepped out of utility, as just an instrument to achieve this changed dream, and became a symbol unto itself.

CreditCards.com: The '80s also led to the rise of reality TV. Explain why this has been so destructive.

Sirota: Reality TV did start in the 1980s, either with "Cops" or the contest shows "Star Search" and "Dance Fever." What reality TV represents is the kind of hyper-narcissism that came out of the '80s. You had celebrity deification; if we just follow the celebrities, the Michael Jordans, the Oprah Winfreys, we'll be OK. What followed that was, we can all be our own celebrities; we can all be the next Michael Jordan.

We see that in the rise of the self-help industry, which was huge in the 1980s. There was a big focus on the self and one of the outgrowths of that and the celebrity worship is reality TV, where everybody theoretically has a chance to be a celebrity in a completely self-focused way. Reality is turning non-celebrities into celebrities via a narcissistic narrative, which says that the production is simply a camera on someone in real life. "The Truman Show" was trying to lambast this. That self-focus, self-worship started in the '80s and reality TV has only grown since then.

CreditCards.com: Are we doomed to be stuck in this '80s time warp for another decade?

Sirota: Right now, I think the '80s has reached its apex of cultural saturation, both culturally and in politics. We're going to start to reach a place where the competition in politics is between the old '80s narratives and something new. For instance, you see more people now questioning defense spending, more people questioning our overall militarist posture in the world, which really is just an extension of what we learned in the 1980s.

CreditCards.com: So are we headed back to the '60s!?!

Sirota: (Laughs) The thesis of the 1980s was that inequality may not be desirable, but it's not bad if rising tides lift all boats. But I think we may be reaching a point now where people are saying, you know what? Maybe inequality isn't all that tolerable because now it's even worse than it was in the Gordon Gekko age. I think it goes to the deeper question of, are we happy with a society where, if you're really lucky you may get to be a "master of the universe," though you're probably not going to be that, or do we want a society that does a better job of guaranteeing some minimum living standards, but may curtail the possibility that you'll become a billionaire? That's the real, deeper tectonic debate that's happening.

See related: When credit cards were cool: The golden days of plastic

Published: April 7, 2011



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