Double End Times

So 2009 passes into history, and so does the first decade of this new century – on the night of a full moon and a partial lunar eclipse. But the eclipse won’t be visible in America. Don’t worry about it. There’s enough to worry about.

The New York Times’ Paul Krugman was onto something:

Maybe we knew, at some unconscious, instinctive level, that it would be an era best forgotten. Whatever the reason, we got through the first decade of the new millennium without ever agreeing on what to call it. The aughts? The naughties? Whatever. …

But as he’s an economist, with his Nobel Prize, he suggests we call the decade the Big Zero:

It was a decade in which nothing good happened, and none of the optimistic things we were supposed to believe turned out to be true.

It was a decade with basically zero job creation. Okay, the headline employment number for December 2009 will be slightly higher than that for December 1999, but only slightly. And private-sector employment has actually declined – the first decade on record in which that happened.

It was a decade with zero economic gains for the typical family. Actually, even at the height of the alleged “Bush boom,” in 2007, median household income adjusted for inflation was lower than it had been in 1999. And you know what happened next.

It was a decade of zero gains for homeowners, even if they bought early: right now housing prices, adjusted for inflation, are roughly back to where they were at the beginning of the decade. And for those who bought in the decade’s middle years – when all the serious people ridiculed warnings that housing prices made no sense, that we were in the middle of a gigantic bubble – well, I feel your pain. Almost a quarter of all mortgages in America, and 45 percent of mortgages in Florida, are underwater, with owners owing more than their houses are worth.

Last and least for most Americans – but a big deal for retirement accounts, not to mention the talking heads on financial TV – it was a decade of zero gains for stocks, even without taking inflation into account. Remember the excitement when the Dow first topped 10,000, and best-selling books like “Dow 36,000” predicted that the good times would just keep rolling? Well, that was back in 1999. Last week the market closed at 10,520.

So we got nowhere. And we learned nothing from our mistakes:

Even as the dot-com bubble deflated, credulous bankers and investors began inflating a new bubble in housing. Even after famous, admired companies like Enron and WorldCom were revealed to have been Potemkin corporations with facades built out of creative accounting, analysts and investors believed banks’ claims about their own financial strength and bought into the hype about investments they didn’t understand. Even after triggering a global economic collapse, and having to be rescued at taxpayers’ expense, bankers wasted no time going right back to the culture of giant bonuses and excessive leverage.

Then there are the politicians. Even now, it’s hard to get Democrats – President Obama included – to deliver a full-throated critique of the practices that got us into the mess we’re in. And as for the Republicans: now that their policies of tax cuts and deregulation have led us into an economic quagmire, their prescription for recovery is – tax cuts and deregulation.

It seems we lost a decade. Oops.

And then there was the year:

For all their differences, Americans largely agree on two things: 2009 was a lousy year for the nation, and 2010 is likely to be better. Nearly three-fourths of Americans think 2009 was a bad year for the country, which was rocked by job losses, home foreclosures and economic sickness. Forty-two percent rated it “very bad,” according to the latest AP-GfK poll.

That’s clearly worse than in 2006, the last time a similar poll was taken. The survey that year found that 58 percent of Americans felt the nation had suffered a bad year, and 39 percent considered it a good year.

Fewer than half as many people, 16 percent, said their family had a “very good year” in 2009 as said that in 2006.

Who needs a Nobel economist? People know, even if they like to be hopeful:

Some 72 percent of Americans said they’re optimistic about what 2010 will bring for the country. Even more, four in five, are optimistic about what the year will bring for their families.

Curiously, however, nearly two-thirds think their family finances will worsen or stay about the same next year.

Yes, that makes no sense. Hope is like that.

And there are the details:

Americans are not optimistic about the nation’s two wars. Thirty-one percent think the situation in Afghanistan will get better, while 67 percent think it stay the same or get worse. The results were about the same for Iraq.

And the political details:

Given that President Barack Obama took office in 2009 and Democrats enjoyed solid majorities in Congress, perhaps it’s not surprising that Democrats have a sunnier view of the current and coming years than do Republicans.

