11 September 2006

Mid-Decade Reflections (UPDATED)

Via Muckraking Mom

American Tragedies

Five years ago today was the defining moment of this decade. It has been followed by two other tragedies that have killed comparable numbers of people: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the parallel wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

All three tragedies bear marks of government incompetence.

While the public didn't know it at the time, warnings that had reached the President's desk had predicted a 9-11 type attack by the people who perpetrated it. But, his administration didn't act. Moreover, the Bush Administration's response has simultaneously tarnished our nation's international reputation, done grave harm to the liberties protected by our constitution, and made us less safe, rather than more safe.

The failure of FEMA (and the governments further down the food chain) to respond to Katrina and Rita is legendary (and the subject of numerous posts on this blog). Evacuation efforts were anemic and bungled. Those who didn't evacuate were left to manage on their own for far too long. A year later, the criminal justice system in New Orleans, already on its last legs, is so crippled that there are still people rotting in jail awaiting hearings who were arrested before the hurricanes, the city's population now is a third of what it was before the hurricanes struck, and no good plan to deal with this year's hurricane season or rebuild is in place.

Iraq was a war based on lies and has made the situation in that country worse five years later. The weapons of mass destruction which were the causi bellum didn't exist. The anarchy with which we have replaced Saddam has left the man on the street worse off. There were no links between al-Qaida and Iraq before the war, now the country is a hotbed of terrorist activity with al-Qaida prominent among the players. Our actions as an occupying Army have led many who were previously neutral or only mildly negative in their attitudes towards the United States, to hate it with a burning passion. We have fought the wrong war and done it in the wrong way. Now, there isn't a clear path out that won't make things even worse. The only thing making an exit even plausible is that the situation has deteriorated so far that our being there can't be helping much.

Afghanistan succeeded in replacing the Taliban with a new slightly better regime. But, it didn't achieve the goal of shutting down al-Qaida operations, which merely relocated to Pakistan, and has caused Afghan opium production to reinvigorate itself. The new regime the war established is still threatened as we speak by resurgent Taliban strength.

The World Picture

Less myopically, the world has also seen major terrorist attacks in Madrid and London. So have India and Pakistan and Russia.

A tsunami in the Indian Ocean wiped out countless ocean villages and sucked away hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. Iranian and Kashmir earthquakes killed tens of thousands of people each.

Truces notwithstanding, the genocide in Sudan continues, seemingly indifferent to the weak international action that has been taken. The civil wars and drought and AIDS plague afflicting Africa have conspired to create a situation so desperate, it is hard to keep track. Lebanon and Israel and the Hezbollah guerilla force spent weeks embroiled in a destructive war that has done little but restore a fragile status quo and configured another U.N. peacekeeping mission.

North Korea has tested ballistic missiles that put neighbors Japan and South Korea and China at grave risk, and could conceivably reach Hawaii or Seattle. And, North Korea is believed to have developed a few nuclear warheads (far worse than Iran, which has merely insisted on developing nuclear energy technology which could ultimately, someday many years from now, be converted to nuclear weapons). The U.S. response to North Korea has been ineffectual.


First the tech bubble burst. It was followed by the discovery of widespread major accounting fraud and corporate corruption leading to bankruptcy in some of the nation's biggest businesses like Enron and Worldcom/MCI. Congress responded, half way, with the Sarbanes-Oxley bill.

9-11 helped push United and other airlines into bankruptcy.

You could call the phase of the economy we are in now a recovery, we are finally almost back to where the Bush Administration started, but that description is entirely too upbeat.

The housing market, wages, job growth and the stock market have all experienced half a decade of stagnation. The record low interest rates designed to spur the economy out of the doldrums, have spurred record high debt burdens -- the national savings rate is negative, the federal debt is at record highs after surpluses under Clinton (largely due to Bush administration pushed tax cuts), and trade deficits continue to mount. Colorado has become a national foreclosure hotspot. It's real estate bubble has been punctured. A new bankruptcy bill has made it harder for middle class families to escape the debts that they have run up, and put barriers in the way of less affluent families filing at all. Small business bankruptcy rules have been redesigned to more swiftly shut down most for good rather than allowing for extended reorganizations.

