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The June 23 Brexit vote has raised questions about the fate of the troubled Port Talbot Works, Britain's largest surviving steel plant — a huge, steam-belching facility that has long been the town's biggest employer.

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This is the first in a series of essays concerning our collective future. The goal is to bring forth some of the main issues humanity faces today, as we move forward to uncertain times. In an effort to be as thorough as possible, we will consider two kinds of threats: those due to natural disasters and those that are man-made. The idea is to expose some of the dangers and possible mechanisms that have been proposed to deal with these issues. My intention is not to offer a detailed analysis for each threat — but to invite reflection and, hopefully, action.

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Back To The Economy Of The '90s? Not So Fast

Dec 25, 2012
Originally published on December 25, 2012 9:42 am

Throughout the debate over taxes and the "fiscal cliff," there's been a lot of looking backward — to the 1990s. The economic expansion of the 1990s was the longest in recorded American history.

Democrats say the economy thrived under the leadership of President Bill Clinton, including his tax rate increase on high earners. Republicans say government didn't spend as much then and that growth didn't really take off until the GOP took control of Congress in 1995.

So what actually happened in the '90s? What made them tick?

A Unique Boom

First, some numbers. Unemployment averaged just 5.7 percent in the '90s. The stock market returned 18 percent a year for the decade. Inflation was tame. And the federal government actually ran surpluses for a few years.

"The '90s was a very special period that's unlikely to be repeated for a while," says Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of PIMCO, the world's largest bond fund.

Many of the developments worked to the advantage of the U.S. El-Erian says the Cold War was over and new markets were opening around the world.

"Not only was there a peace dividend in terms of reallocating resources but there were more people to sell to and there was cheaper labor, so the U.S., as the dominant consumer and dominant producer at that time, benefited disproportionately from what was going on globally," says El-Erian, who President Obama is appointing as chairman of an advisory group on global economic development.

Domestically, the economic mojo was working too.

Harvard economist Dale Jorgenson says those little microchips being pumped out in Silicon Valley were transformational. As they got faster, cheaper and more powerful, the computer revolution reached into the workplace.

"There was an incredible boom in information technology equipment and software," says Jorgenson, who has written extensively about the productivity gains of the '90s. "People who hadn't been using information technology found they were able to apply it in their jobs. People who had been using it were upgrading their products very quickly."

'A Story About Microchips'

As the president and the Democrats like to point out, the economy did just fine after tax rates on high earners were raised in 1993. Tax rates were also cut — on capital gains in 1997.

Jorgenson doesn't think either change did much to fuel the boom.

"It was entirely a story about microchips," he says.

John O'Farrell, a partner in the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, agrees that huge improvements in computer technology — both software and hardware — propelled the economy.

"The U.S. really led this entire shift in the way the world works," O'Farrell says.

What he remembers is how the Internet unlocked the ability to communicate.

In 1997, O'Farrell left his job with a landline phone company to join a broadband startup, @Home Network.

"I was part of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of talented, smart, experienced people from all around the world, from other industries often, to take advantage of this enormous explosion of creativity," O'Farrell says.

He says Washington wasn't as central to the economy back then. The real action was in Silicon Valley, New York and Hollywood.

Washington's Role

El-Erian, the PIMCO CEO, says Washington did make a positive contribution. The Federal Reserve finally conquered inflation. And the budget was under control.

"Government played a large role domestically and globally, but it was as an enabler as opposed to someone directly involved in the economy."

Now, it would be wrong to leave the impression that the era was some kind of economic utopia. There was plenty of froth over e-commerce. Online retailers with no plausible business model were hyped breathlessly by stock research analysts. The iconic image of the dot-com bubble was the doglike sock puppet that starred in commercials for online retailer Pets.com. Money-losing startups like Pets.com imploded.

And some big highfliers later turned out to be fraudulent — Enron, WorldCom. Home prices rose sharply late in the decade. Everyone knows how that ended.

El-Erian says in economic cycles there can be too much of a good thing.

