The Public Interest

Was it a decade of greed?

Richard B. McKenzie

Winter 1992

GREED HAS BEEN with us at least since biblical times. But to judge by the complaints of today’s social critics, the vice hit an all-time high in the 1980s. Cheered on by the Reagan administration (so the argument goes), the American people went on a consumption binge, growing more self-absorbed and less interested in the welfare of others. Political pundit Kevin Phillips characterizes the trend as one of “conspicuous opulence.” Its troubling manifestations are said to have included the jump that occurred in the sales of luxury cars and self-help books, the increased popularity of MBA degrees, and the shocking number of Wall Street brokers sent to prison. Even American college students, notes Phillips, mimicked their elders by harboring a “single ambition—doing something that would make money.” At best, this myopic focus on spectacular examples of self-centered or errant behavior offers an incomplete view of America in the 1980s. At worst, it paints a warped picture of the ways Americans lived during a decade of renewed growth.

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