Boomers Knew Inflation

News about the potential for a continuing increase in inflation in the coming months has sounded an alarm for many people. Supply chain disruptions and other factors due to the Covid-19 pandemic are the likely suspects for what has, in practicality, meant a five percent rise in the cost of goods and services to consumers and manufacturers alike. Some economists are calling these increases temporary, while others are not so sure. Dealing with inflation is nothing new to boomers, since we lived through one of the most volatile decades in our country’s economic history.

The decade of 1970 to ’79 saw an inflation rate of 7.25 percent, the worst since 1900. Compare that with a rate of 1.8 percent in the 1950s, and 2.45 percent in the 1960s. So what happened in the 1970’s to cause such a jump in inflation? A mix of world events and domestic political mayhem caused prices to go up, and interest rates to rise to an unprecedented level of up to 20 percent.

Richard Nixon was president, and still dealing with the process of ending the war in Vietnam, when in October of 1973 he asked Congress for $2.2 billion dollars in emergency aid for Israel following the Yom Kippur War. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) responded with an oil embargo against all western countries that supported Israel. Overnight, oil became scarce as OPEC shut down all exports to the U.S., Netherlands and Denmark. The U.S. imported about 30-35 percent of its crude oil at that time. The Federal government asked Americans to conserve energy as much as possible, as prices practically doubled and gas rationing was instituted in every state.

The price of manufacturing was already on the rise in the country before the embargo, and Nixon had the Watergate scandal growing ever more, to the point that it ultimately brought down his presidency. In August of 1974, Nixon resigned and Vice President Gerald Ford became president. By that point, Egypt and Israel had agreed to a cease-fire and the oil embargo was lifted. It did not stop the rising inflation in the U.S.

On October 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford addressed Congress and proposed a grassroots campaign called “Whip Inflation Now.” The president asked Americans to come together to save more, practice disciplined spending and conserve energy, instead of instituting policies of government intervention to restrict prices. This included suggestions for carpooling and driving less, turning down thermostats and starting a vegetable garden. To get the American public excited about his program, Whip Inflation Now merchandise was produced, from t-shirts to sweaters; footballs to gym bags; watches to earrings; and pins to buttons.

People who pledged to support the voluntary measures were encouraged to wear a WIN button. The public campaign was doomed from the start as people began wearing the buttons upside down to to spell NIM, which was meant to stand for “No Immediate Miracles,” or “Need Immediate Money.” Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of Economic Advisors at the time and initially, but reluctantly, onboard, called the idea “…unbelievably stupid.” Ford’s program was a flop with the public.

Image courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum

Mister Boomer has a WIN button somewhere in his boxes of memorabilia. His looks just like the one pictured. Mister B can’t remember how he got the button, though he knows someone gave it to him. He did not sign any loyalty pledge of support, which were available through local newspapers. Signing the pledge and mailing it to Washington would garner the sender a WIN button in return.

Inflation in the 1970s hit home for Mister Boomer through more than gas rationing and the rise of oil prices. In the mid-70s, he purchased his first new car, and found the interest rate on his auto loan at more than 12 percent. Amid the resulting recession, boomers learned to tighten their belts and make do, as their parents had done during the war.

Did you have any Whip Inflation Now merchandise or a WIN button, boomers?

Boomers Watched Live Shows Decades Before the Internet

The proliferation of all types of live broadcasting through social media these days, specifically Facebook and Instagram, got Mister Boomer wondering about live broadcasts in the boomer years. Surely, he recalls, there were many TV shows that broadcast live. As it turns out, Mister B remembered correctly. TV was a technological marvel of the boomer era, when the majority of households were finally able to afford TV sets, and broadcasting technology had produced a degree of quality that made people want to watch. Boomers grew up with a burgeoning television industry, but today’s kids don’t know a world where there was no internet.

Prior to the appearance of the first practical videotape, it was common practice for TV shows — from sitcoms to news — to be broadcast live. Like radio before it, television began with live broadcasts. A good portion of scheduled programming was locally-based, so live broadcasts did not have to worry about time scheduling conflicts. The alternative was to use film, like movies. A few famous shows, like I Love Lucy (1951) and Gunsmoke (1955), did employ this method.

A key year in the movement away from live TV broadcasting was 1958. Experiments with forms of videotape had been around in various forms even before the War, but the first practical use of it did not evolve until 1951. At that point, it was far too expensive to purchase equipment and tape itself to be a practical replacement for live or filmed broadcasting. By 1958, the television industry began the shift to videotape, signaling the slow retreat from live broadcasting to arrive at where we are today. Boomers recall 1960s sitcoms opening or closing with a voiceover stating that the show was “taped before a live studio audience.” As shows began using videotape, some were accused of using laugh tracks. The voiceover disclaimer was an effort to dispel that notion to give the TV audience more of the feel of the early days of live broadcasting.

Boomers may not realize it, but they bore witness to many historical events when they were broadcast live on their family TV. Here are a few:

• September 4, 1951: The country’s first national, coast-to-coast live TV broadcast featured President Harry Truman’s opening speech at the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference in San Francisco.

• January 14, 1952: The Today Show debuted, live, to East Coast and Central time zone customers. The show continued live until 1958.

• September-October 1960: The Kennedy-Nixon Debates were the first presidential debates that were televised, and were broadcast live. These debates were instrumental in setting John Kennedy on the path to the White House.

• July 23, 1962: Thirteen days after the launch of the Telstar satellite, the first transatlantic live television broadcast was relayed to a receiving station in England. President Kennedy was to give a short speech for the transmission, but due to its orbit around the Earth, there was only a 20-minute period of time the satellite could be used as a relay. That time window appeared earlier than scheduled, so the first transatlantic broadcast was of a baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago White Sox, live from Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

• November 24, 1963: Following the assassination of President Kennedy the day before, a live broadcast of suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being moved to a county jail caught the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby. Oswald was killed, and Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner, subdued and arrested, on live television.

• November 25, 1963: JFK’s funeral was broadcast live to the country.

• December 24, 1968: As the Apollo 8 spacecraft circled the moon for the ninth time, astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders gave the Earth its first look at an Earthrise view appearing above the lunar surface, live on TV. To mark the occasion on Christmas Eve, the astronauts, in turn, read passages of the biblical creation story from the Book of Genesis in the King James Bible.

• July 21, 1969: The world watched — live — as astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

Mister Boomer clearly remembers most of these live historical broadcasts, including the Nixon-Kennedy Debates, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s funeral and the first moon walk. Mister B was at a family Christmas party when the broadcast images of the Earth rising over the moon from Apollo 8 flickered on his uncle’s black and white television.

The next time a grandchild asks what you, as a boomer, watched before the advent of live social media, you know what to tell them.

How about you, boomers? Any live television memories stand out for you?