John Ehrman: How He Approached the 80s in His Book

Historians in the News

John Ehrman, author of The Eighties, in a comment posted on CNET, the conservative list run by Richard Jensen (5-27-05):

How did I come to write The Eighties as I did? It's a little complicated, but probably no more so than for any other writer.

My main purpose was to answer a question that had nagged at me for some time. When I started on the project, in 1995, the 1980s had the reputation of being the "decade of greed," when the few did well and the many did badly. But, as I looked back at my experiences during the 80s, that didn't make sense to me--I had gotten out of school, gone to work, made a little money, bought a condo, and gotten married. Things seemed pretty good to me and, as I looked around me, they looked pretty good for most others. And so my question: was I just one of the lucky few, or were things better than generally portrayed? This led, of course, to more questions, and lots of research.

The book focuses on a few aspects of the 1980s: how conservatism displaced liberalism in American politics, how the economy changed, and who gained and who lost. I chose this approach, rather than trying for a comprehensive narrative, because I'm not very good at writing narrative and it allowed me to concentrate on the topic that I thought most important and most interesting. Another reason for looking at only selected parts of the 80s was external--Yale imposed a strict word limit. Like Greg Schneider [who reviewed me book], almost everyone has noticed that there is nothing on foreign policy in the book. That was intentional from the start, as I wanted to focus strictly on domestic matters and, anyway, once the word limit came into play foreign affairs simply could not fit. Nonetheless, I believe I cover enough important issues, and structure the book well enough to give a solid overall portrait of the era.

My research left me with a great respect for economists, and I think we have much to learn from them. Much of the story of the 1980s is economic, and so I spent a lot of time with the American Economic Review (AER), Journal of Economic Perspectives, Journal of Economic Literature (JEL), and the publications of the Federal Reserve Board and its banks. Economists seem to be much better organized than historians--they seem to cluster their important work in fewer journals than we do, and they seem to do a very good job of addressing important (and interesting) questions, rather than drifting off into the obscure. The thorough review articles in the JEL, and the short papers in the May issue of the AER each year give the layman a single entry point to summarize the literature and understand the state of research on a given topic. Individual economists also post their papers on their web sites much more than historians do, which makes their latest work much more accessible. It would be nice if historians organized themselves as well.

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