The 1970s Had a Big Bright Side, Too

In 1974, Ken Langone formed a venture capital company, Invemed, and started scouting for opportunities. As the company’s name suggests, he initially focused on healthcare, but couldn’t shake off the idea of a giant opportunity in home improvement. Everybody liked to improve their homes, not least Langone himself, who had grown up in poverty, but the home-improvement sector was archaic and fragmented — lots of mom-and-pop stores with high prices and limited inventories. Why not create well-organized superstores that could provide everything you need at everyday low prices?

Langone spent months in the fruitless search for people who shared his vision before striking up a relationship with Arthur Blank and Bernard Marcus. They planned their operations meticulously, coming up with the name Home Depot for their new venture. In 1979 the three opened their first two stores in Atlanta — high-ceilinged warehouses covering 55,000-75,000 square feet — and waited for the customers to come. Two years later they went public.

Home Depot Inc. proved one of the great business success stories of the era, transforming the home improvement industry and turning the three founders into billionaires. Langone is one of New York City’s great philanthropists, having given more than $200 million to New York University’s medical school. But, as he emphasizes in his ebullient autobiography “I Love Capitalism!,” he is just as proud of the fact that Home Depot turned 3,000 early employees, from the cart-collectors in the parking lot upward, into multimillionaires and currently provides 400,000 with solid jobs.

The parallels between the 2020s and the 1970s grow more numerous by the day. The economy faces the threat of stagflation. Fuel prices are surging, and shortages loom. Politicians are flailing. The international environment is deteriorating. The Supreme Court is revisiting the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. The homicide rate is soaring amid a general sense of social breakdown. On a recent trip to New York City, I was struck by the dismal state of midtown Manhattan, as regular citizens abandon the streets, particularly at night, to the homeless and mentally ill. How long before Joe Biden addresses the country about the national malaise, or a streaming platform decides to remake Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish?”

The obvious response to the prospect of a 1970s rerun is to retreat from the world. If you can work from home, abandon the big city for the suburbs, ex-urbs, or, better still, the countryside; if you have enough savings, retire early. Throw out the TV and cultivate your garden instead. “This is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts,” President Gerald Ford said when he took office in 1974, as the 1970s really began to bite. “I have begun to think that the seventies are the very worst years since the history of life began on earth,” Joseph Alsop added in the same year. Surely the last thing that we want to do is to live through that again.