This Too Shall Pass
We are a shaken nation. We could hardly be otherwise after the sobering experience we’ve had in the first decade of the new millennium.
We began it with an inconclusive presidential election. Following the inauguration of a new president whom many thought illegitimate, the economy dipped into recession. Then we spent a peculiar summer consumed with the mysterious disappearance of a congressional staffer named Chandra Levy and a road-raged New York City publicist named Lizzie Grubman who drove her SUV into some people in a Southampton parking lot.
And then came 9/11, and the deaths of thousands, and the unnerving revelation of a serious transnational threat to the American homeland in a time when unconventional weaponry was shrinking in size and growing in effectiveness. We got serious again. We went to war, and then we went to war again, and were unnerved still further by the discovery that what seemed like quick victories in both were anything but.
A tsunami engulfed the shoreline of South Asia, killing hundreds of thousands. Nine months later, a hurricane’s water breached the levees protecting one of the nation’s great cities and the areas around it and submerged them. The economy roared ahead, but even its cheerleaders acknowledged there was a disturbing social imbalance in the distribution of its largesse.
On Capitol Hill, a Republican Congress in power for a decade was mimicking the worst behaviors of the Democratic Congresses it had succeeded—cronyism and corruption. Senators spent weeks fighting over a single piece of legislation involving the fate of a single person, a comatose woman whose family was divided over her ultimate fate.
The inability of the White House to prosecute one of its wars successfully and to manage the response to the hurricane joined with the off-putting conduct of Republicans in Congress to bring about one of the most rapid and dramatic shifts in political momentum ever recorded. That wave in 2006 presaged the results of 2008, in part by convincing the untested and untried Barack Obama that his moment had arrived and that he had better seize it.
And then the bad news about the economy began to make itself known—with the growing realization that untold billions here and abroad had been secured to worthless collateral in the form of junk loans. The subprime muck simmered and stewed for a year until it first boiled over in March 2008 with the crisis that forced direct government intervention in the salvation of the Bear Stearns investment bank.
When, six months later, the same government officials who had arranged for the fire sale of Bear Stearns decided they could not intervene when Lehman Brothers began to go under, the world financial system all but melted down. And here we are, two years later, having lived through a second recession in less than a decade’s time, unemployment of a severity and durability we haven’t seen in generations, partial nationalization of the American automobile industry, nearly $1 trillion in direct government stimulus with little visible effect, and a commitment to spend at least another $1 trillion on a new health-care system.
Nor do the next months give us any reason to feel more stable. The economy is slowing to a crawl. Without decisive action before December 31, federal taxes will revert to 2001 levels, which will constitute the largest impost increase in peacetime history at the worst possible moment. And looming over all this is the shadow of Iran, whose march toward possession of nuclear weaponry may be a hinge moment in history—the decisive failure of the international community to keep the world’s most dangerous weaponry out of the hands of the world’s most dangerous regimes.
It has been a terrible 10 years. And yet the nation has lived through worse. The 1930s were worse; the 1970s were worse. This too shall pass. We will have our first real sense of just how quickly it might pass when the nation goes to the polls in November.