Decade in reverse
Good times, bad times, you know we had our share
As the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close, there is at least one crucial question that remains unanswered. What the heck do we call it? Most decades of any consequence get a trendy handle. The Fabulous Fifties. The Swinging Sixties. The Roaring Nineties. But this past 10-year period? No one seems to know, not even the oracle. “The 2000s never attained a universally accepted name in the English-speaking world,” Wikipedia shrugs.
Some Brits have taken to calling it the “The Naughties,” in reference to the double-zeros, or its derivative “The Oughties,” or my personal favorite, “The Naughty Oughties.” Certainly a strong case can be made for the latter. Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer and Pastor Ted Haggard come immediately to mind. It even applies to the behavior of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. Naughty, naughty boys, every last one of ’em.
Alas, the phrase’s playfulness renders it unsuitable as a sobriquet for the nightmare through which we have just passed—and from which we have yet to awaken. The Constitution is in tatters. Our reputation remains battered. Wall Street’s still full of money grabbers. We’ve been shattered.
That’s how the Stones might put it, anyway, and they wouldn’t be wrong. By almost any measure, the 2000s have been a decade in reverse.
It’s enough to make you pine for President Bill Clinton’s last year in office. The world was at peace, the stock market was riding high and Vice President Al Gore was poised to take his rightful place in the Oval Office. We all know what happened next; we’ve been on a downhill slide ever since. Therefore, since all stories must have happy endings, let’s work our way from the bottom to the top, when the man from Hope reigned in a throne gilded with the tech bubble’s insane profits.
Yes, those were the days. In stark contrast, 2009 might be called the year we lost hope. As I write this, Congress has just passed a health-care reform bill that gives billions of dollars away to the insurance industry, makes it a crime to not have health insurance and contains no public option. In short, it has very little to do with the health-care reform promised by President Barack Obama on the campaign trail. Whether it passes or fails, the man who gave many liberals hope has once again thrown the base to the lions.
It’s been like that ever since Obama took office in January. To his credit, he immediately pushed through the economic stimulus bill, which, meager as it was, did more to keep the real economy wheezing along than a multitude of bubble-inducing, too-big-to-fail bank bailouts. The Democrats could have exploited their newfound power and pushed through a bill three times that size. Instead, they caved into Republican obstructionists and Obama signaled his true allegiances by appointing a half-dozen Wall Street insiders to his administration.
If that didn’t arouse the suspicions of Obama’s liberal base, his next move, sending another 20,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, certainly should have. Transitions can be difficult; it seems no one at the CIA passed along that there’s only about 100 Al Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan. There’s no reason for us to be there. Nevertheless, in November, Obama called up another 34,000 soldiers, bringing the total U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan to 100,000 and extending the conflict until, you know, whenever.
The last move snapped the necks of even the most ardent Obama supporters, particularly since it came immediately after the 9-month-old president won the Nobel Peace Prize, a selection so absurd it still makes me wonder if they have cable TV in Oslo, Norway.
Coming in a close second on the what-the-fuck-were-they-thinking meter was Time magazine’s selection of Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke as Man of the Year for doing the only thing he knows how to do: funnel trillions of taxpayer-backed dollars into Wall Street, even as Main Street goes down the drain. The only consolation is that Time once named Hitler Man of the Year.
Then there were the Teabaggers, who turned the aforementioned health-care debate into something akin to a circus freak show. Cringe as Sarah Palin drinks beer through her nose with a straw! Thrill as Glenn Beck immolates an unsuspecting member of the audience! Marvel at the mysterious, miniature world of the Incredible Shrinking Democrats!
Funny stuff. Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or leave the country.
Against that backdrop, 2008 seems like a pretty good year, even though it ended with the government’s official declaration that we’d been in an economic recession since the previous December. A few economists warned we were on the verge of a second Great Depression, but no one besides the millions of people who’d already lost their jobs and homes seemed all that concerned about it.
There were plenty of things to cheer about. For one, President George W. Bush managed to complete his last year in office without major incident, a considerable accomplishment, considering his medication regime. Beleaguered Wall Street banks and investment houses received a generous $1 trillion handout from the federal government. The sex was better than ever, unless you happened to be New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s wife.
