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The More Things Change …

Photonics Spectra
May 2009
Melinda A. Rose, Senior Editor,

In an opinion poll about the economy, our readers said they opposed government protection for the US auto industry. Nearly half of respondents said they believed that the recession would be only moderate, while 4 percent thought it would be as bad as the 1930s. More than eight out of 10 thought that their income has not kept pace with cost-of-living increases. Most said they would rather see the federal government produce a balanced budget than provide a tax cut.

“Personal savings is the only true source of long-term capital, and it has plunged 33 percent in the last six months. All companies need to raise capital to remain solvent.

The biggest liquidity squeeze is still coming,” wrote one respondent from California.

“If Detroit made a good subcompact car with a good repair rate and mileage of more than 30 mpg, I’d buy it, even if it cost a few hundred dollars more than a Honda,” wrote another from Washington, D.C.

These results and sentiments probably seem in line with what the majority of pollsters are gleaning from the public today, right? Well, you might be surprised to learn that this survey was not conducted last month – or even last year. It took place in June 1980 and appeared in the September 1980 issue of Optical Spectra magazine, Photonics Spectra’s old moniker.

The 1980s were a time of scientific and technological achievements. The scanning tunneling electron and atomic force microscopes both came into being in the 1980s, allowing the previously invisible to become visible and opening up the field of nanotechnology, which continues to evolve today. The first microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) also were introduced during this decade, and celebrated breakthroughs such as the quantum Hall effect changed physics forever.

I can’t help experiencing a sense of déjà vu, however, when I remember that the 1980s also were a time of hostile takeovers, mega-mergers and leveraged buyouts, particularly in the telecommunications and transportation sectors. A smooth-talking Texas oilman had a large following (…on TV, and his name was J.R. Ewing). The Republicans in the White House championed big business and tax cuts for the wealthy, leading to an economic surge that came to a sobering halt in 1987 on Black Monday, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average experienced what was then its largest single-day drop in history.

Author Tom Wolfe dubbed Baby Boomers – who ranged in age from 16 to 34 in 1980 – the “splurge generation.” The phrase “Greed is good!” from the 1987 movie Wall Street became popular, the term “yuppie” (for young urban professional) was coined and designer labels were must-haves. At the same time, the average salary at the beginning of the decade was $15,700 and minimum wage, $3.10 – does the phrase “living beyond your means” spring to mind?

The Optical Spectra poll I happened upon while looking through some back issues may have been taken almost 29 years ago, but, to me, it truly proves the saying that the more things change, the more they remain the same. I hope, as we continue to deal with the current recession, that we can learn from the mistakes of the past because, to quote philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Basic ScienceCommunicationsEditorialindustrialMicroscopyphysicsscientific and technological achievements

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