From Cold War, to 9/11, to Betty Boop for President

On this cold, Dec. 31, 1999, we wanted to believe we were entering an era of prosperity and peace as the world’s sole super power. We expected to take our “peace dividend” after the Soviets imploded, and build a society of fast computers, cool cars, cheap gas, good jobs, affordable housing and generations that would do better than their parents and grandparents.

It would take 21 months to get the wake-up call when terror pilots rammed airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. We find ourselves with a 9.1 percent jobless rate, a middle class under attack and wealth distribution that mirrors 1929. We have another president who appears to be failing.

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has written a new book with Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University: “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.”

Watching Friedman on NBC’s Meet the Press last Sunday was a dose of cod liver oil. The end of the Cold War and the 1990s was “like a 3,650 day victory parade for the United States,” Friedman said. Victory, as it turns out, was unleashing “two billion people just like us” in China and India.

Then came 9/11 and the U.S. spent the first decade of the 21st Century “chasing the losers from globalization rather than the winners.”

The U.S. failed to finish a necessary war in Afghanistan and deal with nuclear-armed Pakistan – for a misguided invasion of Iraq that had no weapons of mass destruction. With the last of our combat troops scheduled to pullout by the end of this year, Iraq is slowly drifting into the Iranian sphere. We’ve spent $1 trillion – almost all of it unpaid for and now a part of a $1.3 trillion deficit – taking out and trying to rebuild nations when our own country is in atrophy. A report last month detailed how $60 billion of U.S. funds has been wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sixty billion!

Friedman gives us context: “We went from the Greatest Generation, which the philosophy basically was ‘save and invest’” to “the Baby Boom Generation whose philosophy turned out to be ‘borrow and spend.’”The Greatest Generation – which he defines as those born in The Depression, WW2 and the Cold War – “wouldn’t think of shutting down the government for a minute.”

We’ve deviated from “sustainable values” of the Greatest Generation to Baby Boomers who adhere to “situational values.” Friedman explains, “You put them all together and I think you really account for a lot of the hole we’re in right now structurally.”

So we’ve gone from a soaring nation to a “hole” with no clear path out and polarized politics with no middle ground. Austerity and a simpleton strategy of reducing the deficit have created a chronically high jobless rate and an eroding middle class. When you’re watching the Colts or Bears on Sunday, there’s a reason for so many luxury car TV ads aimed at the top one percent of the population while most of the rest of us stew.

In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this past week, 73 percent put the U.S. on the “wrong track,” President Obama had a 44 percent approval rating with 59 percent disapproving of his handling of the economy, and just 13 percent give Congress a favorable nod.

By a 47-41 percent margin, poll respondents favor a “new person” over their current member of Congress. Asked if you could vote to replace “every single member of Congress, including your own representative,” 54 percent answered “yes.”

Friedman notes that in the past America has “won at every turn” because there were “five pillars of success” that included educating people “up to and beyond” the current technology. Other pillars include: “Immigration, attract the world’s most talented and energetic people. Third, infrastructure, have the world’s best infrastructure. Fourth, have the right rules for incenting capital formation and risk-taking and preventing recklessness. And last, government-funded research. Put those together, stir, bake for 200 years, and you get the United States of America.”

“Now, if you take all five of those … and you look at the last decade … possibly one of the worst, if not the worst decade in American history,” Friedman said. “Education, boop; infrastructure, boop; immigration, boop; rules for capital investment – how’d you like that subprime crisis? – boop.”

We’ve gone from hope and change, to Betty Boop for President.

(The columnist publishes at He may be reached at

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