washingtonpost.com
The next decade from hell?

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; A19

This was, nationally and globally, a lousy decade. I hate to put a damper on your holiday season, but the next one has every prospect of being worse.

The name never really took, but it's too bad this decade wasn't called the "oughts," because so much that ought to have been done wasn't: controlling entitlement spending, slowing global warming, securing loose nukes. The next decade will be consumed making up for squandered time.

Time magazine recently proclaimed this "the decade from Hell" while predicting that the twenty-teens would be better. I'd like to talk myself into agreeing with that sunny scenario. Instead, I keep coming up with a down arrow.

Arrows, actually:

-- The ominous fiscal picture. The last decade dawned with the dazzling vision of trillions in surpluses and the unaccustomed worry of paying down the debt too fast. Those surpluses were always a mirage. But President George W. Bush plowed ahead with massive tax cuts, an unfunded new entitlement program for prescription drugs -- and more tax cuts in the face of two costly wars.

The result is a staggering national debt that has ballooned from $3.4 trillion in 2000 to $7.6 trillion now. When the economic crisis hit, the country enjoyed the fiscal flexibility to respond with massive spending to counter the downturn. Next time, our capacity to whip out the national checkbook may be constrained by foreign creditors. Chiseling away at this mountain of debt -- at the very time that the aging population puts more strain on the budget -- is simultaneously necessary and unimaginably difficult. Which leads to the next arrow:

-- The dysfunctional political system. Congress is "the broken branch," as Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann have said. Lawmakers seem incapable of rising above political self-interest for the common good. The atmosphere of partisanship has become toxic. The House is divided into extremes reinforced by the decennial drawing of increasingly safe districts. The Senate is captive to the filibuster. The health-care debate, with its ugly rhetoric about death panels and unnecessary Christmas Eve votes, underscores the failure of "regular order" to deal with the most intractable problems.

-- The dangerous world. The signal event of this decade occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. The signal achievement of this decade has been that what once seemed inevitable -- another serious attack -- has so far been averted. This outcome is the result of luck augmented by a new realism about America's vulnerabilities and new vigilance in addressing them. But luck eventually runs out. It only takes once for there to be a next time, and the biggest risk is that next time could be nuclear or biological. The recent spate of seemingly homegrown terrorists seeking to collaborate with al-Qaeda is an ominous development.

Meantime, the clock is ticking on numerous dangers that ripened this decade. The instability of Pakistan with its nuclear arsenal. Iran's relentless progress on building a nuclear weapon. The threat posed by a nuclear North Korea. As with Congress at home, it is uncertain, to put it charitably, that international institutions and individual countries are capable of meeting the challenge. To take one looming example, will China and Russia really agree to meaningful sanctions against Iran? What if sanctions don't work?

There are, thankfully, some countervailing reasons for hope.

At some point, America will no longer be mired in two costly and divisive wars. Troops will remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in far fewer numbers.

If the dominant figure of the past decade was Bush, the dominant figure of this decade -- and assuming he wins reelection -- will be Barack Obama. That is trading up.

I've never believed that Obama's election ushered in a magical era of national harmony. But the president is thoughtful and pragmatic. He may have too many priorities, but they are the right ones. His first year in office has demonstrated a useful combination of steadiness and flexibility -- steadiness in pursuit of a goal and flexibility in the means to achieve it.

Finally, there is Stein's law, named after the late economist Herbert Stein: Things that can't go on forever don't. Stein's maxim suggests that problems unaddressed for too long will ultimately have to be confronted. The caveat here is that avoidance makes things that much more difficult (entitlement spending) or even impossible (a tipping point on global warming).

Sorry, that was supposed to be the cheery ending to a gloomy column. So let me try this instead: Happy last Christmas of the Oughts -- and here's hoping I'm wrong about the Teens.

marcusr@washpost.com

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company