Only 10 percent of Republicans said 2009 was a good year, compared to about one-third of Democrats and independents. A whopping 87 percent of Democrats are optimistic about what 2010 will bring for the country, compared with 53 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of independents.

Perhaps it is easier to be hopeful when your side runs things, for now. That may not be entirely rational, but the poll wasn’t measuring rational responses. They were just looking for the zeitgeist – a term a bit more useful than talking about the National Mood. Some people are always annoyingly grumpy, and others stupidly cheery. Assessing the general cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual, and political climate is another matter.

Or you can look at anecdotal evidence, like down the coast out here at San Clemente, where Nixon had his Western White House – and where the eve of New Years Eve brought us this:

A man savagely killed a dog, ran naked through a tennis club and poured hot coffee on his head before he was finally arrested early Wednesday, Orange County sheriff’s deputies said.

Bayron Reyes Lopez, 26, of San Clemente, was hospitalized after being captured at the tennis club where he worked as a maintenance man, sheriff’s spokesman Jim Amormino said.

Some people just snap. And Andrew Leonard suggests that it’s the times. It may be the end of the intellectual hegemony of the United States, or the downfall of the Western worker, but as 2009 closes, everyone has a sob story. And everyone is Singing the American Zeitgeist Blues:

As the year 2009 finally lumbers to its unlamented end, the zeitgeist smells foul. In the U.S., the right bemoans a socialist takeover while the left decries a corporate sellout. All the rest, clinging to the middle, have a hard time finding anything to cheer for, as they scramble to keep jobs and homes and health. It’s been a decade of war and financial disaster, and now, just in time for Christmas, a terrorist attack for the icing on top! If this is a harbinger of what the 21st century has to offer, going forward, we had better stock up on the antidepressants.

Leonard argues this might be the bitter and ironic price of success:

Ten years ago, American triumphalism was at its peak. We were the lone superpower, dictating the Washington Consensus as the answer to all the world’s economic development problems, preening ourselves as we regarded our mighty technological prowess and the downfall of communism. But now comes the midlife crisis, popping up in end-of-the-year think pieces everywhere. What’s the theme? It hasn’t been just a bad year but also a “big zero” decade, and even worse, the end of optimism.

And he cites the Financial Times item Self-Doubt Tarnishes Brand America – that’s Edward Luce noting the decay of “American intellectual hegemony” and declaring that “the metallic rust of decline has crept into the American soul.” It’s all over and we know it – rip off your clothes and pour hot coffee over your head. Just don’t kill the dog. It’s not the dog’s fault.

But things are bad, and Leonard cites the annual Christmas letter sent out by Guy Hands (the founder of private equity firm Terra Firma Capital Partners):

We need to question the accepted wisdom that a truly global market benefits all citizens in western developed nations. Indeed, I suspect we will, in time, see globalization as the driver that delivered a massive transfer of economic power from the west to the east.

Over the long term it will result in an ever growing class of permanent poor being created in the west. I also suspect new graduates will find it increasingly difficult to get the jobs for which they are qualified. It is the young and the poor in the west who will pay the cost of global human resources competition.

Yes, globalization makes it tougher to compete, and the west may be in real trouble. All Leonard can add is that we can argue whether globalization “is ultimately more economically devastating to workers in the formerly flush West than relentless technological innovation.” Journalism is being remade by the Internet, not China or India, after all. One or the other will do. Western workers lose.

But the kicker is how hard this will be to face, as it changes the previous zeitgeist:

It didn’t use to be that way. Once upon a time, all you had to do was be born in the U.S., or West Germany, or Japan, and, barring certain disadvantages such as race or gender, a head start on grabbing for the good life was all but assured: widespread levels of affluence and a steadily rising standard of living unmatched throughout all of human history. Now it’s not so easy – in part because of this “massive transfer of economic power from the west to the east.”

Of course, from the East’s perspective, that’s not really so bad:

I’m betting that there are few citizens in those countries who would be excited about a return to the halcyon days of the 20th century, or who would be so prone to decry the fact that global markets don’t benefit all the citizens in Western developed nations.

