Monday, November 30, 2009

Of Time and the latest ‘Decade From Hell’

We knew it was bad, but not this bad.

The first of the valedictories to this fast-vanishing year is in. The '00s: Goodbye (at Last) to the Decade From Hell, written by Time Magazine’s Andy Serwer and published on Nov. 24, is a categorically downbeat overview of the years of the 2000’s, one with much to recommend it, and much to dispel.

“[T]he first 10 years of this century will very likely go down as the most dispiriting and disillusioning decade Americans have lived through in the post–World War II era,” Serwer writes. We’d like to get this one in the books, too. Given the generally depressed mood loose in the nation, Andy Serwer can be forgiven for walking with his head down looking at the sidewalk. But gloom is a relative thing; there’s down and there’s … down.

Much of Serwer’s argument centers on the various aspects of the nation’s precarious financial condition — the foreclosure crisis, corporate bankruptcies and bailouts, average per-capita income, and a general sense of economic malaise. By and large, his argument in this department can’t be argued with. The American economy circled the drain last year and this one in a way unseen since the Great Depression.
Our economic narcissism was certainly the culprit in the devastation wrought by financial markets, which have subjected us to an increasingly frequent series of crashes, frauds and recessions. To a great degree, this was brought about by a lethal combination of irresponsible deregulation and accommodating monetary policies instituted by the Federal Reserve. Bankers and financial engineers had an unsupervised free-market free-for-all just as the increased complexity of financial products — e.g., derivatives — screamed out for greater regulation or at least supervision. Enron, for instance, was a bastard child of a deregulated utilities industry and a mind-bending financial alchemy.
Serwer rightly points out that a history of malign neglect is partly to blame for our current situation. By ignoring everything from the financial system to the warnings about al-Qaida’s ad hoc terrorism mechanics, from the general infrastructure of the nation’s roads and bridges to the general infrastructure of the levees that failed to protect New Orleans from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, this nation has no one to blame for many of its problems but itself.

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But elsewhere Serwer opens himself up to challenge. “Calling the 2000s ‘the worst’ may seem an overwrought label in a decade in which we fought no major wars, in historical terms,” he says.

It is overwrought, sir. We’ve been at war since 2002, when the Afghanistan incursion began in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That war was followed by the shock & awe invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Between 4,000 and 5,000 Americans have died in those wars since they began.

An estimated 60-70 million people died during World War II. In the Cold War that followed, Russia saw between 10 and 15 million people killed during Stalin’s reign of postwar terror. Between 10 million and 20 million Chinese are thought to have died during the war, and another estimated 50 million were lost during the Maoist postwar era (which included the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution).

For its part, the United States lost 418,500 forces during World War II; 36,500 forces during the Korean War; and more than 58,000 during the Vietnam War.

The 2000s are “the worst”? Not quite, Mr. Serwer. By the perfectly reasonable pain-metric of casualties, both for the United States and the world as a whole, the first years of the 21st century pale in comparison to previous decades, whose body counts outstrip those of the present day by orders of magnitude.

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Serwer’s assertion that “the idea that terrorists can attack anytime and anywhere is new and profoundly unsettling” is just not true. The terrorism that achieved its malignant fruition on Sept. 11, 2001, had its origins in the 1970s and ‘80s, when the Baader-Meinhof crew, the Red Brigades, ETA and other bad actors (state-sponsored and otherwise) hijacked planes with impunity, bombed airport terminals, and pursued the indiscriminate attacks that were a precursor to the terrorism we see today.

How far back do you want to go? There’s the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, in 1988. Or Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in New Delhi, in 1984. Or the 161 Marines killed in a bomb blast in Beirut in 1983. Or the Korean airliner shot down by the Soviets the same year. Or the bomb-blast murder of the Lebanese president-elect in 1982, or the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981. “Profoundly unsettling”? Without question. “New”? Get real.

And Serwer’s sense of the impact of American accomplishment is certainly open to debate. “Sure,” he says, “some amazingly great things happened this decade, from the stunning rise of China to Apple's dazzling array of new products to the feats of sprinter Usain Bolt to our nation rallying (at least temporarily) around its first African-American President. But all that seems more like counterpoint rather than the main act.”

The idea that this nation’s election of its first black president — and its attendant power of beginning to redress a monumental national wrong — should be nothing more than “counterpoint” is a curious assessment of one of the most transformative events in our politics.

More than a feelgood moment, the election of Barack Obama signaled a change in the nation’s self-perception, and by extension a change in the default imagery of Americans that’s communicated around the world. In everything from galvanizing our relationships with our old global partners to being the catalyst for a new baseline of relations with the Islamic world, a President Obama is hardly insignificant — maybe not “the main act” but hardly a sideshow.

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There’s still a lot to be hopeful for. After generations of immobility, the United States stands — just maybe — on the cusp of the most sweeping health-care reform since Medicare was enacted in 1966. We’ve seen quantum leaps in our technology and made breakthroughs in medicine; and we’ve seen those advances move from the laboratory to the world of applied science (read: products and medicines you can buy) with breathtaking speed.

And in the face of the current economy, Americans are increasingly animated by a DIY ethos that’s led to the launch of small businesses and grassroots civic initiatives, projects that show Americans doing what they’ve always done in good times and bad: make a way for themselves on their own terms. That’s hardly bad news.

No question, there’s a lot to be downbeat about. But let’s keep things in perspective. People thought the years of the Great Depression were the worst for America, too, and with good reason (better reason than we have to think that way domestically about the 2000’s). Hot damn it, we’re Americans. Chastened yes, fearful yes, skeptical without a doubt. When you’re used to being a high flier, you’re subject to the humbling from time to time.

But we’ve been under the gun before, and we’re still standing. Relatively speaking, we’re no closer to hitting the canvas now than we’ve been in the past —

During previous Decades from Hell.

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Oh — and not to be a party pooper, but since Andy Serwer balances his checkbook in the base 10 number system (like most everyone else) and surely doesn’t start counting from zero, maybe he’ll revisit these sobering assessments and enlarge on them at a later time — preferably closer to when the decade really ends: at 11:59:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2010.

Image credits: Time cover: © 2009 Time Inc. Survivors, Ebensee concentration camp, 1945: Lt. A.E.  Samuelson, U.S. Army (public domain). Pan Am 103, Lockerbie, Scotland: Via BBC News. Obama: Still from AP video.

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