Aughts for naught

I sit in one of the dives/ On Fifty-second Street/ Uncertain and afraid/ As the clever hopes expire/ Of a low dishonest decade: Waves of anger and fear/ Circulate over the bright/ And darkened lands of the earth,/ Obsessing our private lives. —W.H. Auden

Nothing like calling on one of the world's great poets to sum up the past 10 years. Actually, Auden wasn't talking about the last lost decade at all, but about the 1930s. That poem was written when World War II broke out. Things, in other words, could be worse. But the last decade was pretty much awful, start to finish, and this time we don't have any mad dictators to blame. Mostly, we did it to ourselves.

We entered the decade happy we had survived Y2K, the now-forgotten fear that the civilized world would come crashing down because the clocks in most computers weren't programmed to deal with changing over to a new century and new millennium. We spent billions to try to fix this, did our best to scare ourselves to death, and naturally, nothing happened, except a few computers stamped the date "1900" on laundry tickets, etc.

Ten years ago, when we woke up to find that the old refrigerator still worked and planes weren't crashing from the sky, it was like the developed world had just finished a collective scary science-fiction movie, in which the world was saved at the last minute. Tongue firmly in cheek, The Toledo Blade published a full-color photo of the earth in space, with the headline "WE'RE STILL HERE."

Hard to imagine now, but things were so relatively good then that we could indulge in titillating ourselves with scary, overhyped scenarios. Today's world is very different.

Detroit has always been a big sports town, where we know that the box score doesn't lie. On Jan. 6, 2000, unemployment in Michigan was 4.1 percent, less than the national average. Today, our unemployment rate is at least 14.7 percent, worst in the nation. That's not even counting the many who have given up looking for work because they know there isn't any.

Nor does it count those who have gone from full- to part-time, or who are working harder for less pay than a decade ago. When you allow for inflation, the state government has only about three-quarters the money in its two major pots — the general and the school aid funds — that it did a decade ago. Worse, the needs are so much greater, from jobless workers and homeless children to a poorly maintained infrastructure that is gradually falling apart.

Ten years ago, the national government was taking in $236 billion a year more than it spent, thanks in large part to the policies of that "immoral" Bill Clinton. Except for 1969, the last years of the Clinton administration were the only time Washington has balanced its budget since the Great Depression This year, the budget deficit is expected to be $1.5 trillion, three times the record set last year.

Ten years ago, nobody worried about airline passengers with chemicals in their underpants. Ten years ago, you would have an entirely different reaction to the image of a jetliner silhouetted against a beautiful skyscraper.

Ten years ago, most of us were optimistic about the future of our nation and state. Auto companies were rolling in so much dough that Ford paid an indecent amount for Volvo and Jaguar. Last year, they nearly all died.

Increasingly, the young and educated conclude that their future isn't here. Our state's population is shrinking. Those leaving are the ones we can least afford to lose.

We've been battered by a decade for which we could not even agree on a name. Some called it the aughts, for the old-fashioned term for zero. (As in, "we barely survived 20-aught nine.") Some witty cynics thought we should call it the "naughts" instead. Others said that it should have been called the "loss decade." Indeed, they were years we would mostly like to forget — but can't afford to, lest we repeat them. What's important to remember is the wrong turns we made, nationally and otherwise.

Essentially, this was a Decade of Magical Thinking, meaning that we too often acted as if wishing would make things so. Flash back to the presidential campaign of 2000. That played out as if it were the first bullshit reality show of a decade that became famous for them. It was certainly the event that set us up for a decade of decline. Al Gore, then vice president of the United States, should have breezed to victory over George W. Bush, the inexperienced, shallow and intellectually lazy governor of Texas.

However, the reporters covering the campaign didn't much like Gore, whom they found stiff and aloof. Bush clowned around and gave them nicknames. That year's debates were mostly judged on the fact that Gore didn't seem "like someone you could go have a beer with," rather than Bush's ignorance of the issues.

Those perceptions made the election close enough to be stolen. Then came Sept. 11. What followed was a classic example of how we functioned throughout the aughts.

For whatever reasons, Bush wanted to attack and conquer Iraq, not Afghanistan, the place where the attack on America had been planned and where its evil genius lived. He got Congress to go along. Bush persuaded himself that the Iraqis were building "weapons of mass destruction," and that they were desperate to be liberated. Both presumptions were nonsense, for which we've paid in hundreds of billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and international prestige and good will beyond measure.

Michigan was not much different when it came to magical thinking. There were clear signs for years that General Motors, Ford and Chrysler were on a path to destruction. Nobody paid attention. Politically, the state's major misstep came in 2002. 

Three major Democrats ran for governor. James Blanchard had been governor for two terms in the 1980s and showed particular skill at balancing tough budgets. David Bonior, a longtime congressman and former legislator, wanted to come back and help his state. But the media fell in love with a charming woman named Jennifer Granholm, a lawyer for the Wayne County political machine and then state attorney general, who didn't have a day's experience in the executive or legislative branches of government. She won, and proved to be our weakest, most ineffectual governor in modern history, just when we could least afford it.

Now, we've squandered a decade, and face harder challenges ahead. But we also have a chance to do better. 

America started sobering up in a big way on Nov. 4, 2008, when it elected a president who believed in logical thinking.

Detroiters are incomparably better off with Dave Bing than with the thug who disgraced the mayor's office through most of the aughts. This year, we get the chance to elect new state officials, and try to make intelligent choices about our future. We've been acting out the myth of Sisyphus; rolling the stone up the hill, just to watch it roll back down again. Personally, I like the myth of the phoenix better. Just when you think it's dead, it arises from the ashes.

How about we try that for a change in the years ahead?

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]