One person’s massive transfer is another’s rebalancing. For centuries, Western Europe, the U.S. and a handful of other countries dominated the global economy by force of gunboats and market capitalism. That’s over – or at least in serious jeopardy. But should this change of fortune be read as a marker of Western decline or as the natural, inevitable rise of the rest of the world?

And, globally, life expectancy is up, child mortality down, and the poverty rate is shrinking at an accelerating pace. Do we want to argue with that? Leonard thinks not:

Maybe, as 2010 approaches, it’s time to suck it up a little bit, and instead of bemoaning how screwed up everything is, take some time to think about the vast global trends that may make the 21st century a better time to be born in China or India or Brazil than has been true for centuries – or ever. Or if that kind of one-world thinking is too hard to reach, we can perhaps settle for smaller victories. I, for one, am very glad the Christmas bomber didn’t kill anyone, that the prospects for the U.S. economy are nowhere near as frightening today as they were a year ago, and that we at least seem to have our attention focused on the important problems – energy, climate, healthcare, financial regulatory reform – instead of just blithely ignoring them.

There’s enough left to do. We’ll be fine.

But it sure feels like end times. Things are changing. And the Obama administration wants to take away something that was the norm for a decade, posturing and melodrama about terrorists, a staple of the last decade, the Bush-Cheney years. And they want to do that just when we know exactly what to expect. You could groove with it, but now – not so much.

Glenn Greenwald suggests that leaves us craving terrorist melodrama – even though “the calls for Obama to act with more hysteria and panic every time Al Qaeda sneezes are just plain stupid.”

As prime evidence, he cites this from the Washington Post’s editorial writer Jo-Ann Armao:

Why is Obama still in Hawaii?

President Obama wants us all to know he’s taking seriously the attempted terrorist attack of Christmas Day and that his administration is doing all it can to ensure our safety. But his words would be a lot more convincing if not delivered during time snatched between rounds of golf, swimming and sunbathing. …

Returning to Washington would have sent the world a powerful message of a president willing to drop everything and roll up his sleeves – someone who really means business. I can’t imagine Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano initially being so sanguine about the system working if her boss had hot-footed it back to the Oval Office to personally check up on things. Work situations vary, sure, but in my experience there’s always a lot less pressure when the boss is away.

By staying in Hawaii, the president has sent the message that the situation really isn’t all that serious, that things can proceed just fine until he’s back. And isn’t it that kind of reasoning that emboldens our never-vacationing enemies into thinking Christmas Day is the perfect time for them to strike?

Greenwald is not impressed with this line of thinking:

Scampering back to Washington – “hotfooted” or otherwise – would have been the worst possible thing that Obama could have done. It would have created a climate of frenzy and panic and thus helped to terrorize the country even more – which, one might want to recall, is the goal, by definition, of Terrorists. The fact that Obama doesn’t hysterically run around like some sort of frightened chicken with his head cut off every time Al Qaeda sneezes – or swagger to the nearest camera to beat his chest and play the role of protective daddy-cowboy – is one of the things I like best about him. As for Armao’s “point” about how Janet Napolitano probably took it easy because the “boss was away” – and her belief that Terrorists will strike more on holidays if Obama isn’t affixed to his chair in the Oval Office, as though he’s the Supreme Airport Screener: those are so self-evidently dumb it’s hard to believe they found their way even into something written by one of Fred Hiatt’s editorial writers.

And Greenwald knows an addiction when he sees it, which in this case is an addiction to “the excitement and fear of terrorist melodramas.”

And he sees why people succumb to this one:

They crave some of that awesome 9/12 energy, where we overnight became The Greatest Generation and – unified and resolute – rose to the challenge of a Towering, Evil Enemy. Armao is angry and upset because the leader didn’t oblige her need to re-create that high drama by flamboyantly flying back to Washington to create a tense storyline, pick up a bullhorn, stand on some rubble, and personally make her feel “safe.” Maureen Dowd similarly complained today that Obama “appeared chilly in his response to the chilling episode on Flight 253.”

