Historical Context

“Ethics” was published in the early 1980s, when the U.S. economy experienced a decided upturn after two decades of civil unrest and an uncertain position in the global market. Perhaps it is no accident that an economics of worth is what drives the poem’s ethical question, “which would you save, a Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn’t many years left anyhow?” When Republican Ronald Reagan became President in 1980, the country was ripe for economic reform. The former actor’s plan, later dubbed “Reaganomics,” involved drastic cuts in taxes and social spending, and resulted for a while in steep declines in interest and inflation rates, and the appearance of millions of new jobs.

In retrospect, however, that economic prosperity benefited only a few. The wealthiest five percent of Americans celebrated twenty percent gains, while three-fifths of the population, at the lower end of the economic scale, watched their income fall by nearly eight percent. Child poverty and homelessness increased exponentially. Not until October 19, 1987, the date of the biggest stock market crash on record, did Wall Street end its eightyear- long “party.” The nation’s apparent prosperity had thinly veiled its enormous trade and federal budget deficits, and there were signs that inflation and high interest rates were making a comeback. These trends were blamed for “Black Monday,” as it was called, when total share values plunged half a trillion dollars. Some 37,000 Wall Street employees were laid off in its wake, and it wasn’t until the end of the decade that the state of the U.S. economy improved.

eanwhile, those who rose high on the wheel of fortune in...

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