Welcome to Behind the Lines, a weekly conversation with Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley and BYU economist Val Lambson.
Lambson: We knew each other as adolescents. We had some wonderful arguments, you with your “Nixon’s the One” campaign button and me with my “Drop Nixon not Bombs” campaign sticker. Do you think that teenagers have it rougher now than we did then?
Bagley: I remember adolescence. It was a priceless experience that you couldn’t pay me a million bucks to repeat. The question you pose is unanswerable, but it seems change today is happening so quickly that each new generation is faced with challenges unique to itself. Some things, however, are eternal to the human condition: being 15 sucks.
Lambson: I suppose it does, but I’d do it again for a million dollars. Wait, are you talking about a million 1972 dollars (from our adolescence), a million current dollars, or a million 2016 dollars (after we avoid the fiscal cliff by inflating the currency to pay for all the government spending)?
Bagley: The past always looks better in hindsight; inflation was 6 percent, today it’s around 2 percent. Besides, it wasn’t the rate of inflation I remember, it was the certainty that there was something wrong with me. At 15 one’s peers are more important and influential than parents, which leads to a perverse conundrum. Kids at their most psychologically fragile seem programmed to desperately seek approval from the Lord of the Flies gang.
Lambson: There was something wrong with you. You thought Nixon was the one. (So did I, but I meant something different by it.) Other than that, as I recall, you were well-liked, athletic, artistic, and even theatrical. Inflation in the late 70s (which was significantly higher than 6 percent) was probably due to the Federal Reserve increasing the money supply to pay (belatedly) for the War on Communism and the War on Poverty. We won the War on Communism (except for North Korea, Cuba, and American Universities). The War on Poverty, not so much. Early in the Reagan administration, Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, a Carter appointee, put the brakes on monetary growth, caused a recession, and got inflation under control. Inflation is still tame, but we have added the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, the War on Afghanistan, and two Wars on Iraq to the list. As the deficit grows, do you think we can avoid another inflationary expansion of the money supply? I don’t.
Bagley: No one knows the future. As a young teenage Republican I was absolutely positive that Social Security wasn’t going to be around for me when it came time to retire. It looks like I was wrong. What I’ve learned about America is that we have a genius for muddling through.
Lambson: Indeed we do. I am not as sanguine about Social Security as you are, though. Especially since I wish you a long and productive life. If you retire before Social Security goes bankrupt, I will miss your cartoons which, although usually wrong, are always provocative. Happy Holidays.
Bagley: And to you and yours as well.