5 Unexpected Ways The 1990s Were Different From Today
'90s nostalgia is all the rage these days, but the true radicalness of the decade wasn't due to grunge music, Pokemons, or jorts. It's because the '90s were the last era in which America had its shit together. As a species, we've generally been moving forward, but there are plenty of big problems today that people during the Spice Girls Epoch managed to handle with very little effort. For example ...
There Were No True "Red" Or "Blue" States
Today, the country's division into red and blue states is so entrenched that we're pretty sure California would rather vote for the literal devil than a Republican. But the whole red and blue division has only formed in the last two decades. Before that, a presidential candidate still had a reasonable chance of winning just about any one state in any given election. Take a look at this Electoral College results map from the 1992 presidential election:
Back in 1992, now deeply red states like Tennessee, Kentucky, Montana, West Virginia, *gasps for air* and Louisiana all voted for Bill Clinton. Let's take a look at the battle map in 1996:
Same Clinton, yet lots of flipped states. It's almost as if back then, people reacted to the actual political landscape instead of blindly rooting for their team, even though they knew the quarterback had bone spurs and was into some disgusting locker room talk. No map shows this "results over party" mindset more than the one from 1988:
That's right, even California voted for milquetoast George H.W. Bush, just to keep the Reagan party going. Also, a strange thing used to happen in American politics: very close calls, where politicians had to fight for every single vote. In the 1976 election, there were 20 states with a winning margin of five points or less. And during the 1960s, nearly all the largest states were toss-ups, which would be unimaginable today. In the 2000 presidential election, the number of states won with five points or less was down to 12. In the 2012 election, it was down to four. Between political polarization, public indifference, and some serious gerrymandering, it really feels like America no longer has any wiggle room. And wiggling, as we all know, is the very cornerstone of democracy.
Climate Change Wasn't Nearly As Political
The American public is allowed two opinions on climate change: We can pretend it doesn't exist, or we can cower in the corner with an ice cream tub. 232 out of 435 congresspeople and 53 out of 100 senators don't think that humankind is affecting the climate, and the current president has said that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese to destroy good old American manufacturing power.
Chinese hoax? That's absurd. It's clearly an Australian scam to destroy our precious snow reserves.
Now, original flavor President Bush first confronted the climate change problem all the way back in 1990. And this very conservative Republican immediately rolled up his sleeves and told his intergovernmental panel that they needed "to assess the potential for future climate change, and to develop effective programs." Then he pledged over $2 billion to "protect the environment," and poured hundreds of millions into the U.S. Global Change Research Program. And the weirdest thing of all: Everyone agreed! At the time, over two-thirds of both Republicans and Democrats believed that climate change was a real and serious challenge, not something you should dismiss to pick up some easy coal miner votes.
Then money happened. When oil companies started feeling the heat, they took a page from the tobacco companies and poured cash into lobbying and counter-research, even using the same researchers, research institutes, and PR firms Big Tobacco uses to keep that cancer money coming.
Since then, the doubt (real for people, profitable for politicians) has spread like the wildfires we're no longer preventing. And now the gap between Republican and Democrat responses to both climate change and environmental conservation is wider than ever, which is bad news for everyone who enjoys dry land and breathing.
Poor People Are Worse Off Today Than They Were In The '90s
Poverty has always been terrible, but some poverty is just plain worse than others. Let's look at minimum wage. Sure, it's higher now than it was during the '90s, when it peaked at $5.15, but that's not taking inflation into account, which makes those paltry few '90s bucks actually worth more than today's $7.25. And more crucially, it's become harder to live on that minimum wage than it was 30 years ago.
Adjusting for inflation, the minimum wage was at its highest all the way back in 1968 ($8.68 in 2016 dollars), which is why even hippies could afford weed and van money. And even that was relatively pitiful on a global scale, since most other affluent countries have a minimum wage of around $12. Yet all of these figures only factor in inflation, not the relatively unique economic problems that the U.S. has been throwing at young people.
The average cost of going to college has jumped between 157 percent and 237 percent, depending on in- or out-of-state tuition. Meanwhile, cuts on the state and national levels mean 46 states are spending less on their students, while student debt amounts to about $1.2 trillion, which surpasses even credit card debt. All of that for a much lower chance of finding a good job after graduation.
