As the stock market made like the Coney Island Cyclone early this week, Reuters photographer Brendan McDermid documented frazzled traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. One of his photos—this man, whom I’ll call Trader Joe—caught my eye because of his NYSE badge number: 1992.
It’s never a good idea to read too much into coincidence. But ever since I read this Vanity Fair piece by Kurt Andersen, I’ve been cognizant of 1992 as a cultural flashpoint. Andersen’s essay is the kind people love to make a piñata of because his proffered evidence can seem overly anecdotal and subjective. But the associations he points out made sense to me.
Anderson argues that even though technology, culture, and commerce had changed drastically in the two decades between 1992 and 2012, the appearance of Americans and their stuff wasn’t all that different. If you look at the change in dress style over other twenty-year blocks, the visuals are jolting: 1932 to 1952, 1952 to 1972, 1972 to 1992. But between 1992 and 2012, the guy in jeans and sneakers looks pretty much the same. In fact, six years year later, the girl in jeans and sneakers—say, in a Madewell ad—looks even more like her 1992 counterpart.
Trader Joe’s badge made me think back to February 1992. What was the big deal in America? Probably the New Hampshire primary and the desperate hours of Bill Clinton’s campaign. Gennifer Flowers had just held a press conference, and Clinton’s opponents went big on the allegations of infidelity as well as draft dodging. But after a February 15 speech in Dover—with Clinton promising to “be there for you til the last dog dies”—the skies brightened. Clinton’s second-place finish reenergized the campaign of The Comeback Kid.
Of all the issues facing the candidates in February 1992, the lingering recession was the electoral deal-breaker (“The economy, stupid”). I found a February 24, 1992, New York Magazine piece in which columnist Christopher Bryon wonders why the economy may have been stuck between recession and recovery. He got an answer from Ray Dalio of the Bridgewater Group: “The economy has become so ‘saturated with debt’ that all the Fed stimulation in the world may not bring about more than mediocre increases in actual borrowing and spending.”
Oh, yeah—the debt thing. It’s easy in hindsight to overlook the stakes of the 1992 presidential election. But Clinton’s path to paying down the national debt—hiking the top tax bracket and boosting the corporate tax rate—put the federal budget in the black by 1997 and led to an historically strong economy. It also cost him both houses of Congress in the 1994 midterms, which many believe ushered in the Republican savagery we are living with now.
Trader Joe’s badge could be read as a cryptic reminder of the economic crossroads America faced in 1992. The look of things may not be so different in 2018—Donald Trump wears the same kinds of suits and flashy watches and sports a Christmas ornament head concoction to approximate the tonsure of his forties—but we’re breathing the atmosphere of a different planet.
The Stormy Daniels infidelity story comes to nil as our bad-check-passing president and his toady Congress give huge tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans and corporations. According to Bloomberg, “The ballooning federal budget deficit under President Donald Trump will force the U.S. to borrow more than $1 trillion this year and risks worsening the frenzy behind the global sell-off in stock markets.”
We should not be fooled by the Naughty by Nineties Instagram filter that has somehow got clicked onto our lives. Even though Aladdin posters are all over the MTA, there’s no Comeback Kid on the horizon. Trader Joe is reminding us: Plus ça change, plus ça change. §