Andy Serwer at Time has a strange take on the decade of 2000-2009, calling it A Decade From Hell. The gloom and doom and self-inflicted wounds that he propounds and expounds upon does not have the taste of Hell to them, however, only somewhat of the hinterlands of Purgatory and self-inflated idealism come to rest on rocky shores of reality. To my mind there are at least four ten-year time spans that are worse, far worse, than 2000-2009, and yet no real mention of them. Without history for perspective we can easily become self-obsessed with the present, as individuals and a Nation, and the bemoaning of those ills we created for ourselves that were highly predictable and took decades of neglect and outright deceit to perpetrate does no one any good without that larger lens of the American Experience.
Assuredly those self-inflicted wounds, like the Community Reinvestment Act and its follow-ons starting during the Carter Administration, point to a deep and abiding misunderstanding of markets, money and human nature. If we bemoan the end of the free ride of the Housing Bubble, then let us not forget its origin decades before this most recent. The problem with banking was not an outgrowth of just Glass-Steagall being repealed, and the previous S&L crisis of the '80s should have pointed to this being something of the nature of the banking beast. What spurred both on were regulations passed by Congress via the instrument of most unwise attribution of authority created just a little under a century before the present: the Federal Reserve. That institution has gotten multiple banking problems, the housing bubble, and two recessions exactly WRONG in its prescriptions, and yet we hear not a peep of its role that it played in influencing regulators year on year, decade upon decade. Similarly FHA, Fannie and Freddie get bare mention with regards to how Congress wanted more money to pour out of them and into the housing market, and even to the 'under privileged' without an income, a job or assets. Those, of course, are actual regulations put in place that made things worse, not better, and so get glossed over.
Even the 'we have not kept up our infrastructure' is misplaced, as multiple decades of neglect took to get here with NO setting aside of funds for repair and maintenance that matched the bills coming due, year on year. We bear fault for that, too, as we do for housing and banking, as our culture was extremely inward looking and willing to procrastinate, putting of necessary expenditures to retain what we had and now find we are losing what we have not retained. Poor us! And yet that, too, points back to the 1950's through to the 1990's as a problem point that structural and civil engineers told us about in budget meetings each and every year. Since there was no big, bad wolf, we, as a culture, decided that we didn't need to maintain ourselves and our equipment against the creep of decay. That is a bill for willful ignorance and suppression of reality by belief, not of single decade's making. Of course before that America was used to building and revamping infrastructure, not just mere maintenance, but that, too, gets to go under the bridge. Perhaps, just perhaps, when America is vibrant and outward looking, we take in stride the cost of maintenance as we build afresh... only when we turn inwards can we easily forget the cost of maintaining what we have.
Terrorism! Ah, how quickly Mr. Serwer forgets the Barbary Pirates and the need to upbraid them as done by President Jefferson, or the Islamic Pirates of President Jackson's day who threatened our Far East commercial shipping and got a warship in response. We had taken World Wars and Public War to be All War and forgot, by willful design and neglect, that the worst wars of all in mankind's history are Private Wars that signal the decay of Nations, Empires and simple States. Terrorism in the modern mode started in the 1960's with 'State Sponsored' but 'hands clean' terrorism performed by Communists. Che Guevara was a brutal, torturing killer who met a harsh end for practicing his killing and torture upon the poor to beat them into submission in a foreign land, and yet is he reviled by one and all as a beast, a monster? Heavens no! A segment of our population holds him up as an ICON! The first hijacking of note happened when the PLO joined up with one of these Central American Red groups to hijack a plane in Panama, I believe it was, in the late 1960's and yet little was done about it. Similarly Shining Path, FARC, various Red Factions/Armies/Groups, and then radical Islam like Islamic Jihad groups sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood and 'State Sponsored' Hezbollah with its Iranian sugar daddy would wage more and more violent private war year on year, extracting a civilian death toll that, while small, was becoming global. Soon would come 'Eco-Terrorists' and even rogue fashion designers set to wage their war upon all mankind to Get Their Way. One would think the US Marines killed in Beirut would have woken us up, if the betrayal of the Law of Nations by Iran just a couple of years previously had not done so. Even once the USSR went defunct, some groups it spawned would continue and do continue to this day, waging their war upon us although not in the numbers like al Qaeda, the presence of them bespeaks our lax attitude towards our own civilization: we don't care about it enough to keep it.