Then, of course, there was Barack Obama, whose very campaign implied the American Dream might yet exist, as did Hillary Clinton’s, to a lesser extent. It may have taken till the 21st century, but we’ve finally reached the point where an African-American man (or an immensely privileged white woman) can not only be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, he actually has a legitimate shot at winning. That is real change, and even skeptics were momentarily buoyed upon the hopeful winds of Obamamania.
Nor was hope the only thing blowin’ in the wind. For more than a decade, state after state had been following California’s lead and legalizing medical marijuana. By 2008, vast portions of the country were shrouded in a dense cannabinoid fog, from California to Vermont. In normally staid Sacramento, medical-marijuana collectives popped up like mushrooms. Even Republicans took an occasional bong rip, if the selection of John McCain’s running mate is any indication.
Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was the comedic high point of the year. Who knows what Republicans were thinking? Perhaps, not wishing to be blamed for the ongoing economic crisis caused by the housing bubble’s implosion, they simply cut their losses and tossed in the towel. Maybe they thought fascism was coming back. Or, God forbid, what if they believed Sarah Palin was the real deal?
Whatever the case, her arrival on the scene marked the end of the presidential contest and what used to be known as the Republican Party. On election night, Barack Obama easily won, Michigan became the 13th state to legalize medical marijuana and liberals were as stoned as they’d been in years.
Who can blame them? If anything, candidate Obama’s oratory was more uplifting in 2007, in the months leading up to the presidential primaries. After six years of terror alerts and rampant militarism, his message of peace and prosperity for all sounded refreshingly unfamiliar. Democrats had won back the House and pulled even in the Senate after the 2006 midterm elections, and in 2007 you could feel the political tide turning.
Unless your new home was underwater. Then all you could sense was the weight of your mortgage resetting at a higher interest rate, even though your home was worth 25 percent less than it was the year before. The loose money policies championed by Bernanke and his predecessor Alan Greenspan ballooned into the largest real-estate bubble of all time, and as of this writing, it’s still deflating. Home values overall are currently down 50 percent from their peak and still falling; homeowners have lost an estimated total of $8 trillion in value since the bubble popped.
But that’s not even the half of it. Using computerized financial instruments such as certified debt obligations, credit default swaps and other derivative formulas, institutional investors repurchased mortgages, good and bad, and repackaged them in large, securitized bundles, transforming homeowner debt into an asset. In turn, those assets were used to leverage further transactions, creating a complex network of interlocking financial instruments. The theory, loosely put, was that all the good mortgages, through the magic of mathematical gimmickry, would cancel out the bad ones. As long as prices keep going up, everybody wins!
That theory had gone out the window by early 2007, after dodgier subprime home loans began defaulting en masse and housing prices began to plummet. In March, investment bank Bear Stearns was forced to bail out its own subprime lending operations rather than risk selling shares on the open market and reveal the toxic assets on its books—and by extension, the toxic assets on everyone else’s books, from Goldman Sachs on down. Virtually overnight, a global derivatives market valued as high as $500 trillion became potentially worthless.
Imagine the credit market as a supersaturated solution, carrying more debt than it ought to because the various parties involved, mainly large corporate banks and investment houses that work closely together, presume their business associates won’t all attempt to cash in their chips at the same time. In spite of this presumption, when doubt of one firm’s ability to repay debt enters the system—as it did in the case of Bear Stearns, after it became apparent its subprime holdings were junk—panic quickly spreads and the credit market freezes up.
Financial institutions didn’t necessarily stop lending money in 2007 because they lacked funds. They stopped lending money because they no longer trusted one another.
That still holds today. All of the major players remain up to their eyeteeth in toxic assets that are kept off the books because they may be worth just pennies on the dollar. The results of this crisis in confidence have been catastrophic. From its high of 14,093 points in October 2007, the Dow Jones average plunged more than 50 percent, to a low of 6,626 in March of this year. Unemployment rose into the double digits, where it still remains.
It all sounds quite horrible in hindsight, but it wasn’t all bad. A resurgent Britney Spears went nuts, shaved her head and on numerous occasions flashed her vagina in public; Paris Hilton got busted for a DUI, Apple released the iPhone, An Inconvenient Truth won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, and shares of Sacramento Bee parent corporation The McClatchy Co., weighed down by the collapsing real-estate market, plummeted 86 percent in value by year’s end, from $75 to $10 per share.
