RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Aughts Fraught

When we toasted out the old year and welcomed the little one, I was busy reading top-ten retrospectives and didn’t give a minute’s thought to the prospect of a new decade, with a whole new name, and the chance to usher in a new global era.

Now that I’ve caught up on my reading, and everyone has blogged about the possibilities, I’m excited about the twenty-teens.

But first we must find a good name for the last decade. When 2000 came in, we were obsessing about Y2K and the prospect of our computers all going down taking the banking industry with it, and we forgot to think up a catchy moniker. The zeros? The Ohs? The Noughties? One Wall Streeter calls it “the lost decade” and one TV writer calls it the “He” decade, beginning with Tony Soprano and ending with “House,” both guys examining their navels. Some call it “the decade without a name,” but I prefer “the aughts,” rhyming with “oughts” as in “we ought to be ashamed.”

Computers did eventually bring down the banks, but it took most of the decade. The financial geeks discovered sub-primes, and derivatives, but the trouble started with good old human greed. In fact, the entire decade was marked with greed and violence, perhaps inevitable after the nineties when there was so much envy as the money supply froze in the silicon valleys.

The question of how to get money to the rest of us remains unanswered, but it’s clear that our nation was gripped during the aughts with the pursuit of success, cloaked in a shroud of arrogance. The decade might be known for its gigantic sports arenas, built so grandly that we can’t afford the tickets.

We wracked up credit card debt and competed to star on TV shows based on pain and humiliation. It turns out that success, even if you achieve it, is never enough.

Lacking real production, the economic winners of the aughts turned out to be pyramid schemers, military contractors, or downright crooks. If we didn’t gamble on the market ourselves, we watched day traders, who are like drivers sucking up miles from the draft of semi trucks. And we were fascinated as daring and cynical folks bought houses and sold them to barely qualified or unqualified buyers to make a quick profit, a practice called “flipping.”

Now we know that the aughts’ economic story was a chimera from AIG to Zurich. As the decade turned, our jaws dropped when bankers argued that the highest paid, the ruthless sociopaths that got us into trouble, deserved the biggest salaries because they were — the mind boggles almost to the point of hypothermia — the best at their jobs. “What’s a Banker really worth?” asked the New York Times Magazine. 275 times the amount of their average employees? Whatever they want? Ten pages of dense typing later, the answer is still unexplained. “A lot of our folks have second and third homes and alimony payments and other obligations that require substantial cash,” said one.

Meanwhile, on another page, the newspaper reports that 6 million Americans have no income at all except their food stamps.

So much for the aughts. What’s next?

Just as nobody has explained how the banksters are worth their salaries, nobody has figured out how we’re going to re-tool our economy to give good jobs to the failing middle class and move production back to America’s Main Streets. The only solution that makes sense, so far, is to support our neighbors, those that live to the right and left of us, which is of course the opposite of what Wall Street says. Instead of investing with the “too big to fail,” buy from the little guys, those start-ups you can see and shake hands with. It might come back to help your situation, or to give a job to your favorite high schooler in the next decade.

If you’re looking for a political answer, it will be slow and it will involve getting our leaders to re-write trade agreements and policies that send jobs overseas. It will take real commitment to training inventors and engineers as well. We need production, of all kinds of things from solar panels to butter, here.

It looks to me as if we’ve pretty much given up on personal financial wealth. Sure, success is still discussed when it comes to military pursuits, but mostly as in “How do we know what success looks like?” Or, “how do we know when we’ve successfully promoted enough democracy in Nation X?”

On a personal level, it’s more about just getting by. There’s a buzz that the twenty-teens will be spent in pursuit of self-fulfillment. This time next year, we could be tuning in the Sunday news to hear pundits asking if proposed health system rules were getting the Rs and Ds closer to their own personal goals.

Compared to the aughts, I’ll love this new decade, like moving to a Buddhist nation. I look forward to the day “Free Tibet” bumper stickers are replaced by “Be Tibet.”

But, following the aughts, we’re more likely to see, “Me Tibet. You’re on your own.”

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 1, 2010

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