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Joel Achenbach on the 2000s: The decade we didn't see coming

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009; A01

The decade began so swimmingly. No Y2K bug, no terrorism, nothing but lots of fireworks as the planet turned and, time zone by time zone, all the zeroes replaced the nines.

America was at peace. Prosperity reigned. The popular president soon announced a budget surplus of $230 billion. The dilemma for Washington lawmakers was what to do with all the extra money.

People watched the values of their houses soar. The Dow had jumped 25 percent in just a year. Imagine how $1,000 might mushroom if invested in stocks for the next decade!

The future had arrived bearing nifty technological gifts. An entire music catalogue could fit in the palm of a hand. People nurtured their avatars in Internet role-playing games. Technology offered a virtual escape from the real world.

Except the real world wouldn't leave us alone.

Throughout the decade, the real world pursued, hectored, harassed. Ignorance was punished. Hubris found its comeuppance. The optimists were routed, the pessimists validated. The fabulous economy turned out to be something of a hoax. A war predicted to be a "cakewalk" turned into a dismal slog.

This was a decade when things you didn't know about could really hurt you.

So it was that Americans were shocked by 9/11. That's when the decade really began, regardless of what the calendar might say. There had been earlier terrorist events, and abundant warnings, but the rantings of jihadists did not fully penetrate the consciousness of peacetime America. That September morning, observing the carnage in New York and Washington and in a field in rural Pennsylvania, we asked: What do these people want from us?

Osama bin Laden's 9/11 hijackers, holing up in cheap motels, moving in groups, warily clinging to their luggage, had acted -- we could say in hindsight -- pretty much like terrorists plotting something or other. But they were invisible in a nation still blissfully unaware of the intensity with which it was hated. Go back to Jan. 1, 2000: The peace of that first night wasn't quite so real after all. A would-be terrorist, trained in Afghanistan, had planned to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. The plot unraveled a couple of weeks before the New Year, and investigators learned the full details only months later.

"History's always catching America off guard," says Rick Shenkman, editor of George Mason University's History News Network. "We have to relearn that lesson over and over and over again, that we cannot escape history."

The attacks shaped the entire decade. They led to two wars overseas and a new security regime at home that requires grandmothers to take off their shoes and get wanded before they board a flight. Not knowing about 9/11 would be, in this decade, like walking into a whodunit movie 15 minutes late and never understanding what the characters are talking about and why they're so exercised.

The Iraq war, launched by the Bush administration in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that did not actually exist, will be litigated by pundits and historians until the end of time. The decade closes with that war winding down and tens of thousands of troops surging into Afghanistan to intensify the battle with those who attacked us at the decade's start. And just in case we might have begun to let down our guard at home, a man tried to blow up a plane landing in Detroit on the final Christmas of the decade.

Disaster and debt

Some disasters were natural. For years, people warned that a big hurricane could devastate New Orleans. The worst came to pass, in the form of a storm named Katrina. About 1,500 people died on the Gulf Coast.

This has not been a good decade for anyone overly sensitive to bad news. We've had two recessions, the first caused by the bursting of the tech bubble (wasn't Pets.com supposed to dominate the dog food market?), the second by the even more dramatic popping of the housing bubble (oops, maybe buying that $1.5 million McMansion was rash). The economic recovery has been trembling at best. The titans of industry can't bring themselves to do anything more risky than hire a few temps.

Oh, and that $1,000 investment in the stock market? It turned into about $900 if invested in Dow blue-chips, and even less if you adjust for inflation. For this decade, the mattress would have been a better place to put your money.

Some would call that a disaster. The more technically accurate term among market-watchers is a "correction." The Correction Decade was not much fun.

The U.S. budgetary surplus of 2000 lasted about as long as the cherry blossoms by the Tidal Basin. Debt proved to be the grease by which ideologically polarized parties pushed legislation through Congress. The decade ends with the government running annual deficits that have to be expressed in scientific notation (i.e., 1.5 x 10 to the 12th dollars).

Ordinary people misapprehended their station in life, and overspent, and overborrowed, and suffered the consequences when the whole house of cards fell apart. Financiers made a bad situation utterly catastrophic. The Wall Street wizards had bundled and diced and rearranged our mortgage debt into ever more exotic financial instruments that they wheeled and dealed in the global marketplace. Not even the experts knew what any of that stuff was really worth. They'd securitized the inscrutable. The entire economy had been inflated by the belief that what goes up can't possibly go down.