By 2006, Americans, bogged down on two fronts in the Middle East but flush with red-hot real-estate money, were ready for a new challenge, like, you know, going to the movies. The film about Al Gore’s crusade to stop global warming gave it to them, and remarkably, they flocked to it in droves.
Anyone who’s ever run a garden hose from their tailpipe into the car, climbed in, closed all the windows, locked all the doors and turned the motor on can tell you that carbon emissions are lethal. Well, they could tell you if they weren’t dead. That’s basically Gore’s point in the film—we’re all gonna die if we keep spewing carbon into the atmosphere. Of course, it won’t necessarily be by asphyxiation. Some of us will drown as the sea level rises. Others will die of thirst in newly formed deserts. Still others will be swept away in Katrina-like superstorms. It’s enough to make any rational person pray for an asteroid strike.
But as the recently concluded climate-change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, demonstrated, when it comes to global warming, there may not be too many rational people left on the planet. That’s why I’ve always preferred to address the carbon issue from the standpoint of fossil-fuel depletion. According to an increasing number of petroleum-industry experts, we may have reached Peak Oil right around the same time An Inconvenient Truth was released. That means that of all the oil that was ever in the ground, only half of it is left. It took eons for this vast pool of petroleum to form beneath the crust of the Earth; it took us less than two centuries to burn through half of it.
Needless to say, our modern industrialized society burns through fossil fuels at a much more rapid pace today; we don’t have a century left at this rate. The solution seems to be pretty straightforward to me. If we love our planet and we love our fossil-fuel-driven way of life—which I do, by the way—we’ve got to use the fuel more efficiently in order to conserve it, which will in turn reduce carbon emissions. All it takes is a crazy little thing called engineering. We used to do it all the time in this country. We could still do it today, if we had the political will.
But, you know, politics is the worm that keeps gnawing its way into this apple. The first thing it eats is common sense.
Fortunately, social networking came of age in 2006, providing a welcome distraction for the more than 1 million worldwide users who signed on to MySpace. Oddly, most of the users appear to be amateur prostitutes or failed musicians, which, along with Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of MySpace in 2005, explains why Facebook as since passed it in popularity.
The advent of social networking marked a generational shift in the use of technology. Once fogies such as myself discovered just how much time you could waste padding your friend count, we lost interest. Not that we’re Luddites or anything like that. There’s simply no way I could have written this story, in the time I had allotted, without a computer and high-speed Internet connection. In the old days, it would have taken three proofreaders to fact-check this piece; I’m doing it on the fly, via the oracle, as I write. A proofreader will still see it before it goes to press, but she knows my work is wired tight, so it only takes her a couple of hours. In the economic world, this is known as increased productivity. In the real world, it means two proofreaders just lost their jobs.
But, hey! Who needs proofreaders? That’s what makes the Internet such a lethal propaganda tool, as became apparent in the wake of the 2004 presidential election. A conscientious print journalist such as myself will at least consult Wikipedia before making up a fact. But ever since John Kerry got swift-boated, well-paid Web cowboys have conjured up their own truth and disseminated it for mass consumption on the Internet, where their loathsome lies are then churned into rancid butter by hate radio and Fox News, which the rubes in the audience can then spread on their toast. The most surprising thing of all? It tastes good!
That’s the problem with tools. Give a hammer to John Henry, and he’ll build you a railroad. Give a hammer to Ted Bundy, and he’ll bash a co-ed’s brains in with it. It goes without saying that Bundy was a Republican. If the state of Florida hadn’t fried him in Ol’ Sparky, today he’d be on Facebook.
Speaking of tools and Republicans—they really are one and the same in today’s era, along with a sizeable number of Democrats—Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown was the unanimous selection as 2005’s “tool of the year,” for completely bungling the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. One of the deadliest hurricanes to ever hit the United States, Katrina left 1,836 dead in its wake and more than $100 billion in damage after landing in Louisiana in August. Brown was subsequently forced to resign.
I am seeing a man, a tall man with a long face, a long, wooden, expressionless face, like you might see on a cigar store Indian, except the man isn’t wearing a war bonnet, and he has a hot wife who bathes in ketchup and gives him lots of money. His name is John Kerry, and he lost the 2004 presidential election without twitching a muscle, because he’s made out of wood.
No matter what happened to us in 2001, there was no justification for our invasion of Iraq. Bush lied, thousands of our soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died, for nothing, and we will never relieve ourselves of this shame.