The manufacturing sector, which has been shrinking in fits and starts, has fallen precipitously in the past half decade, tax breaks notwithstanding. General Motors bonds are no longer investment grade. Ford is doing only a little better and is engaged is greatly reducing the scale of its operations, and putting a newly acquired division on the auction block.

Defined benefit pensions generally are on their last legs, with many major companies like airlines and IBM abandoning them. We are working the longest hours in the world. Private sector unionization has withered away to 1920s levels.

The minimum wage is at a record low by most measure independent of nominal dollars. Rising corporate profits, huge CEO salaries, and the growing wealth of the very wealthy is the only bright spot in the economy. The rest of us have not shared in the wealth. Republicans have responded by cutting taxes on capital gains and dividends, and by trying to slash or eliminate the estate tax.


Hurricanes, a failed Alaska pipeline, dwindling supplies, increasing demand associated with world economic development, and conflict in the Middle East conspired to drive oil to OPEC oil embargo prices this summer (in real terms) and all time nominal highs. Somehow, oil companies turned bad news into good by making record profits. A threatened windfall profits tax never materialized. Peak oil is a familiar idea.

Last winter, natural gas prices in Colorado surged so dramatically that a fifth to a quarter of all families fell behind on their utility bills.

The upshot has been a new focus on sustainability and efficiency. The defining car of the decade started as the Hummer, in sympathy with the Iraq war, and is now the Toyota Prius, as a result of the gasoline prices the war has brought us.

The Environment

The consensus that there are problems has grown. The ranks of those in global warming denial are thinning. So are the world's glaciers and the swath of marginally arable land alongside the Sahara desert. But, the United States has shunned the Kyoto Treaty, and progress at reducing CO2 emissions seems to be a Sisyphean effort.

Cities like Albuquerque and Denver are reinvigorating their passenger rail systems. Wind power is coming into its own. The debate over nuclear power has returned from theological to practical, three decades after Three Mile Island. Diesel, and in particular biodiesel, is getting new attention, as is vehicle fuel efficiency via hybrids and more. More energy efficient houses are being built, light bulbs are using less juice, and our landscapes and our homes are using less water.

Wolves and the American bison are returning from the brink.

But, it remains the case that almost every wild animal on Earth bigger than a New York City rat is endangered or threatened, as are many that are not. A large share of existing fish, amphibian, reptile, mammal and bird species are in trouble: "Of the 26 orders of mammals, 24 are threatened." Consider:

Dr. Edward O. Wilson, a biologist at Harvard University, estimates that 27,000 species per year, or three per hour, are becoming extinct. At this rate, up to 20 percent of earth's species could be extinct in 30 years.

Habitat destructions continues. The Amazonian rain forest that blankets Brazil is headed the way of the vast temperate forest that once covered Ohio -- the number of acres of virgin forest there is now in the dozens. Exurbs are pushing wildlife out of former farmland and open space.

World fisheries have crashed. Pollution from fat soluble pollutants like mercury and PCPs have made regular fish consumption a health threat to vulnerable populations, and the particularly high levels of pollutants found in farmed fish have put the brakes on the most sensible ways to replace those fisheries.

Preserving plants isn't as daunting but even commercially common plants, like the banana, are in trouble.

Health Care

Health care costs have continued to grow and the ranks of the uninsured have continued to swell. Those who have health insurance pay immense prices for often mediocre care.

For all the talk of the bird flu risk, the physical conditions that better define the last half decade are repetitive stress injury, and obesity. Our health woes are those of a sedentary culture planted at computer screens. We haven't reach the point of Fahrenheit 451, where people lived lives surrounded by four walls of videoscreens, but we're getting there.

There has been real progress in what medicine can do if you can get it. Cancer is down. Risk prevention drugs and lifestyles to address heart disease are becoming widespread. Clotting and antibiotic bandages have gone mainstream. AIDs patients are living longer. Specialized centers are reducing trauma deaths. The first new diabetes drug in ages has been released.

