Few decades have been as resolutely and relentlessly dismal as this past one, which is thankfully all over but the shouting (a note to calendaric purists who insist that the decade really runs from 2001 to 2010: You're part of the problem). Contested elections, international terrorism, more bubbles blown (and burst!) than on a Lawrence Welk special. Did we really survive the Y2K bug, avian flu and the unstoppable proliferation of saggy pants for this?
There was plenty serious that went wrong with "the Aughts" (one more indicator of a desultory decade: the period has produced no commonly shared nickname). It was one of the worst decades ever for stocks, the U.S. mired itself in two seemingly endless and intractable wars, total federal spending increased by more than 100% in real dollars, unemployment hit double digits and for the second time in 10 years, the government is poised to massively intervene in health care (and not just Medicare this time). Most troubling for long-term economic growth, and hence living standards, it is no longer clear where the public sector ends and the private sector begins. It's hard to escape the sinking feeling that the government-controlled General Motors may well be prototyping America's answer to the Lada.
Yet for all that trouble, we spent a lot of time and energy in the Aughts fighting phantom menaces, such as the ideas that vaccines cause autism in children, that ATM machines featuring a Spanish-language option posed a threat to national sovereignty and that rampant steroid use by players was turning off fans who attended Major League Baseball in record numbers. All of these oh-so-pressing issues received multiple congressional hearings when they should have been more properly rinsed away, like the hand-sanitizer gels that rose to ubiquity.
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As a sadly appropriate parting gift to this grim first decade of the 21st century, a period so debased that the Boston Red Sox managed to win not just one but two World Series, we can thank Nigerian would-be suicide bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab for robbing us of our inalienable right to use a cramped bathroom at 30,000 feet. Indeed, we can only await Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano's directive that all frequent fliers must now go commando as a condition of air travel.
While Mr. Abdulmutallab's underwear bomb thankfully did not explode en route from Amsterdam to Detroit, his botched attempt (and the heroic acts of passengers) has reignited one of the decade's most pervasive—and overblown—anxieties: that terrorist violence would become "the new normal," an everyday occurrence in the United States.
As Ohio State political scientist John Mueller has documented, such fears are as erroneous as they are deeply held. "The likelihood that a person living outside a war zone will perish at the hands of an international terrorist over an eighty-year period is about one in 80,000," wrote Mr. Mueller in the American Interest in 2008. "By comparison, an American's chance of dying in an auto accident over the same time interval is one in eighty." Well, rational analysis should never get in the way of strong feelings.
What will be the great hysterical fears of the coming decade? By definition, such worries need to be simultaneously undocumentable and just plausible enough to convince politicians, celebrities, civic do-gooders, captains of industry and media types that our very society hangs in the balance.
For a classic example, think back to the 1980s, when Tipper Gore, the wife of then-Sen. Al Gore, helped form the Parents Music Resource Center and addressed the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation regarding the pressing topic of sexual, violent and occult imagery in pop music. As Mrs. Gore wrote in her best-selling (and now hard-to-find) 1987 book "Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society," "By using satanic symbols on the concert stage, and album covers, such as those used by Ozzy Osbourne...certain heavy metal bands lure teenagers into what one expert has called 'the cult of the eighties.' Many kids experiment with the deadly satanic game, and get hooked."
It is probably only thanks to the intervention of the Gores that we managed as a country to wrestle free both of Beelzebub's and Ronnie James Dio's bony grasp. Which, it's worth adding, might have been preferable to that of Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner.
Here's a tour of the probable panics of the 2010s, some of which are already well under way.
China Is Both Making and Eating Our Lunch
Few things engender flop sweat faster among upper-class Americans than the idea that a lesser nation is on the fast track to economic domination. In the late 1980s, it was self-evident to those in the know that Japan's government-subsidized, super-hierarchical and tightly integrated mega-corporations were intrinsically superior to their American counterparts. A raft of best sellers like "Rising Sun" and movies such as "Gung Ho!" bid sayonara to the American Way. The fear collapsed in the '90s along with the Japanese economy, which has yet to pull out of a "lost decade" that's lasted nearly 20 years.
Look for a repeat of the same story, this time with China in the lead role. By keeping their currency low—they have pegged it to the dollar, after all—the Chinese have thrown "hundreds of thousands and maybe even more Americans...out of work," says Sen. Charles Schumer, who has called for a trade war. After a couple more quarters of weak or nonexistent growth, get ready for calls to banish dissent and individualism in business that will last right up to the moment that the Chinese government makes the wrong call. Which, if history is any guide, is already in the pipeline.