Despite terrorism and economy, 2000s not the decade from hell

Friday brings an end to a decade most Americans will be glad to see the back of. What’s to like about a 10-year span that started with an embarrassingly botched election, moved on to the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, and ended with a harrowing financial crisis?

The aughts were awful. But all the media-driven doom and gloom is getting a little out of hand. Yes, it was a rotten 10 years for America. But cheer up: Things aren’t as bad as they seem, and there’s a good chance they’ll get better.

This was the Decade from Hell, Andy Serwer says in a recent Time magazine cover story. It was a period of economic apocalypse and unrelenting terror, the most dispiriting and disillusioning decade in the post-World War II era.

Holy hyperbole, hackman. Has Serwer never heard of the misery index, the measure of unemployment plus inflation that President Ronald Reagan used to pummel President Jimmy Carter in 1980? At 11.84, it’s at its decadelong peak right now, but it hit 22 in Carter’s last months, and busted President Barack Obama’s record in four of the past six decades.

The aughts were worse, Serwer says, because the idea that terrorists can attack anytime and anywhere is new and profoundly unsettling.

Well, settle down. The latest Human Security Brief, tabulating political violence worldwide, reports that in the past decade, fatalities from terrorism have declined by some 40 percent, while al-Qaida has suffered a dramatic collapse in popular support throughout the Muslim world. Every year of this decade, including 2001, more Americans died from the flu than from terrorism.

The fact is, a lot of good things happened in the 2000s and, typically, the bounties of the era were provided by private enterprise, not the machinations of government do-gooders. The Internet put the means of production in the hands of the workers, leading to a dynamic DIY culture in which bloggers compete with established columnists, bands without a record contract can hit it big, and anyone with a digital camera can get their 15 minutes on YouTube.

History comes in cycles. The aughts resemble a milder version of the ’60s, a decade that began with high trust in government (as happened after 9/11) and ended with Americans relearning the old lessons about federal incompetence and the limits of American power.

In the next decade, it will get worse before it gets better. The teens may be like the ’70s — a period of limits in which Americans absorb the hard lessons of 10 years before while paying the price for the fiscal incontinence of the previous decade.

But whenever pessimism gets its hooks in me, I think back to the introduction my colleague David Boaz wrote a few years ago for “Toward Liberty,” a collection marking 25 years of the Cato Institute.

Boaz described the stagnant America of the late ’70s, with a top tax rate of 70 percent, 91 percent of television viewers chained to the big three networks — a time when people literally couldn’t imagine a world without the Soviet Union. Energy czars. Gas lines. Raging inflation. ABC-NBC-CBS. Mao Tse-Tung. Apartheid. It was a different era. What wasn’t so obvious was that it was the end of an era.

That era ended because Americans corrected their course after two difficult decades, doing the right thing after exhausting all other possibilities, in Churchill’s phrase. And the years to come will give us plenty of incentive to put America on the right path again.

Examiner columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of “The Cult of the Presidency.”

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