So if this is not THE WORST DECADE in US history, what tops it?
To my mind the next up the list, but by no means the worst is:
The Great Depression, The Dust Bowl, The Rise of Fascism and the rise of the capitalized first letter of important words as a means of reinforcing things.
Coming in under Progressive President Hoover and going out under Progressive President Roosevelt, this decade witnessed men in the stock market plunging out of windows to their deaths in 1929-30, and continued through to 1939. The over-inflated 'Roaring 20s' went pop on a big scale, and misguided monetary and banking policy set the stage for the worst decline in America in over 50 years. This decade, too, had decades to build up to it and the mistaken belief that the active role of government is 'good' with respect to the common man was greatly espoused even while the 'recovery' policies steadily entrenched the Huge Recession into a Great Depression. All the lovely things put in place to 'help' included huge business taxes that came about to 'help' the elderly and give retirement 'benefits' at the expense of government and the working class. Just as the recovery of 1937 got started, those taxes hit and caused the recession of 1938-39, and employment would require a World War for the Nation to get back to anything like 'normal'.
The catastrophe of the Great Plains had been decades in brewing, and easy lending policy for farmers to break up the soil of the mid-west and western States during a time of relative plenty in rainfall, would cause a disaster when the rains didn't come. Single storms with thousands of tons of dust that was once soil would shift that soil permanently from where it was and head eastward, and even darken the skies in NY City, Boston and Washington DC. Any comparison between that and the decades of government encouragement for those in dry land areas to use up underground aquifers that take centuries to recharge is intentional. Perhaps this time Big Agribusiness will suffer what the small farmer of the 1930's suffered during the Dustbowl, but don't bet on it with the way politics and money flows these days.
And while we bemoan modern terrorists, we forget the militant Statists of the post-WWI era that became exemplified by the Fascist and Nazi movements in Europe. America had its off-shoots directly in Fascist groups and even the American Bund which suffered warm/cold relations with their cousins in Germany. The prospect of mass rallies and beatings in a few places does pale in comparison to terrorist killers, although when one examines the end of the Great States of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, we come to realize that the death toll from organized State killers really does dwarf what terrorists can normally aspire to. It is very strange that some of the killers of the 1930's get lauded today, others castigated and some given a 'free pass' by their modern counterparts. Also we forget that Mein Kampf translated into Arabic is Jihad. But pointing that out would be rubbing those trying to appease terrorists into the folly of what they do, and just like the 1930's we 'can't have that, now, can we?' is the order of the day.
Can we really forget the run on the banks and then the crooks coming in to give the banks a run for their money? Yet the FDIC was supposed to fix that for our modern time, but it is going insolvent unable to cover deposits and now requiring banks pay, months in advance, for deposits not yet made. We exchange the Tommy Gun for the Tyrannical Might of Government to steal from our banks for 'our own good'. Such a sweet protection racket would not pass muster during normal times, but was a welcome alternative during the 1930's. How little did we expect that all protection rackets must come back to bite us, and this one was started as a 'good idea' in the 1930's and now begins to fail us for the exact, same thing it was supposed to stop. Broken banks by crime or government are still broken banks, and our trust in the institutions and in the 'regulators' supposed to 'protect us' was supposed to be an unalloyed good from the 1930's. So, too, was the FHA which, in its ability to get regulations to be lax and spread its market power around, was supposed to ease the housing problems of the poor, not give expensive homes to those who could not afford them. Apparently there is no 'good thing' that government can't ruin when it allows that federal beast that runs the regulations to write the regulations and influence the regulations and decide upon the regulations. Are we sure this isn't a form of the Mafia?
What is even grander is that those lovely federal devices set up in the 1930's didn't help the people THEN, either. Social Security, FDIC, FHA, and SEC all failed to 'turn things around' and even caused a deepening of the Great Depression by taking needed cash out of the economy and funneling it into that non-productive thing we call government.