Smoking bans have swept the nation, with Colorado joining the ranks with one of the most strict. We have not taken the step of prohibiting tobacco entirely, that would be a mistake. But, high taxes have been imposed, an active public awareness campaign has been launched, and smokers everywhere but casinos, cigar bars and the Denver International Airport smoking lounge, have to take it outside. In this respect, at least, the United States is far ahead of its counterparts in the developed nations of Europe and Asia.

Politics and Religion

The conservative trend that has swept the United States in both politics and religion seems to be turning.

President Bush's approval ratings are Nixonian. His plan to send men to the moon isn't as politically popular as it was the first time around, resulting in a moon landing 35 years ago, when another counterinsurgency with no exit strategy was being fought half a world away. The Vice President's chief of staff has resigned in the face of criminal charges, and the Vice President is even less popular than the President. Even Republicans are unhappy with the Congress they control, if opinion polls are to be believed.

Democrats seem poised to make major pickups in the 2006 election. They narrowly failed to win the Presidential elections in 2000 and 2004, but have made inroads in the historically Republican Rocky Mountain West. The chances are good that the Democrats will gain control of the U.S. House, and Democrats are almost certain to pick up Senate seats and Governor's offices, although whether or not they will win enough seats to claim a majority in the U.S. Senate is unclear. At the very least, they will make it much harder for Republicans to assemble a filibuster proof majority in the U.S. Senate, something Republicans have already failed to do on estate tax repeal and immigration.

Conservative South Dakota looks likely to reject a ballot issue to ban abortion, despite the overwhelming support it received in the state legislature. The Bush Administration, fundamentalist Christian backed effort to prevent emergency contraception from being sold without a prescription has failed, at least for adult women. Fundamentalist Christian efforts to block a vaccine against the sexually transmitted virus HPV which causes cancer, also failed.

Creationist school board members in Kansas and elsewhere have been booted from office by voters. The Bush Administration has been forced, grudgingly, to admit that yes, global warming is real. A fraudulent cult in Maine was shut down by that state's attorney general. A quack doctor in Wheat Ridge, Colorado is in jail. So is the head of Utah's most notorious polygamous sect (awaiting trial). Another Utah polygamist is also in prison under a recent conviction.

The state legislature in Colorado has put the issue of domestic partnerships to the voters. Several states and countries now have either full fledged gay marriage or domestic partnerships that create equivalent legal rights. Marilyn Musgrave, one of the leaders of the anti-gay movement in Congress is fighting for her political life in what should be a very safe Republican seat: 40% of voters in her district are registered as Republicans, 25% are registered as Democrats. She won her last election with just over 50% of the vote. The Christian conservative candidate in the district that includes Focus on the Family headquarters Colorado Springs is behind his Democratic Party challenger in, at least, one poll. In that district 46% of voters are registered as Republicans, while just 22% are registered as Democrats.

Growth in the ranks of conservative Christian denominations is stalling, and more and more people are turning instead to self-centered, but often less dogmatically political non-denominational megachurches. The ranks of the non-religous are at record highs, after a long period of secularization in Europe which was not matched in the United States.

Enthusiasm for the war on drugs is waning, in part because full prisons are expensive, and in part, because the focus on terrorism prevention has diverted attention from it. Denver voted to legalize the possession of small quantities of marijuana. The U.S. Supreme Court has been controlled by moderate Republicans for a long time, yet has banned the executions of the retarded and of people who were juvenile when the crime was committed, have thrown out the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (although the replacement is little better), and have handed partial, but significant, defeats to the Bush Administration in multiple cases where it has tried to create an executive branch justice system for alleged terrorists.

Even conservatives are starting to see the religious right as a political liability, rather than as their greatest asset. Economic conservatives also have nothing to get excited about in a GOP controlled Presidency and Congress, which has not been fiscally responsible, has grown corrupt, and has ignored the rule of law.

Fads and Technology

The expresso trend that started around the time I started law school has held fast, as Starbucks and its competitors have conquered every corner of civilization, and almost every street corner.