We now stand corrected.

Jack Abramoff, the Washington influence peddler, had his own encounter with the Department of Corrections, as did the Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, not to mention highfliers at places like Enron and WorldCom.

Calamity in this era has been very much a group activity. Many institutions were not, in fact, too big to fail -- just ask the people who used to run the venerable Wall Street firm of Lehman Brothers. Being large and established proved to be a handicap in an era that favored the small and nimble. The Internet destabilized everything from newspapers to the music industry to global security. Jihadists recruit with YouTube.

Politically the 2000s were not exactly the Era of Good Feeling. The bitterness was inevitable after Al Gore beat George W. Bush by more than 500,000 votes nationally, and yet, through a series of complex and improbable events -- including thousands of likely Gore voters in Palm Beach County punching a ballot for Pat Buchanan -- was denied the presidency. The signature image of the election was an official in South Florida examining a paper ballot to see if a "chad" was attached by one, two or three corners. You couldn't make this stuff up.

History is neither linear nor deterministic, which is why, perhaps, Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California, and Tom "The Hammer" DeLay wound up as a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars."

An African American won the nation's highest office. Barack Obama's triumph proved a dream come true for millions of Americans who wondered whether they'd live long enough to see a black president. One shocker: The campaign wasn't in any significant way about race.

Clinton had an excellent decade. So did her husband.

The Red Sox won the World Series!

Historian Gil Troy, in a recent essay for the History News Network, pointed out that most people had a pretty good time the past 10 years:

"When they look back on this cascade of catastrophes, Americans in the future will assume our lives were miserable, practically unlivable. Yet, for most of us, life has continued. We have maintained our routines, while watching these disasters unfold on the news. In fact, these have been relatively good years. America remains the world's playground, the most prolific, most excessive platform for shopping and fun in human history."

Gizmos and Humvees

Computers, software, all those 1s and 0s, flourished in the 2000s. This may have been the first decade in history that was better for machines than human beings.

Largely overlooked in the 1990s Internet boom was the power of a computer application known as "search." Google, embryonic at the start of the decade, ends it looking as big and powerful as Ma Bell back in the day. "Content creation" had a bad decade, and "aggregation" a very good one. Today, marketers and headline writers have to craft something that will make sense to the Google spiders and Yahoo crawlers. Algorithms roam the Earth, terrorizing peasants who've yet to have their Search Engine Optimization training.

We all Googled our symptoms; invariably we discovered our sniffle or twitch to be the sign of a hideous disease. Cyberchondria is just a growing pain of the Internet as machine intelligence improves, says Microsoft Research principal researcher Eric Horvitz, "On the way to perfection, these algorithms won't be perfect."

The hassock-sized desktop computer is vanishing. The laptop survives, and has turned every coffee shop into a warren of workstations. Thanks to BlackBerrys and smartphones, people never have to experience life offline. The magic is powerful, and a little scary. How would we explain to an earlier generation our struggle to cut down on texting-and-driving?

It was the hottest decade on record. Glaciers are in full retreat. Everyone could calculate his or her carbon footprint. Even oil companies claimed to be green. The one thing that didn't change was the increase in the emission of carbon.

Stewart Brand, the technology sage, says that in 50 years the symbol of this decade might be the Humvee. This decade will be seen as "the last blast of extravagant wastefulness of energy and material, and lovely wretched excess, and probably will be viewed with a certain amount of nostalgia."

If the 20th century was the "American Century," as Henry Luce called it, then the 21st century remains -- with 10 percent of it gone -- very much up for grabs. China may be the most fascinating country on Earth, but it has demographic and environmental burdens. India has a billion people and a lot of jobs once performed by Americans. Europe is integrating portentously. But the United States remains the world's sole superpower.

America has a new leader who, back in 2000, was an obscure state legislator in Illinois. The next decade could be Obama's to shape. But governing is harder than campaigning. And Obama has already discovered that "Change" is something many people want in the abstract more than in real life.

Human civilization evolves paradoxically. A world where you can donate money with the click of a button to save a life in Africa is also one where men strap bombs to themselves to blow up innocent strangers.

As history marches on, this decade will be known for its stumbles and reversals. The scolds and doubters reminded us that hope is not a plan. But neither is despair a winning strategy. The smart move is to look back at the 2000s glancingly, and then turn, with optimism, to the decade ahead.

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