Lest we forget, World War II started not in Poland but in Manchuria during the earlier part of the 1930's. The US Navy drafted up a Plan Orange that looked at exactly how Japan could attack the US in Hawaii and Philippines in an attempt to cripple our Pacific Fleet and keep it stifled via submarine attacks. That was long years before 1941, and while it was just one casebook, it is the most prescient that would tell of what an economically moribund Nation would signal to the Imperial Japanese military machine, a machine we supplied with much steel that was then used against us in the Second World War. If the decade came in with the Great Stumble it went out with the Great Gasp in Poland and the world fully expected to have a repeat of World War I. The world would not be so lucky, and yet that wouldn't have happened if appeasement was not the order of the day in the mid-1930's, and if America had a sane economic policy that would have just allowed the recovery to happen as it had in all previous downturns. Instead we were too wise to be smart and too smart to be wise.
Yet that is only the next worse up the scale, making our decade pale in comparison. There is worse than that? Oh, my, yes!
I have written about this before in The 10 years that change the path of America, and it is an unexpected decade that most of us don't understand or discount far too easily. Yet the roots of much of the 1930's happens right in this ten year, or so, time span, where the woes of our modern times can find its deep roots in the Progressive Era of politics and the belief that we really can change the Nature of Man via government fiat.
Of course many of the bad farming practices were already ongoing by now, but the continuation of them and the easy land and money policies that were started previously were continued. Even worse the Federal Reserve was created to help 'stabilize' the currency and now we have seen, since its creation, that our currency has lost 95% of its value since that time. If you think a 'strong dollar' of a decade or so ago was something, imagine it having 8x the buying power as it did in the era before the Federal Reserve and its ever so unwise policies. That was a strong dollar! Nothing government couldn't change, of course, in order to 'spread the wealth around'.
To that end the Progressives sought and got disproportional taxation, which is to say that each citizen was not charged a set price to run the government, which the States gathered, but could be taxed DIRECTLY from the US government in any proportion the government chose. A simple Constitutional Amendment change the absolute equality of all taxpayers to a graduated deal, where some would be valued and taxed more than others. The the Federal Reserve could be made flush with funds from 'the rich'! Luckily those very same 'rich' also got the windfalls of having government support unwise lending policies via the Federal Reserve, and crony capitalism in its modern form gained a US face. If you hate the payouts of government to Big Business, then look for disproportional taxation and crony capitalist politics as its cause. While it was assuredly there before, the money amounts involved were generally small and that only grew when government could grow.
On the personal liberty front, the US government decided that it could start using parts of the Constitution to dictate our lives to us, and started with the Harrison Stamp Act on marijuana. The government could, indeed, mandate tax stamps for a product, in which you had to have the product to get them... but if you had the product without the stamp you were committing a federal crime. And Congress never had any of the stamps issued. That proved to be a perfectly acceptable power-grab by the US Congress and we have lived with the expansion of Congressional powers since that era. Yet that era was ushered in with the weakening of control over Congress when the lovely Progressives allowed for the direct election of Senators from States, instead of them being appointed by the State Governments. That little restriction was getting in the way of expanding government as some States didn't send Senators to DC, which meant that government bills would get waylaid until the States could be convinced to send someone to vote on them. That is how the system is SUPPOSED to work, but because 'fast and efficient' government is not the hallmark of a representative democracy, it is what the Progressives and their supporters wanted and got from the gullible public. The expansive power of Congress begins in this era and we live with its ramifications to this day in more taxes, more regulations and more power concentrated into fewer hands than ever before in the US. If you bemoan the problems of officious government on drugs, the point is not lost that before the Progressive Era there were NO federal drug laws on the books and you had the absolute freedom to decide what you took and when. The only change happened for the Food & Drug Purity Act which mandated ingredient labels and for the few short years before making them illegal, consumption went DOWN as people realized how drugged up they were. Government would soon decide that for you, however, so that those with horrifically painful fatal illnesses couldn't get addictive painkillers for their short span left on Earth.
