The first decade of the 21st century is about to come to an end. To those who say the new decade doesn’t start until 2011, I’d say that’s like saying a baby isn’t really alive until it’s first birthday. From Y2K to today, we’ve just put an interesting ten years behind us.
I’ve called the 1990s the decade of illusions, and noted how this decade has shattered those illusions. Others, from Time magazine to pundits on the news have labeled the “aughts” the ‘decade from hell.’ So where are we as 2009 comes to an end?
The difficulties of the last ten years started early. On March 11, 2000 the NASDAQ hit its high of 5011. Lou Dobbes quite his job as a news anchor to get involved in the dotcom craze, being a part of space.com. Jim Cramer said the NASDAQ could reach 8000 by the end of the year. The Bush-Gore campaign focused on how to deal with the budgetary surpluses that were expected — enough to pay off the debt within a decade or so. With the collapse of Communism, most people thought the future was bright — capitalism and democracy would expand, as would economic prosperity.
By summer the stock market had crashed. That fall into winter the US would endure a bitter contested election, one which a number of people would always consider illegitimate (though Vice President Gore graciously accepted the result). Then in 2001 the US would be hit by a terrorist strike that was a decade in the planning. Suddenly the invulnerable superpower had seen it’s economic euphoria and its military invulnerability punctured. In October 2001 the US invaded Afghanistan to try to capture Osama Bin Laden and destroy al qaeda.
In 2003 the US, defying most of the rest of the world decided to launch a war against Iraq, claiming the country harbored plans to build weapons of mass destruction. The reality was that the US wanted to dramatically alter the landscape of the Mideast to bring democracy and human rights to the region — and assure US corporate control of massive oil reserves. This would both protect the US from terrorism (democratic opportunity would diminish the allure of extremism) and assure that as oil production starts to decline, the US would be in control of its distribution. On both counts, the effort failed miserably.
For awhile, though, the US avoided confronting the reality of the collapsed illusions. In Afghanistan, the war was declared all but over, as the Bush administration dithered on how to handle the fact that Bin Laden survived and al qaeda was not destroyed. They put off any decisions on Afghanistan and focused on Iraq — where more American troops were engaged, and more oil was on the line. In Iraq the US at first claimed it was just ‘more difficult’ than expected, and we had to ‘stay the course.’ By 2006 the collapse of Iraqi society into a brief civil war made it impossible to put lipstick on the war and declare it successful. The public turned against the Bush Administration and the war, and the Democrats rode the wave to control both Congress and after 2008, the Presidency.
The US also hid economic reality for awhile with a cheap credit policy that fostered a real estate bubble, as from 2004-06 hyper-consumerism defined the economy. Savings rates went to zero, home equity loans based on the bubble fueled a spurt of consumption that created a brief illusion of renewed prosperity. That started to collapse in2007, and the oil spike of 2008 punctured that bubble completely, and put the entire US financial industry in peril of collapse. Only massive government intervention prevented total collapse, but the result was record deficits and debt.
Then in 2009 the final illusion — the idea that a new leader would come to suddenly and dramatically bring change and renewal — died as well. No President can wave his hand and change deep structural circumstances. Afghanistan worsened, attempts to stimulate the economy increased debt, and on the world stage the US suddenly found itself with a level of impotence never experienced since the end of WWII. The right would blame Obama, saying he wasn’t assertive enough, but the reality is that the US is a diminished power — not because of Obama (that over-estimates the role of the President — President Bush was even more marginalized at the end of his term) but because of the economic and political realities of 2009.
A decade from hell? Perhaps, but if so an inevitable one given the imbalances built up over the previous decades. To be sure, in many ways the 1970s were even worse — a lose in Vietnam, the Cambodian genocide (in part caused by US intervention in Cambodia), Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, two oil shocks, the Iranian revolution, Americans held hostage, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Yet the US in 1980 didn’t have severe debts and deficits, and was still the primary world economy by far. I prefer to see the “aughts” as the “Reality decade.” Reality bites, the saying goes, and in the last ten years we were forced to part with the illusion that the US was an invincible dominant superpower.
The United States is a world power, but one currently in decline. Those who deny this fall increasingly into myths — they blame Obama or focus on emotional issues like wild conspiracies about global climate change (the most bizarre being the idea that scientists are engaged in some kind of massive multi-national fraud in order to gain research dollars), or other short term peripheral issues. Just as some over-estimated the ability of one person to change things, the other side makes the same error by ignoring reality in order to simply blame the President. Myths are built around national symbols, fantasies about a ‘war against Islam’ or some kind of utopian solution — if only the right policies were chosen, all ills would heal. But that is fantasy. We fell for that in the 1980s, and thirty years of trying to deny reality through debt and deficits brought us to this point.
That’s what it’s like when an empire falls. The nationalists look for scapegoats and try to deny the inevitable as long as possible. Pragmatists like Obama try to fix things, but refrain from questioning the core conditions that put us on this path. Those who benefit from the status quo try to fight needed change, worried that they’ll be worse off afterwards. The result is a continual drift downward, with small crises accentuating and hastening the decline. Whether it ends in collapse or drifts downward until at some point we simply are forced come to grips with the loss of power, the course right now is clear.
Yet there is one hope. The people might decide that we can re-embrace core values, retreat from trying to control the planet, cut unnecessary military spending, decentralize power from the central government, take on big money — the corporate and financial interests that have their tentacles deep into both political parties — and somehow break out of the hypnosis caused by bombardment from a mass media selling illusory narratives based on feeding emotion in order to gain viewers or readers. In a best case scenario, the reality decade will wake us up, and we’ll demand change. Obama’s election was indicative of that desire, even if the idea that one man could change this trend was misplaced.
The public is aware something is wrong. Populist propagandists are aware of this too, and are trying to lure the public into simplistic solutions — blame some scapegoat, promise an easy solution. We’ve seen that before — Mussolini and Hitler were classic examples. The solution is far more complex, and requires a rethinking of what kind of country we are entering the next decade. Are we up to it? And what exactly needs to be done? Those questions will be the challenge of the next decade.