Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
The 2020s seem poised to challenge the 1960s and 1970s in terms of the scale and scope of socioeconomic disruption. A review of the similarities and differences between then and now is therefore important, lest America repeat previous mistakes or blunder into new ones.
Just because the nation survived the travails of the 1960s and 1970s does not mean that it will survive its current troubles. But analysis of how the country got through the historical era can help us to navigate the present, with help from too-seldom-studied thought leaders like financial journalist and corporate activist Wilma Soss, the main subject of a new book, Fearless: Wilma Soss and America’s Forgotten Investor Movement.
- Pandemic: The world was in the throes of a flu pandemic when the Woodstock musical festival took place in 1969. Its epidemiological effects cannot be compared with those of Covid-19 due to poor data, then and now. Soss barely mentioned the flu because its economic effects were minor. Policymakers then did not attempt anything like the lockdowns or mandates implemented in the 2020s because they knew better. An explicit repudiation of mandates at the highest levels of government would help the nation to heal.
- Assassinations: The assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK rocked America and the world in the 1960s. Soss commented extensively on all three, and she would have had something to say about the recent murder of Japan’s Shinzo Abe. The recent assassination attempt on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggests that 2020s America may not remain immune. Depending on the circumstances, America cities could easily erupt into violent uprisings if a key figure were assassinated, just as it did after the MLK assassination.
- Urban uprisings and riots: After all, numerous American cities lit up after the murder of a regular Joe, or rather George, in the summer of 2020. Look for more waves of violent mostly peaceful protests from the radical Left in response to instances of government overreach or racial injustice, whipped up or genuine. Rioting by the reactionary Right would be truly terrifying because recent breakdowns in the rule of law suggest that if they do take to the streets, they will not want to be taken alive. During the 1960s and 1970s, peaceful protests also sometimes devolved into violence and death. Soss, a virulently independent journalist, carefully distinguished between agitators looking for a fight, pranksters like Abbie Hoffman raining dollars on traders from the visitors’ gallery of the NYSE, and victims, like the students gunned down by the government at Kent State.
- Cold War: Soon after the Second World War, the US began a four-decade long proxy war with the Soviet Union that deeply influenced Soss, who sought to stave off American Marxism 1.0 by encouraging everyday Americans to become stockholders through ESOPs (employee share ownership plans), cheap brokerage commissions, and financial literacy programs like the one that she ran through her own nonprofit. Today, the US again finds itself in a sort of Cold War, this time against the Chinese Communist Party, including a hot proxy war in Ukraine. Victorious in the first Cold War because it was able to outspend its economically inept foe, America this time around finds itself hopelessly in debt, in part to its main adversary.
- Culture War: As in the 1960s and 1970s, Americans find themselves divided over myriad cultural issues, from trivial things like hairstyles, clothes, and tats to literal life-and-death debates about abortions and euthanasia. Soss said little about such things on her nationally syndicated NBC radio program because their direct economic effects were minimal, but she always supported the First Amendment and journalistic integrity, even turning away corporate sponsorships that threatened her independence.
- Inflation: Soss was very vocal, though, about the rising cost of living. Inflation began “creeping” upwards after the big postwar price level adjustment in 1947-48. Then, as Wilma joked, inflation began to “toddle.” She warned that delinking the dollar from gold would cause the money supply to swell and prices to soar and sure enough after Nixon broke the last links between the dollar and gold, inflation began to “gallop” upwards, whipped into a frenzy by OPEC oil embargoes, price controls, and silly campaigns like WIN (whip inflation now).
- Green energy: Thanks to that embargo and more general concerns about America’s waning energy independence in the event of global conflict, the 1970s witnessed a big push towards renewable energy. Soss was skeptical because solar technology was inefficient, and hydro was environmentally damaging. She had lived through the controversies surrounding the big dams in the southwest and along the Missouri River, which also swamped the best land on several Indian Reservations. Today, renewables remain far from adequate.
- Depopulation: In their 1968 book The Population Bomb, Paul and Anne Ehrlich predicted global famine and major social upheavals in the 1970s and 1980s due to “overpopulation.” Soss and other rationally optimistic thought leaders, like economist Julian Simon, knew that unfettered markets would feed the world’s masses. They were right as the Green Revolution raised crop and livestock yields enough to feed everyone, and some people too much! So this time, those who seek depopulation, degrowth, and a Great Reset are targeting agriculture with restrictions designed to mess up markets. So far, rebellions in the Netherlands and Sri Lanka have resulted, with more unrest possible elsewhere, including the United States if its Green New Deal continues to eat into household budgets.
- Race- and gender-based civil rights violations: African-Americans and women remained so oppressed in the 1960s that LBJ and Congress felt compelled to pass several landmark Civil Rights bills that Soss applauded. Today, though, those laws are regularly disregarded to oppress people of European ancestry as well as those who identify as the same gender indicated by their genitalia and chromosomes.
- Dishonored veterans: In the 1960s and 1970s, many veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam, were treated harshly by those who opposed the war and by the U.S. government. Soss always advocated peace but if we went to war, she thought the government should adequately care for those who took care of the nation. Nevertheless, many veterans took their own lives, directly or through substance abuse. The same fate is befalling veterans of the nation’s long occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. The popularity of The Terminal List owes as much to the public’s disgust with the treatment of veterans as it does to Chris Pine’s remarkable performance.
Soss died in 1986, aged 86. During America’s most tumultuous two postwar decades, the 1960s and 1970s, she wrote and delivered her radio program, which was heard by over a million people weekly. She was also extremely active on the annual stockholder meeting scene from World War II until her death. In other words, Soss had a literal front row seat to the making of history, yet this lifelong Republican has been largely forgotten. The transcripts of her radio program are a major, almost completely untapped, look at the economic effects of the major events and policies of those two crucial decades.
Reading Fearless will not alone save America from the tumults of the 2020s, but imbibing its many economic policy and history lessons, and Soss’s infectious realistic optimism, is a good place to start.
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