I’m one of the first to tell you our country is in rough shape. But Time magazine’s latest cover story – declaring the past nine years and change to be “The Decade From Hell” is ridiculous; I can’t tell whether the dominant aim is to declare a decade largely defined by the Bush presidency to be a nonstop cavalcade of disasters and misfortune, or simply to play to readers’ self-pity, and assure them that no one has ever had it as hard as they have.
We live in challenging times, but compared to, say, the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the massive worldwide casualties of World War Two and the Holocaust of the 1940s, the Cold War tensions, Vietnam, domestic unrest and violence of the 1960s, etc., this decade was mild by almost every indicator. It was the Decade from Hell for those who can remember two or three. (Andrew Serwer, the author of the piece and managing editor of Fortune Magazine, looks old enough to remember an event or two before 1980.)
Instead, the decade is too terrible for just one label of horror:
Bookended by 9/11 at the start and a financial wipeout at the end, the 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. We’re still weeks away from the end of ‘09, but it’s not too early to pass judgment. Call it the Decade from Hell, or the Reckoning, or the Decade of Broken Dreams, or the Lost Decade. Call it whatever you want — just give thanks that it is nearly over.
My aim is not to diminish the tough times folks are going through right now or the losses some have suffered; simply to offer a bit of historical perspective, which is sadly lacking from Time’s coverage.
The Economy: Much of the article focuses on the economy, focusing on a steep drop in stocks (from a rather bubbly-2000 peak) , a slight decline in median household income, and Bernie Madoff. The word “meltdown” is used repeatedly. Stocks and income figures over the course of the decade are lousy, no doubt, but hardly warrant the “meltdown” label when compared to the 1930s or even the 1970s. We’ve still become more productive over the past ten years. Our nominal GDP was $9.95 trillion in 2000; it was $14.4 trillion by 2008’s preliminary numbers, the most recent year we have figures. Our real GDP increased from $11.22 trillion to $13.31 trillion. Per capita, our nominal GDP increased from $35,237 to $47,422; real GDP per capita increased $39,750 to $43,714.
Our current rate of 10.2 percent unemployment seems particularly high now because the previous high this decade was 6.5 percent in June 2003; for most of the decade, the U.S. unemployment rate ranged between 4 and 6 percent. Meanwhile, here’s the national unemployment rate, by year, in the first seven years of those go-go 1980s: 7.1, 7.6, 9.7, 9.6, 7.5, 7.2, 7.0.
Even if 2009’s numbers stink, and they probably will, we’re unlikely to have lost ground from 2000. If we wish to lament that this decade’s economic growth was lousy, fine, but this article asserts a historical perspective when our economy has been in tougher scrapes than this. To the consumer, is the current oil price worse than the oil shocks of the 1970s? The awful double-digit inflation? A “misery index” (inflation and unemployment) above 21 percent? Seen any bread lines lately, or signs urging the unemployed to move on to the next town? How many folks have had gas siphoned out of their cars lately?
Terrorism: Time declares, “There were more large-scale terrorist bombings and attacks in countries like England, Spain, Pakistan, Indonesia, Russia, Jordan, the Philippines, Turkey, India and of course the U.S. The absolute number killed was not great, but the idea that terrorists can attack anytime and anywhere is new and profoundly unsettling.”
It is new and profoundly unsettling to those who have no memory of the first World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing, Pan Am Flight 103, the Empire State Building shooter, or any one of dozens of terror attacks from various sources on American soil and abroad in previous decades. Even the anthrax mailings had a precursor of almost two decades earlier when a group in Oregon deliberately contaminated salad bars at ten restaurants with salmonella in 1984, sickening 751 people.
Beyond that, we know things could have been much, much worse, with many foiled terrorist attacks over the past ten years.
Natural disasters: The article mentions the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and rehashes a bit about the Army Corps of Engineers neglecting warnings about New Orleans’ levees before Hurricane Katrina.
Indeed, the tsunami’s eradication of more than 200,000 lives was jaw-droppingly horrific. But do we really want to argue that there was something uniquely horrible about the natural disasters of this decade compared to previous decades? A cyclone killed an estimated 500,000 in Bangladesh in 1970; it is largely forgotten today. In 1975, Typhoon Nina killed more than 100,000 in Asia, contributing to the collapse of a dam.
And barring any wild theories about deliberately-demolished levees, has this decade seen any industrial disasters on par with the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal or Chernobyl meltdown of the 1980s? Any mass killings on par with the Rwandan Genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 1990s?
Hurricane Katrina was shocking, horrifying, and devastating, but do we really want to argue that it was a uniquely worse disaster for an American city compared to the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, or the Great Chicago Fire? Galveston, Texas being blown off the map in 1900? Hurricane Andrew’s destructive romp across central Florida in 1992?
Do we really want to argue that we live in an era of unique health threats, when our grandparents feared polio, tuberculosis, smallpox? Do Bird Flu or H1N1 really compare to the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918?
Time magazine’s online photo essay audaciously announces, “The 10 Worst Things About the Worst Decade Ever.” Worst ever?
Their first item is “the contested election of 2000.” Even by the measuring stick of political divisions, was this past decade significantly worse than past decades? Compared to the Civil War? Compared to social divisions of the 1960s and 1970s, which generated domestic terror groups like the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army?
Strangely, the third item on that photo essay’s list of “worst things of the worst decade ever” is “the invasion of Afghanistan.”
UPDATE: Several readers note that the better “end date” for the decade will be December 31, 2010, not December 31, 2009.