Far Worse Than a Big Zero

Paul Krugman recently penned an insightful article where he argues that the 1999-2009 decade should be called the “Big Zero” decade because over the course of 10 years there was no real job growth or notable “progress” in tackling any of the nation’s problems. But Krugman’s view, I’m afraid, is overly optimistic. What we had in the 2000s was far, far worse than a “Big Zero.”

The last 10 years have been so miserable for the United States that a “Big Zero” would be an immeasurable improvement compared to what we got. If we could freeze time and move the country back to January 1999 it would be like hitting the jackpot! With all its squandered wealth, wasted lives, despoiled environment, growing inequality, and a Supreme Court stacked to favor corporate power, a “Big Zero” is a distant, unattainable goal.

Ronald Reagan was president from 1981 to 1989, leading many historians and journalists to call the 1980s the “Reagan Era” or the “Age of Reagan.” George W. Bush served from 2001 to 2009, but is it fair to us to refer to the 2000s as the “W. Era?” I don’t think so.

It was the decade when the country experienced the corporate take-over of everything — every value, every human interaction, every institution.

Bush stacked the Supreme Court with two relatively young Justices — John Roberts and Samuel Alito — who can be counted on, in perpetuity, to rule against people and in favor of corporations every time their interests clash. He also stuffed the federal judiciary with torture enthusiasts, religious fanatics, and corporate servants.

It was a decade when a new Gilded Age took hold led by Robber Barons far worse and rapacious than any of those associated with the turn of the last century. Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein,without irony, told the press that his financial behemoth was doing “God’s work,” just like John D. Rockefeller said over a century ago: “I believe the power to make money is a gift from God.”

It was a decade where corporate advertising reached new levels with “word of mouth” marketing and “reality” TV shows that are little more than commercials posing as “television shows.”

In November 1999, President Bill Clinton repealed the Glass-Steagall Act by signing the odious Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that deregulated, once and for all, the financial sector. Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Alan Greenspan, and Robert Rubin lit the fuse that exploded the American economy ten wretched years later traumatizing the nation and sapping its lifeblood.

There was a “War on Terror” and “video news releases” to manipulate the public. In the past 10 years the nation’s two dominant political parties finally merged to represent essentially the same corporate interests. It was the decade when the ideological viewpoint of the National Association of Manufacturers, which was formed in 1895 to trash workers’ pensions as “handouts,” came to dominate the economic policies of both parties. Labor unions took it in the chin suffering setback after setback as real wages declined, unemployment rose, and pensions dwindled.

It was the decade of Enron and Worldcom and Global Crossing and Tyco and all those other corporate criminal rackets. Joe Lieberman, who received campaign donations from Enron, held a hearing where he tisk-tisked the practices that his own cheerleading for deregulation helped cause. And don’t forget Blackwater and Haliburton and all the other war profiteers that made a killing, and the wars themselves we’ll be paying for in overt pay-outs and hidden social costs for many decades to come. Death on the installment plan we might call it.

It was the decade when the “race to the bottom” resulting from “free trade” deals like NAFTA and the WTO came to apotheosis. The outsourcing and international trade imbalances hollowed out the American economy, eliminated whole categories of manufacturing jobs, and pushed the U.S. on a trajectory less like Europe and more like Mexico. China owns us.

During the 2000 campaign there was a running joke that George W. Bush got so much record-breaking corporate campaign cash that he wasn’t really a human being seeking the presidency but a corporation. We can call the 2000s the “Worse Than Zero” decade or the “Big Zero,” or anything we wish, but what characterized it most for me was the near total control of corporations, especially over our civic institutions. All of the terrible economic and governing ideas from the Reagan era crested and then crashed in the last 18 months leaving something far less than “zero” in their wake.

Joseph Palermo

Originally published by the Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author

Published by the LA Progressive on December 30, 2009
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).