Will the Real ‘Decade from Hell’ Please Stand Up?

A man walks through the 9/11 Empty Sky memorial at sunrise across from New York’s Lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, September 11, 2013. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

As the 2010s come to a close, the 2000s don’t look so bad.

Just about ten years ago today, the cover of Time magazine labeled the 2000s “the decade from hell.”

“Bookended by 9/11 at the start and a financial wipeout at the end, the first 10 years of this century will very likely go down as the most dispiriting and disillusioning decade Americans have lived through in the post–World War II era,” Andrew Serwer wrote. “We’re still weeks away from the end of ’09, but it’s not too early to pass judgment. Call it the Decade from Hell, or the Reckoning, or the Decade of Broken Dreams, or the Lost Decade. Call it whatever you want — just give thanks that it is nearly over.”

I wrote at the time that couldn’t tell whether the article’s “aim was to declare a decade largely defined by the Bush presidency to be a nonstop cavalcade of disasters and misfortune, or simply to play to readers’ self-pity, and assure them that no one has ever had it as hard as they have.” I argued that the 2000s were not, by historical measures, particularly unprecedented or calamitous in terms of the economy, war, terrorism, or natural disasters.

And today, in late 2019 . . . the world of 2009 doesn’t look that bad, does it?

Let’s start by giving the 2010s some credit: The American economy is doing better on just about every front than it was ten years ago, with a much lower unemployment rate than in 2009.

Back then, Jeffrey Epstein was alive, a free man still widely accepted in high society. In the past years, Epstein and a whole herd of powerful, wealthy, famous, predatory creeps like him — Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey — have faced long-overdue consequences for their actions.

Back then, though ISIS didn’t really exist — or at least not in the form it came to take — Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Osama bin Laden, Moammar Qaddafi, Fidel Castro, and Robert Mugabe were still alive.

What’s more, if your political worldview can be summarized by “MAGA,” you’re probably thrilled with who’s president compared to 2009. Ten years ago, “President Hillary Clinton” was still a strong possibility, and the Clinton Foundation was nearing the peak of its influence.

But at the same time . . . a lot of things went wrong in the past ten years, so much so that you could easily argue the 2010s were closer to “the decade from hell” than the 2000s.

Deaths from opioid abuse nearly doubled from 2009 to 2015. They’ve leveled off since 2018, with “only” around 67,000 Americans dying from overdose between April of last year and April of this year. But the epidemic’s death toll is still staggering. One study from Ohio University calculated that more than 1 million years of human life were lost in the state of Ohio from overdose deaths between Jan. 1, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2018. More broadly, life expectancy for American men has dropped for three consecutive years. In 2009, 36,909 Americans committed suicide. By 2017, the most recent year with complete statistics, that number was up to 47,173.

Violent crime gradually declines just about every year, but Americans believe that crime is increasing. Is that just a matter of media coverage of violent crime being as intense as ever, or is it that particularly horrific and memorable violent crimes create the impression that crime is becoming more common? The number of active-shooter incidents — defined by the FBI as those in which “one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area” — has been around 20 to 30 per year from 2014 to 2018.

Hate crimes are notoriously difficult to measure, but they appear to have increased since 2014, well before President Trump took office. Before Trump’s rise, no one had heard of the “alt-Right.” America had always had racists and white supremacists, but back in 2009, we hadn’t seen large numbers of them gathering in Charlottesville and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Now we have, and it wasn’t pretty.

Ten years ago, Syria hadn’t yet suffered a civil war that killed more people than any international organization could calculate with any confidence. Europe had not been flooded with refugees from Syria, the rest of the Middle East, and Libya. Right now, there are protests, sometimes violent, going on in Chile, Bolivia, France, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, and Algeria. Each protest has its own distinct causes, but a general theme of anger — over a lack of economic opportunity, a high cost of living, and a sense that wealthy and politically powerful elites have forgotten about everyone else — pervades them all.

Ten years ago, any suggestion that the National Security Agency was gathering information on you was, as far as most of us knew, paranoid delusion. While we feared hackers, for most of us the biggest cyber-security threat was those e-mails from Nigerian princes who needed our bank-account numbers to send us money. We were thrilled that Facebook was letting us catch up with long-lost friends and classmates. Twitter seemed neat, a new, innovative platform full of interesting people with reasonable perspectives on the issues of the day. (Okay, maybe it was always full of lunatics.)

At the end of 2009, the U.S. national debt was $12.3 trillion, and one of the nation’s two major parties at least claimed to care about it. Today, the debt is $23 trillion and neither party even pretends to care.

The decade’s biggest political fight was over the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature health-care-reform law. Yet in late 2019, many Americans are still waiting for “affordable care” to arrive. Middle-income people with employer insurance paid an average of 11.5 percent of their income toward premiums and deductibles in 2018, up from 7.8 percent in 2008.

Environmentalists have reason to be depressed, too. Despite the election of a U.S. president they adored in 2008 and fervent messaging about the dangers of climate change and pollution, only about half the G20 countries are meeting their emissions-reduction goals. The Amazon rainforest is still burning and deforestation in Brazil this year was worse than it had been in a decade. In Russia, the snow is turning green and black from pollution, while air pollution in India is now at “unbearable levels” and China is building coal plants again. Green activists are finding that convincing the “BRIC” countries to slow down their economies for the sake of the planet is a hard sell.

Time flies. Ten years ago, Democrats argued that Vladimir Putin was someone we could do business with and Republicans contended that he was an implacable and dangerous foe of the West. Back then, Republicans opposed bigger government handouts to groups hurt by tariffs, while Democrats supported them. Perhaps relatedly, in 2009 Republicans could win governor’s races in states like Virginia and New Jersey, and Democrats could win in states like Missouri and West Virginia. That year, a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed a measure allowing concealed, loaded firearms to be carried in national parks.

Ten years ago, almost no Democrats openly called themselves “socialists,” although their foes might have labeled them as such. While the overall shifts in the numbers over the past decade are relatively small, in 2018 more Democrats expressed a positive view of socialism than of capitalism. When the decade started, almost everyone in American politics was fine with having nine Supreme Court justices, and everyone was fine with the existence of the Electoral College.

Some of what looked so fragile in 2009 proved more resilient than we expected. The U.S. economy rebounded, although it took a while. General Motors is still making a lot of cars, although a few years ago we learned that some of its vehicles would kill you if your key chain was too heavy. Retail stores were supposed to die, but they appear to be rebounding, at least in some ways. The Republican Party was allegedly reduced to a “rump regional party” in the aftermath of the 2008 election, but spent the next six years gradually climbing back into power.

Yet the biggest story of the 2010s is that a bunch of things that we weren’t all that worried about have been proven less stable than we thought: The NATO alliance, the postwar foreign-policy consensus, political support for free trade. Democrats have lost almost all interest in securing the border, and Republicans have lost almost all interest in accepting refugees or establishing a way for those illegally residing in the country to legally remain. The global influence of China, Russia, and Iran is rising, while the influence of the United States and its allies appears to be waning.

Every decade will offer its triumphs and tragedies, and the quality of a decade is always in the eye of the beholder. But the passage of history inevitably humbles us. Don’t be so quick to write off one ten-year span as a “decade from hell,” because you never know what fresh hell the next ten years will offer up.

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