In 1996, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) bill placed an emphasis on getting welfare recipients back to work, but all it really did was force people into taking bad jobs to keep the government off their backs. Experts point out that since TANF was instituted, deep or extreme poverty (families living on less than $2 per person a day) has doubled. 1996 was apparently also the last time $2 was still worth something.
It Was Much Harder For Pharmaceutical Companies To Screw Us Over
Being a doctor in the '90s was swell. ER was on every week, patients could still afford to see you once in a while, and the pharmaceutical companies were making you rich as hell. Back then, multi-billion-dollar drug companies needed doctors to push their pills for them, so they made it rain golf clubs and BMW convertibles nonstop.
But in 1997, the system changed. Thanks to new FDA rules, pharmaceutical companies were allowed to directly advertise their drugs to the public, using ads that conveniently didn't even have to mention all of the side effects. So if you're seeing an ad that's honest about side effects like mania, depression, anal leakage, and explosive diarrhea, you really don't want to find out what they were keeping off that crawl.
Like the first ever prescription drug ad, which listed exactly none.
Some experts think direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising has also led to more unnecessary prescriptions for newer drugs, often with shorter safety records. See, pharmaceutical companies spend the most money advertising their sexy new chemicals -- the ones that don't yet have cheap generic variants. And prescription drug spending has nearly doubled since the '90s, from only about 6 percent in 1995 to over 10 percent in 2015.
These changes in advertising have also altered how people get prescriptions, and even the frequency of self-diagnosis. In the '90s, people relied on their doctor's recommendations, but today, many go to the doctor already knowing what prescription they want -- and will argue until they get it. It's clear that DTC has made things worse for everyone involved (except powerful pharmaceutical companies), so here's something we never thought we'd say: Let's go back to the days when doctors made even more money.
America Didn't Have an Enemy (And We Weren't So Afraid)
The '90s were a capitalist's wet dream. People were making tons of money, computers were changing everything, and the cocaine hangover from the '80s was finally wearing off. But most importantly, communism was falling apart like an ancient winter coat originally sewn by a babushka.
For nearly 50 years, the Soviet Union had been America's greatest enemy. Commies had the bomb, they had big military parades, and their boxers were really mean to Rocky. But we'd finally beaten them! The Berlin Wall was coming down, the Russians were friendly, and America was the lone superpower on top of the world. Screaming Eagles, baby!
And that was supposed to be it for America. Since the '70s, the nation had been suffering from "Vietnam Syndrome," a disease that other countries call "being cautious." After Vietnam, nobody wanted to get involved in another war without plenty of allies, a clear timetable, and a full license to cut and run if things got real stupid. So with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the country wanting a little break from war, things were strangely peaceable. U.S. military spending went down in the 1990s, from 5.2 percent to a mere 3 percent of the entire GDP. Only 3 percent of ten trillion dollars?!
But you remember what happened next, or at least you better. After all, you vowed to "never forget." On 9/11, America took a hit on the home turf, something that hadn't really happened since Pearl Harbor. So of course those old war muscles started twitching again. Unfortunately, those were exactly the wrong muscles to use to tackle terrorism. Terrorism is all about forcing a response, and carpet-bombing an entire country in the hopes of maybe hitting a few dudes with suspiciously long beards is certainly "a response."
After 2001, neoconservatives (the New Coke of Republicans) wanted a war to restore moral order to the West. The result? Iraq War II was more than twice as long as World War II. Al-Qaeda morphed into other homegrown terror outfits, like ISIS and Boko Haram. Between Afghanistan and Iraq, America has spent close to $5 trillion on foreign wars. In the '90s, people thought the world was approaching the endgame of history, when liberal democracies would rule, prosperity was universal, and we'd all live happily ever after. Well, zero out of three ain't that bad.
V.R. Craft always heard you should write about what you know, so she decided to write a book called Stupid Humans. She also writes science fiction stories, some of which appear on her blog, Stellar Sarcasm, as well as satire under the pseudonym W. T. Fallon -- the same name she used to publish Fail To The Chief, a novel that imagined the presidential election as a reality show. Fancy that. Steven Assarian is a librarian. He writes stuff here.
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For more, check out Why Everything You Believe About The '90s Is Wrong and 5 Ways The '90s Made Us Strong.
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