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Back, to the Future?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Maybe it really is possible to go back in time.

Recently, the rock group the Cars wrapped up a short concert tour to back their new album, one that fans waited almost 25 years for. Fans can quibble about the group’s song selection -- it should have opened the concert with 1984’s "Hello Again," for example, and should have played fewer songs from the new album and more classics.

Still, the band sounds great, even without key member Benjamin Orr, who passed away 11 years ago. Unlike their fellow '80s supergroup U2 (still touring after all these years), the Cars steered clear of politics during their set, focusing on a businesslike approach that let their music do the communicating.

Listening to these 60-ish musicians rock out, though, it was impossible to avoid being transported back in time to the 1980s, a trip down memory lane that actually provides a glimmer of hope for the country’s future.

Let's face it: with a $14.3 trillion (and climbing) national debt, high gasoline prices and still-high unemployment numbers, things can seem bleak these days. But the lesson from the 1980s is: We've been in tough times before, and worked our way through.

Recall that the late 1970s (when the Cars were first charting) were marked by stagflation (high inflation and slow economic growth) and (stop me if this sounds familiar) high oil prices. Yet within a decade oil was cheap, inflation was under control and unemployment was low. These improvements were the direct results of successful policies implemented by leaders and policymakers who worked together to accomplish big things.

For example, consider inflation. In his book, "The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath," Robert Samuelson explains how the new president, Ronald Reagan, and the Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker allowed a deep recession to occur early in the decade.

Unemployment climbed. It would have been easy for either man, especially the president whose political future was on the line, to back down and "do something" (i.e., spend money) to battle unemployment. This is what had happened over and over again. That's why, as columnist George Will puts it, "inflation seemed to be the systemic disease of democracy."

Instead, Reagan stayed the course, and our country broke its inflationary spiral. A more-stable money supply paved the way for real growth, throughout the rest of the '80s and well beyond. Then, as now, Americans were also considering how to reform the military. "The tough choices ahead are really about the kind of role the American people -- accustomed to unquestioned military dominance for the past two decades -- want their country to play in the world," outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates warns.

But in the early 1980s, the U.S. was also at a military crossroads. The war in Vietnam still stung. The U.S. had an "okay Army," according to military analyst James Carafano. "There was no money to modernize weapons and equipment," Carafano told Congress in 2005. "Even if they had the people to fill the ranks, there wasn’t enough money to pay for training and maintenance. It was all okay -- as long as we didn’t actually have to fight anybody." The Reagan administration increased spending on defense, but also oversaw a massive reorganization that made the military more efficient and effective.

In 1986 Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff became the principal military advisor to the president, and the act "streamlined the operational chain of command from the president to the secretary of defense to the unified commanders," the National Defense University library explains. There's no doubt our country is in a time of military transition. However, there’s no reason it can’t emerge stronger, just as it did in the Reagan years.

Finally, consider taxes. "The 1986 Tax Reform Act was designed to improve three aspects of the tax code: efficiency, equity, and simplicity," writes economist Jason Fichtner. The bill sailed through the Senate 97-3. The measure worked, closing loopholes and eliminating subsidies. Of course, lawmakers have spent the last 25 years undoing their 1986 reform, but there's no reason they couldn't change course and once again craft a simpler, flatter tax code.

Americans face problems today we didn't have in the 1980s, of course. For one thing, more of us rely on Washington. "In 2009, 64.3 million Americans depended on the government (read: their fellow citizens) for their daily housing, food, and health care," reports The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Dependence on Government.

But dependency isn't destiny. Americans came together 25 years ago under a Republican president and a Democratic congress and solved some big problems, leading to a generation of explosive growth. There's no reason we can’t do so again and, in the words of the Cars, "Let the Good Times Roll," once again.

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