Greenwald argues that the real problem here is that Obama reacted as though this is exactly what it actually is – “a lame, failed attempt to kill people by a fractured band of criminals.”

It’s not the Cuban Missile Crisis or the attack on Pearl Harbor, as disappointing and unfulfilling as it is to accept that. It merits analysis, investigation and possibly policy changes by the responsible government agencies – not a bright-red-alert, bell-ringing, siren-sounding government-wide emergency that venerates Al Qaeda into a threat so profound that the President can’t even be away from Washington lest they get us all. As always, Al Qaeda’s greatest allies are the ones in the U.S. who tremble with the most fear at the very mention of their name and who quite obviously crave a return of that stimulating, all-consuming, elevating 9/12 glory.

Will we have no more of that and just… solve problems? That’s not very satisfying.

And Greenwald is not just blowing smoke. There’s that blunt and eccentric Republican congressman from New York, Peter King, complaining that he didn’t like the look on the face of the Secretary of Homeland Defense:

In the wake of the attempted bombing of a plane bound for Detroit, Rep. Peter King (NY-R) criticized Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for appearing “bored.”…

“Finally, Janet Napolitano comes out and the first thing she said was everything worked well. And she seemed almost like she was bored to be there. There was no intensity. There was no show of emotion,” he said.

Steve Benen comments:

That’s what it’s come to with today’s Republican Party – in the wake of an attempted terrorist attack, one of the first GOP responses is to blast the Homeland Security secretary for her tone and facial expressions. King wants her to be more “emotional.” …

Keep in mind King went on to say about the Obama administration, “Let me make it clear, I think they are doing the right thing as far as their policies. Since this attack occurred, the FBI and, as far as I can tell, Homeland Security and all the agencies of the United States government are doing the right job.”

So, a leading Republican lawmaker is blasting the head of DHS, not because of her on-the-job performance, but because she was calm and composed during a public statement.

But there are the calls for her resignation. It’s just unclear what the accusation is. Former Bush-right John Cole tries to figure it out:

What did she do wrong? Napolitano didn’t change any procedures which then led to the bomber getting through security. She didn’t shift the DHS budget in a way that impacted security. She didn’t botch the response. And her statement is factually correct, and only wrong if you completely distort what she said.

Benen adds this:

Napolitano’s biggest mistake has nothing to do with her responsibilities and everything to with “giving Republicans (with yet another assist from the liberal media) a sound bite that is easy to demagogue.”

And Digby adds this:

I was at a gathering earlier today with a lot of people who aren’t political junkies. Across the board they were either barely aware of this failed terrorist attempt or handled the threat in stride, mostly complaining about airport delays if anything. The only people who are fouling their trousers over this story are the media and the Republican opportunists, all of whom seem to believe that each time some loser fails to set off a terrorist bomb, the president’s primary function is to rush to the TV to provide “comfort” and then give everyone a rousing pep talk about how we’re gonna get ’em dead or alive. (Then he can give them a bottle and put them to bed.)

They are currently working themselves into quite a frenzy over all this. But so far, I don’t think the people are buying it.

Benen goes further:

By all appearances, it doesn’t matter if the Republican attacks are baseless and ridiculous. It doesn’t matter if Republican national security policies failed. It doesn’t matter that Republicans are more anxious to denounce the president than they are to denounce terrorism.

What matters now is what mattered before – whether GOP voices can create and exploit just enough misguided panic and fear to benefit politically. If they can shout “soft on terror” often enough, and the media overlooks all available evidence, maybe the public won’t notice how ridiculous the Republican lies really are.

Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said the attempted attack on Christmas is “a black eye” for the administration. It takes about three seconds of actual thought to realize how absurd this is. Was 9/11 “a black eye” for Bush/Cheney? How about the anthrax attacks? Or Richard Reid? Or the attacks against U.S. allies around the world? And the terrorist attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?

It is getting a bit comical:

If I didn’t know better, I might think terrorists trying to kill Americans under a Republican administration is good news for the GOP, while terrorists trying to kill Americans under a Democratic administration is also good news for the GOP. When terrorists try to kill Americans under a Republican administration, it’s Democrats’ responsibility to help bring the country together against a common foe. When terrorists try to kill Americans under a Democratic administration, it’s Republicans’ responsibility to attack the White House, undermine American confidence, and create a climate of fear and division.

