As the recession has worsened, we’ve heard lots of references to Japan’s so-called “lost decade.” The fear is that, without appropriate economic policies, the United States might suffer its own lost decade.
My view, however, is that we’ve already suffered one of those – we just call it “the Bush years.” And as we start getting more historical perspective on the period from 2001 to 2008, I predict that “lost decade” will prove to be an eminently appropriate label.
It’s tempting to think of the Bush/Cheney legacy in terms of what they actually did. And admittedly, many of those actions caused lasting damage that can never be undone – particularly Iraq and the authorization of torture. But perhaps the more lasting legacy will be what they didn’t do. Maybe the true legacy of the Bush/Cheney years will simply be the wasted opportunities America squandered, and the immense opportunity costs we incurred.
With time, the familiar daily anger with Bush will continue to subside. As it does, it’s easy to see a deeper and tragic sense of sadness taking its place. It’s hard not to be sad when you think about (1) what a critical period 2001 to 2008 was across so many different contexts; and (2) how completely and utterly squandered those years were. In many of these contexts, it’s not so much that the administration inflicted affirmative harm (though it inflicted its fair share), but that it just watched and did nothing as problems piled up. And even if Obama proves to be a smashing success, we can’t get those years back.
Let’s start with foreign policy because it’s the most obvious – and the opportunity costs here are the largest. It’s a familiar story by now, but the immediate post-9/11 aftermath gave the administration a once in a century window to channel global sympathy in a constructive manner and to reshape world perceptions. Instead, we quickly became a hated nation, with all its attendant costs.
We also let a number of more specific problems fester and grow worse. The Israel-Palestine peace process was completely ignored – and we flatly ignored eight years of settlement expansions. We also decided to ignore North Korea, largely because Bill Clinton was a dirty hippie or something – with fabulous results. We also squandered excellent opportunities for diplomatic breakthroughs with Iran and Syria – and got nothing in return.
Back at home, the administration flatly ignored the nation’s most pressing domestic problems. At the top of that list was global warming. During those years, concerns about global warming took on a new urgency both in our country and across the world. We learned that each passing year of inaction increases the chance of irreversible catastrophes.
But during this critical period, the administration did nothing. Worse than nothing in fact. The Bush administration – in a slavish devotion to corporate interests – gutted environmental regulations, and fought attempts to steer the United States toward a responsible course on global warming.
They just didn’t care about it – and the GOP still (institutionally) doesn’t care about it. And while this failure usually plays second fiddle to Iraq and torture, history may well judge it a more tragic mistake than everything else combined.
Moving on to health care.... The Bush administration did precisely nothing in eight years to help uninsured people get affordable health care. They did precisely nothing to help those with pre-existing conditions. Instead, they watched as health care became an even more urgent crisis – and a growing moral stain on our advanced society.
Same deal on telecom policy – and broadband deployment in particular. In the short span of 2000 to 2008, the United States has fallen behind much of the post-industrialized world on every important measure of broadband penetration.
And history will show that these years were a formative period for broadband policy. While other countries either invested directly in fiber infrastructure (South Korea), or adopted pro-competitive unbundling and line-sharing policies (policies that were American innovations in the 1996 Telecom Act), the Bush administration did neither. It lifted nary a finger to invest in broadband. And it gutted the unbundling policies that have played such an important role in driving broadband penetration in Japan and Europe (though the administration had a big assist from the hacks on the D.C. Circuit).
The Bush administration also squandered the biggest surplus in modern American history and redistributed most of it to rich people. You could argue, of course, that this redistribution caused affirmative harm in that rich people with too much money tend to do stupid things.
But the bigger harm of the income redistribution was simply the squandered opportunity. Just imagine if that money had instead been invested in aggressive broadband deployment, or supertrains, or clean energy technology, or national health care, or so on. But it was invested in none of those things – we just wasted it in our lost years.
Instead, our most lasting and influential innovation this decade may prove to be our avant garde asset-backed securities. As art, they're really quite genius.
I could go on – and I’m sure other people can list additional examples. But looking back, it’s just sad. Even ignoring all the affirmative mistakes and harmful policies, the most shameful legacy of all is that the Bush years were simply a waste. . . a truly “lost” decade.