This was made no better by the US Congress deciding to fix its own size and no longer have a floating proportional representation system. 'Gerrymandering' had happened before, to a certain extent, but this single chain made it a permanent landscape feature of the US political scene. Just before that took place the Progressive Era marked a sea change in US politics from one where the electorate went from throwing the bums out of DC to the extent that it was rare that 30% ever got BACK per session, to one in which it was rare that 30% ever got tossed out at all. The creation of the fixed size Congress to 'streamline' and 'make Congress manageable' ignored the salient feature that Congress in the House of Representatives was supposed to be unmanageable, volatile and see a high turn-over rate. By demographics alone, small districts would see change-outs of Representatives frequently and yet the number of Representatives expanded via population expansion, thus allowing deep rooted representative democracy to take hold. That got uprooted in 1911 and has remain unchallenged until a recent court case now working its way through the system. It is amazing to think that the House can set its own size, pay rate, goodies, perks, dividends and never have any of that called into question for nearly a century. If we bemoan Incumbistan, then the roots of it must be brought to light and the corruption that comes with a fixed size Congress also brought to light. Not that those wanting more power for the State ever want you to hear that.
On the grounds of wartime spending, do ponder that the last million man army in Europe at the end of World War I was that of the United States. And that as a part of our GDP, that military machine dwarfs our modern contingents in Iraq, Afghanistan, Philippines, Colombia and elsewhere on bases around the globe. World War One would leave the industrial powers in Europe dwarfed by the US, and yet the US did not fight in any but a restricted fashion just against Germany and not against the corrupt Austro-Hungarian allies of Germany nor the rump of the Ottoman Empire which Britain had to fight on its lonesome and which had been committing genocide just prior to the war. A genocide reported to President Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson didn't want to interfere with Turkey because we had such good trade relationships with it, and that we might be able to reform Turkey via that trade. What that meant is that the US did not fully participate in the War and that at the end of the war we were not at the 'Adult Table' to help determine the aftermath of the war. France and Britain had already decided the landscape of Europe, the Middle East and Africa to a large extent by the end of 1918, and President Wilson's grand vision of a 'League of Nations' was something he couldn't even get the US Senate to buy into. That dream, along with the post-war accords, would seed the world with divisions, Germany would fester for over a decade and the secular Turkish State would divide up Kurdistan so that the Kurds would never have a Nation that was guaranteed them by the post-war US agreements that they had signed on to. By not realizing that to be considered a 'Major Power' one must act like it and go after all the allies of an enemy, President Wilson's idea of fighting a limited war would plant and water the seeds for the next World War. Talk about ill-spent funds!
During that war was something that can only be accounted as the most draconian curtailment of free speech ever seen in the US, even granted what happened in the next worst up from this. The delusion that is propagated about President Wilson being such a great-hearted fellow belies the fact that he deployed thousands...no tens of thousands... of agents in America as part of the 'Blue Eagle' campaign to buy goods that were certified as ok by the US government and report ANYONE speaking against the war, the President, Congress, the government.... many of the Progressive allies of President Wilson found themselves in jail when they attempted to use their free speech rights to speak up against what was going on. At the same time the government was distributing officially sanctioned songs, reading material, eating schedules and even lullabyes for infants. Without a sense of any perspective, our modern critics don't realize that what is being done to find al Qaeda personnel is within the traditional war powers of a President, while those exercised by President Wilson were not and are not. If things were as bad as they were then, most of dKos and DU and other Leftists would be in jail, not walking around freely to criticize everyone and everything to their heart's content. Imprisonment for free speech is not an answer then or now, but bemoaning communications intercepts with foreign individuals is something that is NOT protected under the US Constitution. That power was exercised by Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and over-stepped by President Wilson to a large degree. Thus on this front the awfulness of the last decade comes up very, very short of any mark by any rational person.