The Washington Post reported, “The health-care debate demonstrated how successful Republicans and their allies can be in selling a message to the American people, even when some of their facts are in doubt.” That’s one of my favorite sentences in a long while – Republicans can’t govern, and don’t understand public policy, but they have a unique ability to convince the public that their lies might be true.

Reality is stubborn, and the facts aren’t on Republicans’ side. The trick is getting Americans to notice.

It worked in the last decade, but that’s ending. Maybe people will notice.

And there was Dick Cheney’s latest massive attack on President Obama, where he says Obama just doesn’t get that we’re at war!

And of course the White House issued a statement:

There has been a lot of discussion online and in the mainstream media about our response to various critics of the President, specifically former Vice President Cheney, who have been coming out of the woodwork since the incident on Christmas Day. I think we all agree that there should be honest debate about these issues, but it is telling that Vice President Cheney and others seem to be more focused on criticizing the Administration than condemning the attackers. Unfortunately too many are engaged in the typical Washington game of pointing fingers and making political hay, instead of working together to find solutions to make our country safer.

That’s all boilerplate, but this isn’t:

First, it’s important that the substantive context be clear: for seven years after 9/11, while our national security was overwhelmingly focused on Iraq – a country that had no al Qaeda presence before our invasion – Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda’s leadership was able to set up camp in the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they continued to plot attacks against the United States. Meanwhile, al Qaeda also regenerated in places like Yemen and Somalia, establishing new safe-havens that have grown over a period of years. …

To put it simply: this President is not interested in bellicose rhetoric, he is focused on action. Seven years of bellicose rhetoric failed to reduce the threat from al Qaeda and succeeded in dividing this country. And it seems strangely off-key now, at a time when our country is under attack, for the architect of those policies to be attacking the President.

Second, the former Vice President makes the clearly untrue claim that the President – who is this nation’s Commander-in-Chief – needs to realize we are at War. I don’t think anyone realizes this very hard reality more than President Obama. In his inaugural, the President said “our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” …

There are numerous other such public statements that explicitly state we are at war. The difference is this: President Obama doesn’t need to beat his chest to prove it, and – unlike the last Administration – we are not at war with a tactic (“terrorism”), we are at war with something that is tangible: al Qaeda and its violent extremist allies. And we will prosecute that war as long as the American people are endangered.

Welcome to the new decade, folks.

Or stay with the old decade, and with the aging rock star who’s on Fox News all the time, but this time speaking from England, just like the Dixie Chicks. That would be Ted Nugent:

I think that Barack Hussein Obama should be put in jail. It is clear that Barack Hussein Obama is a communist. Mao Tse Tung lives and his name is Barack Hussein Obama. This country should be ashamed. I wanna throw up.

Well, that’s how some of us always felt about his music. But at least he didn’t rip off his clothes, pour hot coffee on his head and shoot the dog.

But something is in the air. Gallup asked Americans what man that you have heard or read about, living today, in any part of the world, do you admire most?


1. Barack Obama, 30 percent

2. George W. Bush, 4 percent

3. Nelson Mandela, 3 percent

4. Glenn Beck, 2 percent

5. Pope Benedict XVI, 2 percent

6. The Rev. Billy Graham, 2 percent

7. Bill Gates, 2 percent

8. John McCain, 1 percent

9. George H. W. Bush, 1 percent

10. (tie) Bill Clinton, 1 percent / Tiger Woods, 1 percent

Digby comments:

Nelson Mandela only gets one point higher than Beck – who’s tied with the pope? No Limbaugh, no Hannity, no O’Reilly? Beck?

That actually freaks me out a little bit.

Well, maybe the next year, and the next decade will be better, as being worse seems unlikely. It’s time to move on. Someone tell Ted.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Assessing 2009, Assessing the Last Decade, Obama Too Cool, Obama's Professionalism, Republican Drama Queens and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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