Ten years ago, I was partying like it was 1999 because it was. As the odometer turned to 2000, I stood out on the back deck at a friend’s house, sipped a beer that wasn’t called Fat Tire and toasted the coming year. We all thought the good times were going to keep rolling. It had been a little less than a decade since the Soviet Union collapsed. There was peace. America prospered.
When Gov. Evan Bayh left that office, he would brag of putting 300,000 Hoosiers to work. His successor – Frank O’Bannon – would have a re-election campaign in 2000 featuring a bumper sticker that read, “Thanks a Billion” because we had a big, fat surplus. We had national traumas, like the Oklahoma City bombing and a president who had inappropriate relations with a female intern. But as 1999 turned into the Oh-Ohs, we felt fortunate, prosperous and the sky was the limit.
That all changed on Sept. 11, 2001 when the terror pilots took doomed souls into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That was followed by anthrax letters sent to Tom Brokaw and others, and the Washington sniper terror. Thus, the tone was set. The U.S preemptive invasion of Iraq was wrapped in abject fear. The smoking gun, the Bush administration told us, could come in the form of a “mushroom cloud.” Colin Powell and the CIA’s George Tenent would show us satellite shots of Saddam’s mobile anthrax labs.
Except, they weren’t mobile labs. Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction.
Since then, the Oh-Ohs became a carnival house of distorted mirrors. The National Enquirer broke real stories while the Chicago dailies went bankrupt. Everywhere we looked there were facades. Senate Republicans – like David Vitter, John Ensign and Larry Craig – stood for family values. New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer was a crackerjack crime fighter with a squeaky clean image. So was South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.
Barry Bonds was simply a skilled home run hitter who just gained weight and worked out on his way to a 70-homer season. Tiger Woods was a wholesome family man and a disciplined billion dollar corporate front.
Wall Street had thrown off the regulatory shackles from the pre-Reagan era and was the outlier to the good times. The savings and loans scandal of the late ’80s and the derivatives of the ’90s and the Oh-Ohs were simply aberrations.
There was Enron’s Ken Lay, who went from business darling to California blackouts and corporate scandal built on phantom books.
President Bush would come to the Indiana Black Expo and extol the virtues of the “ownership society.”
Three years later, it was the amalgamation of derivatives, lack of oversight, and a subprime mortgage binge — illustrated by a family acquaintance that worked in the mortgage business. He spoke proudly of how he helped people get into homes who really couldn’t afford them as if he were doing a public service, adding “And it’s all legal.” Our best and brightest young people sought out Goldman Sachs instead of becoming engineers or medical researchers.
As we end the decade, Uncle Sam has sold Goldman the naming rights to the U.S. Treasury. One of the very guys who cooked up the poisonous stew became Time Magazine’s man of the year.
The shift from American wealth coming out of the manufacturing sector to the financial sector was stunning. By the end of the Oh-Ohs, the financial sector created about 24 percent of the wealth, while manufacturing declined to around 12 percent. Both are dangerous signals for a middle-aged empire.
Even more so was the fact that while personal income was declining in Indiana, the top one percent of Americans controlled 95 percent of the wealth. During the Great Recession of 2009, manufacturing related income fell 12 percent nationally, but here in Indiana it tumbled by 18 percent, according to columnist Morton J. Marcus.
Last year, Barack Obama took America by storm. Every time I heard him speak, he talked about reaching out to Republicans. Some of the loyal opposition said they would reach back.
In our Oh-Oh house of mirrors, there was no such meeting in the middle. Candidate Obama cited Sen. Dick Lugar in key speeches and even a campaign TV ad. As president, there was virtually no dialogue. The Republicans simply couldn’t ignore the next election 22 months away. Thus, the debate over health reform with the most far-reaching impact in a generation was marked by one-sided conversations. Both sides resorted to contradictory studies. There were more people this past year that decided to predict the future than in any other sequence within memory.
Governing in façade while quartering ourselves in places where we see only the images we want to see is a recipe for falling behemoths.
(Howey publishes at www.howeypolitics.com)