United States - Economy a Brief History the 1990s and Beyond
The 1990s and beyond
The 1990s brought a new president, Bill Clinton (1993-2000). A cautious, moderate Democrat, Clinton sounded some of the same themes as his predecessors. After unsuccessfully urging Congress to enact an ambitious proposal to expand health-insurance coverage, Clinton declared that the era of "big government" was over in America. He pushed to strengthen market forces in some sectors, working with Congress to open local telephone service to competition. He also joined Republicans to reduce welfare benefits. Still, although Clinton reduced the size of the federal work force, the government continued to play a crucial role in the nation's economy. Most of the major innovations of the New Deal, and a good many of the Great Society, remained in place. And the Federal Reserve system continued to regulate the overall pace of economic activity, with a watchful eye for any signs of renewed inflation.
The economy, meanwhile, turned in an increasingly healthy performance as the 1990s progressed. With the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern European communism in the late 1980s, trade opportunities expanded greatly. Technological developments brought a wide range of sophisticated new electronic products. Innovations in telecommunications and computer networking spawned a vast computer hardware and software industry and revolutionized the way many industries operate. The economy grew rapidly, and corporate earnings rose rapidly. Combined with low inflation and low unemployment, strong profits sent the stock market surging; the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which had stood at just 1,000 in the late 1970s, hit the 11,000 mark in 1999, adding substantially to the wealth of many -- though not all -- Americans.
Japan's economy, often considered a model by Americans in the 1980s, fell into a prolonged recession -- a development that led many economists to conclude that the more flexible, less planned, and more competitive American approach was, in fact, a better strategy for economic growth in the new, globally-integrated environment.
America's labor force changed markedly during the 1990s. Continuing a long-term trend, the number of farmers declined. A small portion of workers had jobs in industry, while a much greater share worked in the service sector, in jobs ranging from store clerks to financial planners. If steel and shoes were no longer American manufacturing mainstays, computers and the software that make them run were.
After peaking at $290,000 million in 1992, the federal budget steadily shrank as economic growth increased tax revenues. In 1998, the government posted its first surplus in 30 years, although a huge debt -- mainly in the form of promised future Social Security payments to the baby boomers -- remained. Economists, surprised at the combination of rapid growth and continued low inflation, debated whether the United States had a "new economy" capable of sustaining a faster growth rate than seemed possible based on the experiences of the previous 40 years.
Finally, the American economy was more closely intertwined with the global economy than it ever had been. Clinton, like his predecessors, had continued to push for elimination of trade barriers. A North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had further increased economic ties between the United States and its largest trading partners, Canada and Mexico. Asia, which had grown especially rapidly during the 1980s, joined Europe as a major supplier of finished goods and a market for American exports. Sophisticated worldwide telecommunications systems linked the world's financial markets in a way unimaginable even a few years earlier.
While many Americans remained convinced that global economic integration benefited all nations, the growing interdependence created some dislocations as well. Workers in high-technology industries -- at which the United States excelled -- fared rather well, but competition from many foreign countries that generally had lower labor costs tended to dampen wages in traditional manufacturing industries. Then, when the economies of Japan and other newly industrialized countries in Asia faltered in the late 1990s, shock waves rippled throughout the global financial system. American economic policy-makers found they increasingly had to weigh global economic conditions in charting a course for the domestic economy.
Still, Americans ended the 1990s with a restored sense of confidence. By the end of 1999, the economy had grown continuously since March 1991, the longest peacetime economic expansion in history. Unemployment totaled just 4.1 percent of the labor force in November 1999, the lowest rate in nearly 30 years. And consumer prices, which rose just 1.6 percent in 1998 (the smallest increase except for one year since 1964), climbed only somewhat faster in 1999 (2.4 percent through October). Many challenges lay ahead, but the nation had weathered the 20th century -- and the enormous changes it brought -- in good shape.