The great thing about New Year's Eve is that you can celebrate the end of a great year or a bad one.
Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2009
The '00s: Goodbye (at Last) to the Decade From Hell
By Andy Serwer
At exactly two minutes after midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, an alarm sounded at a nuclear power plant in Onagawa, Japan. Government officials and computer scientists around the globe held their breath. Was this the beginning of a massive Y2K computer meltdown? Actually, no. It was an isolated event, one of a handful of glitches to occur (including the failure of 500 slot machines at two racetracks in Delaware) as the sun rose on the new decade. The dreaded millennial meltdown never happened.
Instead, it was the American Dream that was about to dim. 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.
Calling the 2000s "the worst" may seem an overwrought label in a decade in which we fought no major wars, in historical terms. It is a sadly appropriate term for the families of the thousands of 9/11 victims and soldiers and others killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the lack of a large-scale armed conflict makes these past 10 years stand out that much more. This decade was as awful as any peacetime decade in the nation's entire history. Between the West's ongoing struggle against radical Islam and our recent near-death economic experience — trends that have largely skirted much of the developing world — it's no wonder we feel as if we've been through a 10-year gauntlet. Americans may have the darkest view of recent history, since it's in the U.S. that the effects of those trends have been most acute. If you live in Brazil or China, you have had a pretty good decade economically. Once, we were the sunniest and most optimistic of nations. No longer.
The U.S. has endured not one but two market crashes — one at each end of the decade. You might recall the first Wall Street crash, when swooning tech stocks tanked the market from 2000 to 2001, not long after the Nasdaq hit an all-time high of 5049 on March 10, 2000. (Recent levels: 2150-2200.) The economy went into a recession that now seems laughably mild. What followed wasn't funny at all: the most divisive and confusing presidential election in history, a discombobulated drama that we once thought could occur only in the Third World.
Then came the defining moment of the decade, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which redefined global politics for at least a generation and caused us to question the continental security we had until then rarely worried about. We waged war in Afghanistan that drags on and today is deadlier than ever. Then came our fiasco in Iraq. Don't forget the anthrax letters and later the Washington, D.C., snipers and the wave of Wall Street scandals highlighted by Enron and WorldCom.
Sometimes it was as if the gods themselves were conspiring against this decade. On Aug. 29, 2005, near the center point in the decade, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana, killing more than 1,500 and causing $100 billion in damages. It was the largest natural disaster in our nation's history.
There is nothing natural about the economic meltdown we are still struggling with as the decade winds down. A housing bubble fueled by cheap money and excessive borrowing set ablaze by derivatives, so-called financial weapons of mass destruction, put the economy on the brink of collapse. We will be sorting through the damage for years. Meanwhile, the living, breathing symbol of this economic sordidness, prisoner No. 61727-054, a.k.a. Bernie Madoff, rots away in a Butner, N.C., jail cell, doing 150 years for orchestrating the biggest Ponzi scheme in the history of humanity.
The Great Meltdown
Were we Americans alone in our troubles? Hardly. The Asian tsunami of 2004 killed more than 200,000 people. And our financial meltdown quickly spread around the developed world. Yet from our lofty perch overlooking the 20th century — the American Century, TIME's co-founder once labeled it — the fall has been precipitous. Who among us is unscathed? Not many. Even if none of your family members died in combat, you had no money with Madoff and you own your house free and clear, you most likely still took a hit. To paraphrase the question Ronald Reagan posed years ago, Are you better off today than you were at the beginning of the decade? For most of us, the answer is a resounding no. Let us count the ways. For one thing, the stock market is down 26% since 2000, making this the worst decade for stocks. (Inflation-adjusted, it's even worse.) I remember Warren Buffett telling me at the beginning of the decade that there was no way the go-go returns of the 1990s were going to continue and that we had better get used to meager returns going forward. Buffett saw it coming.
For the average working stiff, it was a pretty lousy 10 years. The median household income in 2000 was $52,500. Last year (the most recent year available) it was $50,303. And given that the unemployment rate has climbed to 10.2%, income will almost certainly drop again this year. Low-income Americans fared even worse. In 2000, 11.3% of Americans were living below the poverty line. By 2008, that number had risen to 13.2%. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans without health insurance increased from 13.7% to 15.4%.
