TIME magazine recently called the 2000-2009 years “The Decade From Hell.” Which, of course, has led many commentators to the next level of adjective inflation by calling it “the worst decade ever.” It is perhaps easy to understand the temptation to apply that appellation to this thankfully-ending decade:
- Two wars are still going on, both longer than any war except Viet Nam, one of which in Afghanistan is essentially being restarted from scratch after eight years;
- We are now billions of dollars more in debt given a complete throwaway of government fiscal responsibility at all levels from all political parties;
- We are very gradually coming out of the worst economic disaster since the 1930s, spread across the country in varying degrees but not across all strata of our population;
- Traditional pillars of our economic society have collapsed into bankruptcy, a result of mismanagement, greed, and short-sighted thinking, forcing us into government bailouts of undeserving companies as the necessary lesser of two bad options;
- Yet in spite of such bailouts, we have witnessed an unrepentant arrogance from such mis-managers, failing to reform their expectations and ways of thinking;
- Unemployment, bankruptcies, homelessness are all up, personal income and asset valuations are down.
There are certainly many causes for gloom at this year-/decade-end. I am sure anyone could add to this short list of negatives. Decade from hell? That seems to fit. But worst decade ever? We’re still far away from the 1930s; its 25% unemployment pales our 10%. And that full-blown international depression lasted through the entire decade; we’re only one year into our recession. So let us give our parents/grandparents of that generation credit for patience, stamina, and perseverance. And ultimate success.
The 1940s started badly with our entry into the incomprehensible horrors of World War II fought by the “greatest generation” now dying off. It ended with the baby boomer population spurt now moving into senior citizenship. And it spawned the new economic middle class that anchors us today.
The 1950s had its Cold War with Russia, visions of atomic bombs falling on school children hiding underneath their wooden desks (!) or in backyard underground shelters, and the frightening specter of McCarthyism shredding our Constitution – thereby planting the seeds of “the politics of fear.” In the end, scare tactics and fears of cataclysmic destruction went unrealized in the overall tranquility of Eisenhower.
Which gave way to the tumult of the 1960s/1970s. Two back-to-back hellish decades. Our reinvigoration by Kennedy was lost in his assassination, setting the stage for 20 years of violence as a political solution. High expectations continually gave way to dashed results: Johnson’s Great Society produced some long-lasting institutions in the social safety net and civil rights. But it lost its momentum and coalition in the climate of Viet Nam. The great adventure and challenge of landing on the moon became seen as a frivolous indulgence. The peace and love of Woodstock died in the drug centers of Haight-Ashbury. “Peace with Honor” was tripped up and exposed in a place called Watergate, and the seeds of “the politics of hate” were planted. And just when “our long national nightmare [was] over,” Ford (correctly) pardoned Nixon and a Georgia peanut farmer lost his way in a “great national malaise” of gas lines, sweaters in the White House, and hostages in Iran. These were truly consecutive decades of hell.
Followed by a decade in 1980 of optimism and a re-found sense of humor – at least on surface. “Supply side economics” was rightfully exposed as “voodoo economics.” We pulled out of a short recession, but savings and loan institutions went bankrupt due to a lack of oversight. Deregulation came into vogue and generated much prosperity, though the wealthy / middle class / poor gaps grew wider while public accountability began to fade. “Greed is good” brought “let the buyer beware” to a new zenith, threatening the stabilities achieved from our 1930s lessons learned. The seeds for future financial ruin were planted here, hidden by feel-good sunny optimism, yet waiting to belatedly sprout in this last decade like the choking southern kudzu weed. But the Berlin Wall came down, the Iron Curtain was raised, the Cold War defrosted, and a genuine Middle East threat was stopped by a truly united coalition with a clear and limited objective.
And minus a woman named Monica, the 1990s were pretty good for us. Economic prosperity, international cooperation in the Balkans, overall stability. But the dual seeds of terrorism and the “politics of winning over governing” were being planted during this period, the “dot.com bubble” was looming, yet computer programmers the world over successfully averted a very real potential “Year 2000” catastrophe.
Which brought us 2000-2009. The decade when the accumulated seeds sprouted. Fear and hate sprouted as the Constitution was turned inside out “to keep us safe.” Deregulation sprouted as our economy was handed over to unchecked incompetents with a responsibility only to their own wallets, and a willing public believed there was no cost to prosperity. Terrorism exploded upon us, reflecting years of our patronizing dismissal of other cultures and an arrogant belief in our own self-righteous virtue. And government became paralyzingly ineffective amid a partisan priority for winning versus “governing to the greater good.” A lot of chickens came home to roost in our own back yards in this decade, living within the flowering weeds from seeds we planted years ago.
So what can we expect from this forthcoming “teens” decade? Another decade from hell, or a decade of regeneration? It could go either way. If we are still thinking and acting in our 2000-9 mentality, then it could be grim. If we have learned anything from that decade, and we can apply those lessons with patience, it could be a positive redirection of our collective and individual selves. Like the sick patient, we need to 1) stop the bleeding, 2) then stabilize, 3) then redefine our health regime, then 4) then work through long-term rehabilitation. We’ve done step 1 and are in step 2 right now. If the negative media and politicians do not overwhelm us first, the signs and metrics of recovery are all there. It has taken us a few decades to mess things up this way. If we have the confidence, commitment, and stay-with-it-ness, the Decade of Hell may not lead to the Decade of Heaven. But it may lead to the Decade of Renewal that we need. And individual and national renewal could be pretty damn good.
Happy New Year, and Best Wishes for the New Decade.