However, we could pass one measure that would prevent such war crimes from ever happening again. We could bring back the draft.
I write this as an honorably discharged U.S. Navy veteran who explored the idea of re-enlisting after 9/11 until realizing the cause was completely bogus. There’s nothing wrong with defending your country, unless it’s under false pretenses. If every American had to put his or her life on the line—in exchange for, say, free health care for life—they might think twice before allowing our leaders to lie us into a war.
Phantom mushroom clouds. Invisible weapons of mass destruction. Backroom meetings which no one outside of Dick Cheney and his mutant neocon minions attended. Would any parent have bought this bullshit if their own child’s life was at stake?2002
In 2002, they might have. Terror in the homeland was very real back then, considering the events of the previous year, and a color-coded bat signal kept the nation on high alert at all times. No one suggested bringing back the draft; after all, the villain, Osama bin Laden, had already been vanquished in the mountains of Tora Bora (don’t believe the hype he’s still alive, he’s not) and what was left of the Taliban was about as threatening as a flea. But if they had started a draft back then, we’d have the troops to do the job in Afghanistan today.
Whaddaya say now, Mom and Dad?
What Mom and Dad said in 2002 was that they had no problem with Big Brother eavesdropping on their telephone and e-mail communications. No problem rolling back the Constitution with regrettable legislation such as the Patriot Act, still in effect today. No problem sending U.S. troops to Iraq, because after all, it’s an all-volunteer army. They asked for it.
We all know why it happened then. But why is it still happening now?2001
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was living in a two-story shotgun shack in Locke, Calif., with B.J. Quintana, an artist of some renown. Local news travels slowly in the Sacramento River Delta, but everybody has cable, and that morning, she called me down to the living room, where the TV was situated.
The second I laid my eyes on the screen, the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, in much the same way as those controlled building demolitions you see on the Discovery Channel. It turned out to be a replay. Seconds later, the World Trade Center’s smoking north tower collapsed, in exactly the same way, in real time.
I think at this point, B.J. and I might have taken maybe a dozen bong hits. Who could blame us?
We draped a giant American flag over the balcony and watched events unfold on TV. The attack on the Pentagon. The endless replays of planes crashing into buildings. The unexplainable collapse of WTC 7. Suddenly, the bitter disappointment of the 2000 presidential election didn’t seem to matter anymore.
Nothing seemed to matter anymore in the new normal, except perhaps revenge.
Even though it preceded 9/11 by less than a year, the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore seems far more distant in memory. Remember hanging chads? Those 19,000 Jews in Miami who voted for anti-Semitic Pat Buchanan? The conservative Supreme Court picking our president, instead of us? The theft of the U.S. presidency 10 years ago was maddening at the time, but in light of events that came afterward, now it seems like a relatively minor incident.
It’s certainly not the open sore 9/11 remains today. From one perspective, you could even say losing the election was the best thing that ever happened to Al Gore. As the figurehead of the effort to slow global warming, he’s come into his own, a highly respected elder statesman who’s garnered his own well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize. George W. Bush, on the other hand, will always be remembered for The Pet Goat, the book he was reading in that Florida classroom when the Twin Towers came down. Who can forget Bush’s frightened, contorted face in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11?
Like I said from the outset, ever since Bush stole the election and the subsequent terrorist attack on America, it’s been one long slide to the bottom. To put it bluntly, the new normal sucks. Bill Clinton may have been a naughty boy, too, but during his last year in office, we were at peace, technology stocks had pushed the market to an all-time high and Bubba had somehow survived the Monica Lewinsky scandal. True, the tech bubble began deflating before Clinton left office and he’d thrown the Democratic base under the bus years earlier. But that’s infinitely more preferable than an endless war on terror.
A friend once asked me, after listening to me rant and rave endlessly about Barack Obama’s betrayal of the left during the 2008 campaign, “What if this is as good as it gets?” So I’ve been trying to have a positive attitude about the coming decade. The health-care reform currently heading for the president’s desk may leave something to be desired, but it does contain some important elements, such as making it illegal for insurance companies to turn away patients with pre-existing conditions. Our actions overseas may not have changed too much at this point, but there’s no doubt America’s standing has risen in the world since Obama became president. Maybe this is as good as it gets, and there are no happy endings.