Surprisingly, housing prices were not such a debacle — that is, if you bought early and stayed put. The median price of an existing home was $143,600 in 2000. Today the median is nearly $175,000. But remember, millions of Americans splurged for homes in the middle of the decade when prices were high: in July 2006 the median selling price peaked at $230,300. If you bought then — assuming you haven't lost your house to foreclosure — your home has lost some 25% of its value. Nothing to cheer about there.
Our national psyche has been damaged as much as our national economy by the record number of corporate bankruptcies, many of them household names: Kmart, United Airlines, Circuit City, Lehman Brothers, GM and Chrysler. The price of oil more than tripled this decade, settling at more than $70 a barrel, straining our economy.
Of course, the decade's bad news hasn't been confined to the financial pages. Was there actually more bad news than usual? The answer is an objective yes. For example, there were more mass shootings and school shootings, such as the murder of 32 students at Virginia Tech in 2007 and the recent slaughter at Fort Hood, than in any other decade. 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.
Even many of our heroes turned out to be badly flawed, from doping by athletes in baseball, cycling and the Olympics to the endless political scandals and sex scandals. And yes, we couldn't get enough of them on the 24-hour cable news, blogs and reality TV that chronicle and reflect this unsavory maw. The rise of all manner of new media and the lack of barriers to criticism from the blogosphere seemed to intensify every scandal and left very few public figures unsullied. Sure, some amazingly great things happened this decade, from the stunning rise of China to Apple's dazzling array of new products to the feats of sprinter Usain Bolt to our nation rallying (at least temporarily) around its first African-American President. But all that seems more like counterpoint rather than the main act.
Perhaps we were lulled into complacency by the exuberance of the end of the Cold War. It was a deception brought on by an unusually positive historical continuum. First, America and the Allies won World War II; then, 45 years later, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, we defeated communism too. After that, maybe we believed the world would be forever free of conflict. Some thinkers called it the end of history. Well, history did not die. It came roaring back. The old conflicts did indeed wither, but new and virulent ones arose.
What Went Wrong
So here's the big question: Why? Why did so much bad stuff happen in this decade? Was it just rotten luck or something more? Sure, some of it was simply randomness, but I think a strong case can be made that it was more than just chance that got things so bollixed up.
In large part, we have ourselves to blame. If you look at the underlying causes of some of the most troubling developments of the decade, you can see some striking common denominators. The raft of financial problems, our war with radical Islam, the collapse of GM and much of our domestic auto industry and even the devastation brought about by Katrina all came about at least in part or were greatly exacerbated by:
• Neglect. Our inward-looking culture didn't heed the warning signs from around the world — and from within our own country — that Islamic terrorism was heading for our shores.
• Greed. Our absolute faith in the markets, fed by Wall Street, combined with the declawing of our regulators to undermine our financial system. (See 10 ways your job will change.)
• Self-interest. The auto industry disintegrated while management and labor tangoed from one bad contract to the next, ignoring their customers and their competition, aided and abetted by their respective politicians.
• Deferral of responsibility. Our power grid needs an upgrade and our bridges are falling down because we have not mustered the political and popular willpower to fix them. New Orleans drowned because authorities failed to act before Katrina busted the inadequate levees. (See pictures of a New Orleans neighborhood.)
It was almost as if we as a nation said in previous decades, "Why do today what we can put off until the first decade of the 21st century?" But we didn't rise to those challenges. What we just lived through, then, was the chickens coming home to roost.
Take the vexing and costly war we are waging against al-Qaeda and its ilk. This is a conflict that was barely on the radar in the 1990s — which is exactly the problem. By most accounts, Osama bin Laden founded his organization sometime between 1988 and 1990. The U.S., in part, helped create this loathsome band itself by funding the mujahedin, who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and provided much of the training for bin Laden's foot soldiers. But our friendly freedom fighters turned into foes. In 1992 al-Qaeda bombed a hotel in Yemen, hoping to kill American Marines bound for Somalia. Then came the first World Trade Center bombing, in 1993. Three years later, the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel. In 1996 and 1998, bin Laden issued fatwas calling for Muslims to rise up and kill Americans. Making good on bin Laden's word, al-Qaeda blew up U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in synchronized attacks on Aug. 7, 1998, killing almost 300, including 12 Americans. In October 2000, terrorists struck again, bombing the destroyer U.S.S. Cole in Yemen and killing 17 service members.
