The Aughts: worst decade ever? Umm, not even close.

The corpse of the last decade has not even started cooling but pundits are all over the place proclaiming what an awful decade it was. No question about it: on the macro level, the years 2000 through 2009 had little to recommend them. Most of us will not look fondly on the decade. At best, our real income stayed even but in many cases our net income declined, much of it eaten away by out of control health care costs. Then of course there was September 11, 2001, which, for us Americans, was the defining day of our decade. Naturally, we attacked the problem of terrorism using 20th century tactics that had proven widely discredited. This quickly resulted in quagmires in both Iraq and Afghanistan costing us thousands of lives and wasting trillions of dollars. Just when we thought it could not get any worse, our laissez-faire never-think-about-tomorrow economy all came tumbling down only to be rescued by massive overspending. Our overleveraged country went into what is now widely called the Great Recession. It was not as bad as the Great Depression but oh Lord it sure was not good. We start 2010 technically out of the recession but as a nation feeling like we were gang raped. Only, we mostly did this to ourselves through rampant selfishness and a lack of anything resembling fiscal discipline.

I am glad to say goodbye to the 2000s. However, I have also lived long enough to realize that most of the decades I have lived through sucked. Of course, many of you reading this were not even alive back then. I was born at the crest of the baby boom in 1957, so I can speak accurately from 1960 and beyond. In addition, I can also speak with a reasonably informed opinion about my parents early years and how they saw things. Let me take you on a tour of the decades from 1930 or so. Maybe you will appreciate that the aught decade did not suck as much as you thought.

The 1930s. This was unquestionably the worst decade of the 20th century, although the Great Depression actually began in the 1920s. For my deceased mother, born in 1920, the 1930s were a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad decade that framed the rest of her life and came close to destroying her spiritually. This was because like most Americans, she was a victim of the Great Depression, but even worse, she was one of a dozen children in an immigrant household, which meant she experienced the worst of the worst of it. It is hard for us today to understand how bad things were during those times, but you can get an idea of it from books like this one or watching movies like Seabiscuit. You think ten percent unemployment is bad? During the worst of the Great Depression, it was double that. The decade ended with the worst over but with America feeling something like the Great Recession we endured the last few years. For almost everyone in this country and overseas, it was a miserable decade full of painful lessons about the precariousness of life.

The 1940s. If you studied your history books, you know that the Second World War framed this decade. The only thing you can say that was good about this war is that it kicked us out of the Great Depression. Tens of millions of soldiers and civilians lost their lives, and fortunes beyond imagining we spent trying to win wars on two fronts. The war killed an uncle I never met. In the end, both Germany and Japan were defeated but it left pretty much every country except the United States destitute and impoverished. The Second World War destroyed the British Empire. While it left America ascendant, new trouble was stirring in the Soviet Union. A new and costly Cold War was beginning. America’s nuclear trump card was to be quickly neutered when the Soviet Union also figured out how to build the bomb. The decade ended with the Chinese Communist revolution. Our new world looked painted red.

The 1950s. The rapid spread of communism left Americans scared and paranoid. We quickly were bogged down in our first unwinnable war on the Korean peninsula, which ended not with peace, but a cessation of hostilities and only when President Eisenhower threatened to nuke North Korea. Communist hysteria was everywhere. Joseph McCarthy, the alcoholic and gleefully abusive senator from Wisconsin, whipped its flames. People were harassed or imprisoned for imagined or real (but generally entirely lawful) associations with communists and socialists; some died from guilt by association. A number of severe recessions rocked the decade. America became puritanical and plastic. Toward the end of the decade, the Soviet Union shot a satellite into space and we tried desperately to think of an appropriate response.

The 1960s. To quote Charles Dickens, they were the best of times and the worst of times. The best of times came in response to Sputnik. America quickly became ascendant in the space race and ended the decade putting men on the surface of the moon, a feat so mind boggling that it is still hard for us to get our minds around it. The worst of times were the Vietnam War, which framed the decade and much of the 1970s as well. We could not quite afford the Great Society we created and it did not work as advertised. Millions died in Vietnam in a stupid and pointless war. The civil rights struggle was rampant. Our cities burned in riots and our best and brightest died from assassins’ bullets, including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and two Kennedys. We ended it by electing the biggest crook to ever sit in the Oval Office: Richard M. Nixon.

The 1970s. This was my coming of age decade and I remember it well. We spent years trying to get out of Vietnam. Vietnamization in the end turned out to only be a ruse to let us withdraw from Vietnam. As our forces withdrew, the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army quickly overran the country. We left humiliated and defeated. All this was happening whilst Watergate was unfolding and we found our constitutional system rocked to its core. The good news is that unlike during the Bush Administration, it worked in holding power accountable, mainly Congress took itself as a coequal branch of government seriously. We had two major oil shocks in the 1970s. Inflation routinely ran close to or above ten percent a year while unemployment was also high. While we waited in line to buy gas, Iranian revolutionaries invaded our embassy in Tehran and held Americans captive for 444 days. Disco was briefly in. President Carter wanted us to conserve energy and wear sweaters. We blew off his common sense and instead elected Ronald Reagan who promised us the plasticity of the Eisenhower era again.

The 1980s. If it was Morning in America again, you could not tell for the first half of the decade due to what was then the worst recession since the Great Depression. Reagan’s solution to solving the Cold War was to outspend the Soviet Union, at the cost of reckless federal spending and huge deficits. So many things went wrong in this decade including:

  • A bombing in Beirut that killed hundreds of Marines
  • A silly war to stop Communism in Grenada of all places
  • A Savings and Loan debacle that after our most recent bailout now looks minor
  • The Iran-Contra affair in which we helped make Iran an even bigger threat to us
  • Our helping insurgents in Afghanistan fight the Soviet occupation, who we would abandon when we would find it convenient. They would train their hatred on us in 2001.

Reagan was a great communicator but in reality, a lousy president who stayed largely detached from government and made sure he got his afternoon naps. His staff largely ran the government. Toward the end of his final term, it was clear he was turning into a space cadet. Later we would learn he had Alzheimer’s Disease.

The 1990s. To the extent we had a great decade, this was it. With the Cold War gone we could spend money on things that mattered again. Still, it was no cakewalk. It began with the Persian Gulf War, which was militarily successful but inconveniently caused a bad recession, resulting in voters turning George H.W. Bush out of office. Bill Clinton probably won only because spoiler Ross Perot got votes that would have otherwise gone to Bush. We had real prosperity in the 1990s and family incomes at all levels rose steadily. We found a good balance between taxing and spending and the government lived within its means. The decade ended with a substantial federal surplus. Still, there were a scattering of seismic events that precluded bad things to come: the bombing of the federal center in Oklahoma City by our homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh as well as bombings of embassies overseas. Republicans got into a huge snit with Bill Clinton because he lied about oral sex with an intern while the rest of America truly didn’t give a damn. Yet, Republicans impeached him basically because he was not a Republican. The Republicans also delivered on their Contract with America that turned into a contract on America, principally when they shut down the government in 1995 in a mean partisan snit. The tech bubble bubbled to overflowing by the end of the decade, but we saw the emergence of the Internet economy and the real delivery of the information age.

In summary, we have been through a rotten decade, but some perspective is in order. Most decades are rotten, but life goes on somehow. If you want to feel nostalgic about a decade, feel nostalgic about the 1990s. None of the other decades deserve fond remembrance.

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