"So the irony of capitalism is that stability tends to encourage excesses. Excesses encourage bubbles. Bubbles encourage crises," he says.

El-Erian says boom-to-bust is a pattern. But it's not an ironclad rule. He thinks that the financial meltdown could have been avoided.

And he says despite their current bickering and dithering, Washington politicians could avoid a different kind of crisis over the budget and the debt that's coming due.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, we'll look back even farther into our economic past, to the 1990s, as the nation edges closer to this so-called fiscal cliff. That decade of prosperity has been on many people's minds, including President Obama.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I just believe that anyone making over $250,000 a year should go back to the income tax rates we were paying under Bill Clinton. Back when our economy created nearly 23 million new jobs, the biggest budget surplus in history and plenty of millionaires to boot.

GREENE: The economic expansion of the 1990s was the longest in recorded American history.

NPR's Uri Berliner explains some of the reasons why.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: First, some numbers. Unemployment averaged just 5.7 percent in the '90s. The stock market returned 18 percent a year for the decade. Inflation was tame, and the federal government actually ran surpluses for a few years.

MOHAMED EL-ERIAN: The '90s was a very special period that is unlikely to be repeated for a while.

BERLINER: That's Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of Pimco, the world's largest bond fund. He says the Cold War was over and new markets were opening around the world.

EL-ERIAN: Not only was there a peace dividend, in terms of reallocating resources, but there were more people to sell to and there was cheaper labor. So, the U.S. as the dominant consumer and dominant producer at that time benefitted disproportionately from what was going on globally.

BERLINER: Domestically, the economic mojo was working too. Harvard economist Dale Jorgenson says those little microchips being pumped out in Silicon Valley were transformational. As they got faster, cheaper and more powerful, the computer revolution reached into the workplace.

DALE JORGENSON: There was an incredible boom in information technology equipment and software. So, people who hadn't been using information technology found that they were able to apply it in their jobs. People who had been using it were upgrading their products very quickly.

BERLINER: As President Obama and the Democrats like to point out, the economy did fine after tax rates on high earners were raised in 1993. Tax rates were also cut on capital gains in 1997. Jorgenson doesn't think either change did much to fuel the boom.

JORGENSON: It was entirely a story about microchips.

JOHN O'FARRELL: The U.S. really led this entire shift in the way the world works.

BERLINER: That's John O'Farrell, a partner in the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. What he remembers about the '90s is how the Internet unlocked the ability to communicate. In '97, O'Farrell left his job with a landline phone company to join a broadband startup called At Home Network.

O'FARRELL: I was part of, you know, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of, you know, talented, smart experienced people from all around the world, from other industries in many cases coming into Silicon Valley to take advantage of this enormous explosion of creativity.

BERLINER: O'Farrell says Washington wasn't as central to the economy back then. The real action was in Silicon Valley, New York and Hollywood. El-Erian, the Pimco CEO, says Washington did make a positive contribution. The Fed finally conquered inflation. And the budget was under control.

EL-ERIAN: Government played a large role domestically and globally, but it was as an enabler as opposed to someone who's directly involved in the economy.

BERLINER: Now, it would be wrong to leave impression that era was some kind of economic utopia. There was plenty of froth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Pets.com because pets can't drive. Oh yeah. This is my kind of party. Oh yeah.

BERLINER: Money-losing startups like pets.com imploded. And some big highflyers later turned out to be fraudulent: Enron, WorldCom. Home prices rose sharply late in the decade. Everyone knows how that ended. Pimco's El-Erian says in economic cycles there can be too much of a good thing.

EL-ERIAN: So, the irony of capitalism is that stability tends to encourage excesses, excesses encourage bubbles, bubbles encourage crises.

BERLINER: El-Erian says boom to bust is a pattern but it's not an ironclad rule. He thinks that the financial meltdown could have been avoided. El-Erian was just named by President Obama to chair an advisory group on global economic development. And he says despite their current bickering and dithering, Washington politicians could avoid a different kind of crisis over the budget and the debt that's coming due. Uri Berliner, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.