An important turning of the calendar always gives reason to look both backward and ahead. Where have we been? Where are we going? I hear these questions being asked, in particular, by members of my own depression-born generation who suspect the coming decade could be their last.
Those of us born in the 1930s entered a world without television or regular long-distance airline service. Many families had no telephone or automobile. Few high-school graduates could afford college. The most westward franchises in major-league baseball were in St. Louis and Chicago. Teams traveled exclusively by train. "A chicken in every pot" was thought a test of prosperity as most families could manage only one bounteous meal a week, typically a Sunday chicken dinner. People earned their livings on farms or in factories, working with their hands.
There was no welfare state. Social Security came into existence in 1935. It would be another 30 years before Medicare and Medicaid became law, along with historic civil-rights and social-welfare legislation. Our armed forces were segregated until after World War II. Now we have an African American president.
So, for those whose entry point was the Depression, there is a general wonderment at the social, technological, and material progress that has taken place by 2010.
There also is a great relief that what was thought the civilized world passed over several decades through dark experiences with communism, fascism, militarism, and other totalitarian models without shattering. We came close on several occasions to nuclear war but avoided it. In the 1930s, it seemed entirely possible that a depression-plagued United States might follow the European example and turn to totalitarianism of the Left or Right.
We still have big international problems. But the United States, Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and India — the big economic powerhouses of the world — are not led by crazy totalitarians bent on world domination or genocide. That fearful torch has passed to a few rogue states and movements with capacity to do great harm but not to bring major nations into direct collision.
So, overall, 2010 provides an environment of greater safety and prosperity than would have been thought possible a couple generations back. Our present American financial/economic distress is great — the greatest since the Depression — but is nowhere near the magnitude of that earlier time. And recovery already has begun.
Yet we have not done what we could have with such opportunity.
We face a decade of towering debt. We carelessly have made promises we could not keep or finance — for instance, with Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid spending — and the present TARP, stimulus, health-care, auto, and real-estate initiatives have made them even more unkeepable. Spending on offshore interventions and greedy "earmark" spending by legislators has added to the red ink. The deficit curve, if not turned in the next 18 months, threatens to bring roaring inflation, high interest rates, and a boom-and-bust cycle like the one we experienced during the late 1970s.
We face a culture of me-first greed. It is easy to fault Wall Street executives, saved by TARP, for continuing to pay themselves exorbitant salaries and bonuses only months after their blunders cost ordinary citizens and taxpayers huge chunks of their net worth. But they are not alone in their greed. Corporate executives, university presidents, hedge-fund managers, attorneys, and government executives are being compensated at levels that are hard to justify on any basis. The pay gap between executives and working rank-and-file is greater in the U.S. than in any other country. This strains the social compact on which society depends. The pretense that "we are all in it together" is truly a pretense when one examines the class system that has been superimposed on what was once an egalitarian model.
We face abdications of responsiblity. President Truman's sign on his desk, "The Buck Stops Here," is hard to find these days. "Mistakes were made" is the more common slogan. This is most painful and obvious on Wall Street and in our public sector. The abovementioned public debt is being carelessly accumulated by elected officials who know full well what they are doing — and do not care. Far easier to "spin" one's way past the obvious and keep interest-group votes and money headed their way.
It is evident, too, in 2010 that media increasingly have abandoned objectivity and their traditional role as defenders of the public interest, to adopt political and ideological postures that will bring them, and pander to, an audience in targeted demographic groups. The ultimate abdication, of course, has been by ordinary citizens who do not take time to inform themselves or vote. The track record of highly-educated Seattle and King County voters has been particularly discouraging.
We face unacceptable losses of civility. The in-your-face insults characteristic of many blogs and even traditional media reflect a general loss of respect for each other. The old political dictum, "Tough on issues; soft on people," has long since been breeched. How many angry print or on-line columns, broadcast commentaries, or political rants have you seen in recent months, flowing from mention of the names Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, Joe Lieberman, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, George W. Bush, Barney Frank or, locally, Tim Eyman? Not critiques of their policy views but insulting personal attacks and characterizations. The communications flowing from partisan political committees and true believing single-issue groups are often toxic.
This is no plea for a return to simpler times. Those old times were often bad times. But, given our wealth and power, we should be doing better than we are, both in our public decision-making and in our conduct toward each other.
Maybe the shared hard times of 2009 and 2010 will pull us back together and make us focus on something larger than ourselves. That is my hope at the beginning of this new decade.