The alcohol de jure has varied, but it has, with a brief dive bar trend terminated definitively by the smoking ban, been decidedly high end, as it has shifted from microbrews to fine wines to martini bars (not necessarily in that order). While smoking has been roundly condemned, the rediscovered health benefits of drinking have lent it respectibility.

Tiny cell phones (often with digital cameras and text messaging) have become ubiquitous, and GPS systems, iPods and Blackberries are not far behind. Colleges and universities are having trouble finding students who want land lines in their dorm rooms. When the company that runs the Blackberry was faced with a patent injunction, it threatened to be a national crisis.

We are counting the days until analog television goes off line later this decade -- few people will notice, most have cable TV, satellite television, or use their televisions mostly to watch rented DVDs. Electronics stores are selling HDTVs for all they are worth, even though there isn't much HDTV programing. Film cameras, phones with handsets connected to the phone, videorecorders and incandesant lights are on the way out. Audio cassettes are gone. So are videocassettes. Tape based computer storage systems seem eager to follow. HD Radio and Satellite radio are making inroads in the world of radio, and internet streaming sound and video are providing competition as well. Copiers have gone digital, becoming scanner-printer combinations instead. Lights and televisions have gone LED, LCD, halogen and plasma.

The world of data portability is in flux. Should you e-mail it? Put it on a local area network server? Store it on a distant server accessable via the internet for later downloading? Store it in a USB drive or iPod? Put it on CD-ROM, or a new blue laser CD-ROM? Use an external or internal hard drive? The only things that seem clear are that computer disks have become a thing of the past, and that there is a definite trend towards keeping data away from "dumb" terminals that house little but applications and temporary data. It isn't clear how much longer even applications will remain terminal based.

The much hyped effort to wire every home for computer network access turned out to be overkill when WiFi and bluetooth became the killer applications of the networking world, fueled, as much as anything, by small laptops and free WiFi in coffee shops. The fact that internet broadband providers chose to use existing telephone and cable television lines to deliver content has also stymied the growth of dedicated network lines.

E-mail coupled with Adobe Acrobat and scanners has made inraods in replacing the fax machine. We seem to have finally conquered junk faxes and commercial solicitation calls, but SPAM still afflicts all of us.

We have endured low flow toilets, and the water company wants to pay us $200 each to buy front end loading washing machines.

Casual Friday has morphed into business casual almost every day at many workplaces.

Workers in large offices everywhere eat microwaved TV dinners at the desks for lunch while surfing the net.

Scooters are back and bikes, with additional features like shock absorbers and helmets, have returned as well.

Oven based cooking is on its way to becoming a lost art, unless you count warming up pizzas. Despite this, people spend thousands of dollars on high end professional style range-ovens that they almost never use. Granite has become far more common in kitchens. This half decade has been dominated in the kitchen by stainless steel.

Outside the kitchen, all things titanium, from siding to bicycles to hammers, are unthinkably chic.

New home builders apparently believe that interior walls and doors are out. Bathrooms flow into closets flow into bedrooms flow into sitting rooms and flow into lofts without the assistance of doors or clear dividers. The high end condominium and townhouse has come into its own. With nice finishes in good neighborhoods, builders expect $300 a square foot. New urbanism and mixed use developments have become the norm. The big hit in design sensibilities was the "not so large" house. Lofts are sprouting up everywhere.

The mass media consensus has split into countless niches, despite the efforts of reality shows to piece it all back together. Fewer people are taking newspapers, at least, in dead tree form. Law offices don't have many books anymore -- almost all case law research is computerized. Court reporters have virtually disappeared from courtrooms, the victims of budget cuts.

Electronics and economic pressure have conspired to remind us that small can be good. Now, if only we could agree on what was good on a larger scale.


Anonymous said...

Wow, aren't you just a bundle of joy. And folks think my blog is a downer. But at least you round things out at the end with a few positive observations. More than I could have mustered, undoubtedly.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Well, 9-11 is kind of a downer day. I'd actually planned on adding a few positives (and most of those were in the update) but the depressing stuff just seemed to bubble to the top sooner.