United States - Economy a Brief History the 1960s and 1970s
Years of change: the 1960s and 1970s
The 1950s in America are often described as a time of complacency. By contrast, the 1960s and 1970s were a time of great change. New nations emerged around the world, insurgent movements sought to overthrow existing governments, established countries grew to become economic powerhouses that rivaled the United States, and economic relationships came to predominate in a world that increasingly recognized military might could not be the only means of growth and expansion.
President John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) ushered in a more activist approach to governing. During his 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy said he would ask Americans to meet the challenges of the "New Frontier." As president, he sought to accelerate economic growth by increasing government spending and cutting taxes, and he pressed for medical help for the elderly, aid for inner cities, and increased funds for education. Many of these proposals were not enacted, although Kennedy's vision of sending Americans abroad to help developing nations did materialize with the creation of the Peace Corps. Kennedy also stepped up American space exploration. After his death, the American space program surpassed Soviet achievements and culminated in the landing of American astronauts on the moon in July 1969.
Kennedy's assassination in 1963 spurred Congress to enact much of his legislative agenda. His successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-1969), sought to build a "Great Society" by spreading benefits of America's successful economy to more citizens. Federal spending increased dramatically, as the government launched such new programs as Medicare (health care for the elderly), Food Stamps (food assistance for the poor), and numerous education initiatives (assistance to students as well as grants to schools and colleges).
Military spending also increased as American's presence in Vietnam grew. What had started as a small military action under Kennedy mushroomed into a major military initiative during Johnson's presidency. Ironically, spending on both wars -- the war on poverty and the fighting war in Vietnam -- contributed to prosperity in the short term. But by the end of the 1960s, the government's failure to raise taxes to pay for these efforts led to accelerating inflation, which eroded this prosperity. The 1973-1974 oil embargo by members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) pushed energy prices rapidly higher and created shortages. Even after the embargo ended, energy prices stayed high, adding to inflation and eventually causing rising rates of unemployment. Federal budget deficits grew, foreign competition intensified, and the stock market sagged.
The Vietnam War dragged on until 1975, President Richard Nixon (1969-1973) resigned under a cloud of impeachment charges, and a group of Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. embassy in Teheran and held for more than a year. The nation seemed unable to control events, including economic affairs. America's trade deficit swelled as low-priced and frequently high-quality imports of everything from automobiles to steel to semiconductors flooded into the United States.
The term "stagflation" -- an economic condition of both continuing inflation and stagnant business activity, together with an increasing unemployment rate -- described the new economic malaise. Inflation seemed to feed on itself. People began to expect continuous increases in the price of goods, so they bought more. This increased demand pushed up prices, leading to demands for higher wages, which pushed prices higher still in a continuing upward spiral. Labor contracts increasingly came to include automatic cost-of-living clauses, and the government began to peg some payments, such as those for Social Security, to the Consumer Price Index, the best-known gauge of inflation. While these practices helped workers and retirees cope with inflation, they perpetuated inflation. The government's ever-rising need for funds swelled the budget deficit and led to greater government borrowing, which in turn pushed up interest rates and increased costs for businesses and consumers even further. With energy costs and interest rates high, business investment languished and unemployment rose to uncomfortable levels.
In desperation, President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) tried to combat economic weakness and unemployment by increasing government spending, and he established voluntary wage and price guidelines to control inflation. Both were largely unsuccessful. A perhaps more successful but less dramatic attack on inflation involved the "deregulation" of numerous industries, including airlines, trucking, and railroads. These industries had been tightly regulated, with government controlling routes and fares. Support for deregulation continued beyond the Carter administration. In the 1980s, the government relaxed controls on bank interest rates and long-distance telephone service, and in the 1990s it moved to ease regulation of local telephone service.
But the most important element in the war against inflation was the Federal Reserve Board, which clamped down hard on the money supply beginning in 1979. By refusing to supply all the money an inflation-ravaged economy wanted, the Fed caused interest rates to rise. As a result, consumer spending and business borrowing slowed abruptly. The economy soon fell into a deep recession.