Back to 1969?

 Charles Dickens could have written about it: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way."

Not to mention tin soldiers and Nixon coming.

The following events happened within one month:

  • July 18:  Ted Kennedy drove his car off the road at Chappaquiddik, killing Mary Jo Kopechne.
  • July 20:  Men first walked on the moon, planting the US flag on it.
  • August 9:   Members of Charlie Manson's cult murdered Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant, and three of her friends.
  • August 15-19: the Woodstock music festival was held in upstate New York.
  • About 900 US servicemen died in Vietnam.

Throughout that month, the number one pop hit was In the Year 2525.  The top TV show was Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.  The musical year was bookended by the Beatles giving their last performance in January and the Rolling Stones performing at Altamont in December, resulting in one homicide and three accidental deaths.

The year was 1969, the year of Easy Rider.  One of that movie's famous lines was, "You know Billy, we blew it." Abbie Hoffman said, "The '60s are gone, dope will never be as cheap, sex never as free, and the rock and roll never as great." He was later diagnosed as bipolar and committed suicide in 1989 in his apartment, a converted turkey coop.

The winners of Best Picture Oscars in 1964, '65 and '66 were My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and A Man for All Seasons. The Best Picture of 1969 was Midnight Cowboy. Something happened in the 60s, and I would call 1969 the Year of the Inflection Point. Coincidentally, I'm quite sure, that was the year I got a driver's license.

In the 60s, the federal government was involved in

  • A Cold War with the Soviet Union, leading to what some called an "arms race."
  • A hot war in Vietnam, where we had more than 500,000 troops at one time.
  • A War on Poverty, in fact the whole "New Frontier" movement.
  • A manned space program, to the point of men walking on the moon.
  • Building the interstate highway system.

All that was done on 18% of Gross Domestic Product (1961-70 average) - well under $200 billion per year. Defense spending accounted for almost half of that.

Today we have no Cold War; the Berlin Wall came down over two decades ago. We are at "war," apparently, only in Afghanistan, where we have 100,000 troops. (President Obama said our actions in Libya do not constitute war. The last combat brigade left Iraq in August 2010. Total US troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya might be about 150,000.) We no longer have a manned space program; no men have walked on the moon in almost four decades. The interstate highway system as originally planned was completed almost two decades ago.

Yet today the federal government consumes over 25% of GDP - almost $4 trillion per year. Defense spending accounts for only 20% of that, or less than half the percentage that JFK and LBJ had. Even adjusting for inflation, the federal government in 2011 spends triple what it did in the 60s.

In 1960 there was no Department of Education. No Department of Energy. No Department of Housing and Urban Development. No Department of Transportation. No Department of Veterans Affairs. No Drug Czar. No Environmental Protection Agency. No Occupational Safety and Health Administration. No Medicare. No Medicaid. No Department of Homeland Security.

You want to know what those things cost us today?

  • Education: $79.4 B.
  • Energy: $44.6 B.
  • HUD: $60.8 B.
  • Transportation: $79.5 B.
  • Veterans: $141.1 B.
  • Drug Czar: $15 B.
  • EPA: $11.1B.
  • OSHA: $0.5 B.
  • Medicare: $494.3 B.
  • Medicaid (non-Medicare "health care services"): $347.0 B.
  • DHS: $48.1 B.

The total amount of spending for that list of agencies is over $1.3 trillion. Over one third of today's federal budget is consumed by departments that did not even exist on the day John Kennedy was assassinated.

I was alive then, and I'm not that old. I remember life without an Education Department, for example. We somehow learned the times-table and how to diagram sentences without the "help" of the federal government, and also without mandatory teacher certification. The guys who put men on the moon all went to grade school before even the first New Math, much less the Education Department.

The National Endowment for the Arts is another federal agency that did not exist until 1965. Tell me, was there art in this country prior to 1965? Did art in this country get better after 1965?

There was no Medicare or Medicaid until 1965. Were grandmas dying in gutters then? Not as I recall. In fact, I remember my grandma getting a house call from a doctor. Remember house calls? (My grandma was not rich, and might even have qualified as "poor.") Yet life expectancy in the US increased from about 49 in 1900 to 70 in 1965 -- all before Medicare/Medicaid. In 1965, total spending on health care was 5.9% of GDP. Today it is pushing 20% and rising. Medicare and Medicaid, programs that did not exist in 1964, now dominate the federal budget.

Believe it or not, kids, some things can exist without the federal government funding them.

In 1969, men first walked on the moon. They planted the US flag there. Here is how Charles Bolden, Obama's head of NASA, described NASA's mission in a 2010 interview with Al Jazeera.

"When I became the NASA administrator, or before I became the NASA administrator, [Obama] charged me with three things.  One was he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math.  He wanted me to expand our international relationships.  And third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math and engineering."

In 40 years we went from walking on the moon to making Muslim nations feel good about themselves. And for the first time in her adult life, Michelle Obama is proud of her country.

You know Billy, we blew it.

Randall Hoven can be followed on Twitter.  His bio and previous writings can be found at