After all that, should 9/11 have been a surprise? There were those who saw what was coming, most notably FBI agent John O'Neill, who perished during the attack on the World Trade Center and whose story is eloquently told in Lawrence Wright's masterly book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Time and time again O'Neill warned his superiors that al-Qaeda was readying a big strike, only to be marginalized, causing him to leave the bureau. Another prescient voice was that of Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, whose book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order suggested that culture and religion would be the sources of conflict in the post–Cold War world. Huntington didn't limit this to war between the West and Islam, though he did single out "Islamic civilization" as potentially having significant friction points with the West because of its population explosion and the rise of religious fundamentalism.
Our economic narcissism was certainly the culprit in the devastation wrought by financial markets, which have subjected us to an increasingly frequent series of crashes, frauds and recessions. To a great degree, this was brought about by a lethal combination of irresponsible deregulation and accommodating monetary policies instituted by the Federal Reserve. Bankers and financial engineers had an unsupervised free-market free-for-all just as the increased complexity of financial products — e.g., derivatives — screamed out for greater regulation or at least supervision. Enron, for instance, was a bastard child of a deregulated utilities industry and a mind-bending financial alchemy.
Historian H.W. Brands of the University of Texas points to the demise of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 as an unfortunate tipping point of deregulation. Glass-Steagall, passed in 1933, separated investment banking and plain-vanilla banking, which some experts argued made markets safer. (Certain restrictions of Glass-Steagall were repealed to allow the merger of Citicorp and Travelers. Let's just say that didn't end well.) "That was the single moment when the seeds for the bad stuff were planted," says Brands. "There was a belief that technology, the Internet and financial instruments had changed things, and the ones selling this idea and these instruments were making a lot of money."
Another proximate cause were new loosey-goosey borrowing rules (if they can be called that) that allowed the likes of Bear Stearns and Lehman to pile $30 of debt onto each $1 of capital. The chief executives of these firms argued vociferously for the right to greater leverage and vociferously against regulating derivatives because, they claimed, unfettered markets were more efficient. Yes, it was the unfettered use of leverage and derivatives that destroyed their companies and wreaked havoc on the rest of us.
Companies go belly-up all the time, but in this decade there were an inordinate number of bankruptcies. The creative destruction of the Internet had a part in this. While the Web opened up new worlds and created thousands of jobs at Amazon, Google and the like, it displaced workers at travel and government agencies, at newspapers and magazines and at stores like Circuit City and Tower Records — traditional distribution points for services, information and goods. Economists call that disintermediation.
But when we're talking about auto giants GM and Chrysler, both of which imploded after years of complicity and ineptitude by GM management and the United Auto Workers (UAW), it's more like disintegration. The UAW organized both GM and Chrysler in early 1937 — Henry Ford famously held out four more years. For decades, particularly under the leadership of Walter Reuther, who headed the union from 1946 until his death in 1970, it was able to win concessions from the automakers, bringing its members into the middle class. As long as demand for autos grew in the post–WW II halcyon days, relations between the unions and the automakers were basically quiescent.
And therein lies the problem. For years the UAW and the Big Three — now dwindled to the Detroit Three — operated an unholy alliance. Management would pile on wage hikes and perks, and in return (wink, wink) the union would keep the peace, i.e., rule out strikes, even though both sides must have realized that the amount being paid to workers was unsustainable, particularly if the industry hit any downdrafts — which happened with increasing frequency starting with the 1973 OPEC oil embargo.
Just as embarrassing was the colossal ineptitude of the big car companies: Ugly, low-quality cars with shameful gas mileage. Layers of redundant management that relied on amateurish financial controls. Insular thinking reinforced by decades of outsize market share. It was as if Detroit had drawn a road map for Toyota and Honda. And the Japanese drove right in, decimating the U.S. companies. In 1979, GM's U.S. employment peaked at 618,365. Today it's at 75,000 and falling fast. GM's U.S. market share, once about 50%, has fallen to about 20%. True, the quality and efficiency of American cars have improved dramatically, but it may be too late.
And what about the Hurricane Katrina debacle? An act of God, right? Not really. When the storm raced toward New Orleans in late August 2005, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration feared the worst. For years they had been warning the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversaw the city's 350 miles of levees, that its system was inadequate. The scientists wanted the Corps to revise the Standard Project Hurricane, a model that determines how extensive the levees should be. For instance, the Corps did not consider the tendency of soil to sink over time, and it excluded the possibility of a highly powerful storm hitting the city because that was unlikely, which violates sophisticated principles of statistics and just plain common sense. On Nov. 18, a federal judge ruled that the Corps was directly responsible for flooding in St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward. "The Corps' lassitude and failure to fulfill its duties resulted in a catastrophic loss of human life and property in unprecedented proportions," the judge said. The government is expected to appeal.