You would think that these things, the massive spending by the US on WWI, the change of Congress to radically alter and remove its checks and increase its powers, the increased powers and how they were used, the restriction of civil liberties by President Wilson, the Armenian Genocide that President Wilson did nothing to address, the horrible state of affairs left after WWI... that this decade just might have gotten a bit of recognition as being a bit on the bad side. Apparently not, and that is to our detriment that we forget these things and take them as 'business as usual' when, in fact, they are not usual to the Republic and caused a serious of changes that resulted in most of our modern woes in banking and the unrestricted power Congress would come to wield over our daily lives. Instead we get dead silence save for a very few that dare talk about just how bad this era was, particularly the war years.
Next up is a decade that really does rate much, much higher in everyone's books if you but take a moment to think about it.
The US Civil War and period of Reconstruction.
Apparently Mr. Serwer forgot about the millions dead in the Civil War and the problems of Reconstruction.
Remember that little thing? At least 618,000 dead due to battle and the diseases that followed it? This was not a good decade for the US no matter which way you cut it. You would think that just on that basis, alone, that we might get just a teensy bit of perspective on our modern era, but apparently, not.
It also had the emancipation of the slaves, and allowed for a large shift of populations in the post-war era. The devastation of the South, however, left the economies there in dire straights for decades. Additionally the general feeling was that the post-war governments were imposed on the population, which would lead to hard feelings that still last up to the present day in some areas of the South.
Really no single article can cover the devastation and human suffering the US went through over the decade that contained the Civil War. Our last decade is no 'Hell' in comparison to that decade: we fall far, far short of it no matter which direction you take. In pure cash it was horrific and while the North would have a relatively intact industrial base, the South would be impoverished. Civil Rights were largely suspended by President Lincoln in many areas due to having a war fought within the Nation, itself, but that gets scant mention these days. War time profiteers on both sides make Halliburton into a piker for charging a couple of bucks to deliver a cold can of soda to our troops in the middle of nowhere in Iraq or Afghanistan. We don't have companies sending shoes made for undertakers to our troops, only to find them made of cardboard and falling apart nearly instantly.
The blood spilled for the freedom of all men in society, no matter their race, has been forgotten by our modern era, and we pay no homage to the dead who fought on both sides in this gargantuan struggle to determine that all men really ARE created equal and endowed with certain, inalienable rights. Purposely forgetting the struggle and its outcome, and remembering its scale does a grave disservice to our honored dead who fought for what they believed in.
What is even more humorous is that those on the Left and Socialists forget that Karl Marx supported the NORTH in this effort as Capitalism was far superior to any slave based agrarian economy and that Capitalism must do its good work of getting the best efficiency so as to emancipate man from abject slavery of the old agrarian sort. Relative wage slavery is far, far preferable to true slavery and leaves the individual with many choices for their wages and a chance for betterment leading towards a better society. For all the embrace of the modern Left for some socialist ideals, they forget that basic principle: that Capitalism of the free market sort is far better than State Capitalism, State slavery or agrarian slave based systems of any sort. This should have been driven home during the US Civil War, but somehow has been missed by the over-educated, under-learned Left of our modern era.
The years 2000-2009 a 'Hell'?
The next decade is highly telling and ranks as the worst in America for my taste.
The American Revolution.
Ten percent of Americans left dead at the end of it.
Fifteen percent of our population fled to other Crown colonies.
The economy devastated.
The first government created in 1776 coming undone and the Shaysites, as a larger movement, nearly overturning the Articles of Confederation as the State governments had impoverished the rural folk to the point of confiscating farms for back taxes and throwing farmers in jail. All that due to war debt owed to France.
America failed at its very first government, and we are born of that failure.
If it had succeeded we would have no US Constitution but the Articles of Confederation, to this day.
Our government failed us.
Our political class failed us and were forced to rethink their positions which were destroying the lives and economy of the Nation.
The great civility that lasted through the Revolutionary War nearly came undone at the seams between urban and rural America.
2000-2009 as 'Hell'?
If our civility between urban and rural unravels, if the political class of urban America thinks they can 'organize' rural and suburban America, then we may get to revisit this 1776-1786 era.
And the political class forced to rethink their positions.
Or else we may find ourselves one, fine Shays away from finding out what true 'Hell' really is.