Besides the Army Corps, mismanagement by the local levee boards contributed to substandard levees. Katrina wasn't even as bad a storm as had been feared, but the levees weren't as good as had been hoped. Some fact-based decision-making could have saved hundreds of lives and billions of dollars. Here, too, years of complacency were the rule, not the exception. The price was paid this decade.
Deteriorating infrastructure extends far beyond the Crescent City. At 6:05 p.m. on Aug. 1, 2007, the Minneapolis I-35W bridge spanning the Mississippi River collapsed, killing 13 and injuring 145. The National Transportation Safety Board later cited a design flaw as the cause, but the bridge had been classified as "structurally deficient" since 1991, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Highway Accident Report. The bridge, which opened in 1967, was scheduled to be replaced in 2020. How many other bridges, roads and dams are death traps–in–waiting? No one knows, but you can't help wondering if squeezed maintenance budgets are making our country less safe. A 2005 report card on American infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers (which gave mostly C's and D's) estimated that the U.S. needed to spend $1.6 trillion to bring our roads, highways, bridges and dams into good shape. Sure, the engineers are looking for work but know that the U.S. spends only 2.4% of its GDP on infrastructure, as opposed to 5% in Europe and 9% in China. Here again, why should a politician spend money today to fix something that won't collapse until tomorrow? Especially if he or she could get re-elected by cutting taxes instead.
If we are now watching the sun set on a Decade from Hell, does it naturally follow that the next decade will be all good and glory? Of course not. And yet there are some hopeful signs. We have seen the destructiveness of deferral and neglect on infrastructure, national and global politics, financial markets and corporate governance, and I think it's safe to say that the awareness of that danger is much higher now. Maybe that's why, for the first time, a national health care bill actually has a chance to become law.
How do we fix Wall Street? By facing the music now. Toughen up borrowing requirements by banks. Increase oversight, especially when it comes to regulating derivatives. Perhaps enact a 21st century version of Glass-Steagall. And don't allow any institution to become too big to fail. Does that mean some countries may get ahead of us in terms of financial innovation? Sure, but so what? For much of this decade, both England and Iceland were considered friendlier to capital markets than the U.S. England is now threadbare; Iceland is bankrupt.
There's also a natural cycle to history. Unless you believe that this country is in the throes of a deep and permanent decline, there's no question that we will rebound. "Usually when you've had a really bad decade like this one, the next decade turns out to be much better for investors," says Richard Sylla, a professor of economics at the NYU Stern School of Business. "Probably 10 years from now, people who are investing today are going to have fairly nice returns." Over time, stocks have averaged a total return of about 9%. Remember, stocks were down 1.2% per year this decade, after being up 18.2% per year in the 1990s. Returns always revert to the mean.
And also recall that the stock market usually mirrors political and economic trends. When the future appears to be stable and certain, the market moves up. When unexpectedly positive events occur, like the Internet boom in the 1990s, stocks produce above-average returns. This decade, the surprises were mostly negative, which drove the market lower. At some point, unanticipated positive developments will again drive the market higher: perhaps a sustained easing of tensions between the West and radical Islam, breakthroughs in green technology (think energy sources) or something completely unimagined. If we were too positive heading into the 2000s, we are almost certainly too negative heading into the next decade. But that's not such a bad thing. It means we will be collectively reluctant to lard on massive debts. It means we will be wary when some mortgage man tries to sell us an exotic loan predicated on our house's doubling in value. It means we will see "financial innovation" for what it often is: an oxymoron. And most important, it means we will take more seriously our responsibility to address problems now rather than later.
There is no guarantee that the next decade (get ready for the Teens!) will be any better than this one. It's likely that China will continue to grow faster than the U.S., and we may continue to see our global dominance erode. But very significantly, we still hold many of the world's trump cards. We still have the world's strongest military, which means we can and must lead in maintaining order and crafting peace. We are the leaders in technological innovation. And we are still the nation that most others emulate. If we remember those points and avoid the easy outs of deferral and neglect, then the next decade should be a helluva lot better than the last one.
— With reporting by Beth Kowitt / New York