A Zero Decade? Or are we inching toward the light?

As the first decade of the new century slinks to its end days, the pessimists among us counsel against taking stock: the exercise, they say, would hurt too much. The glass they see is more than half empty.
Listen to Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist:
“ ... Here’s what (Larry) Summers (former treasury secretary and president of Harvard) believed in 1999: America has honest corporate accounting; this lets in-vestors make good decisions, and also forces management to behave responsibly; and the result is a stable, well-functioning financial system.
“What percentage of this turned out to be true? Zero. What was truly impressive about the decade past, however, was our unwillingness, as a nation, to learn from our mistakes. Even as the dot-com bubble de-flated, credulous bankers and investors began inflating a new bubble in housing. Even after famous, admired companies like Enron and WorldCom were revealed to have been Potemkin corporations with fa-cades built out of creative accounting, analysts and investors be-lieved banks’ claims about their own financial strength and bought into the hype about investments they didn’t understand.
“Even after triggering a global economic collapse, and having to be rescued at taxpayers’ expense, bankers wasted no time going right back to the culture of giant bonuses and excessive leverage.
“Then there are the politicians. Even now, it’s hard to get Democrats, President Obama included, to deliver a full-throated critique of the practices that got us into the mess we’re in. And as for the Republicans: now that their policies of tax cuts and deregulation have led us into an economic quagmire, their prescription for recovery is — tax cuts and deregulation.
“So let’s bid a not at all fond farewell to the Big Zero: the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing. Will the next decade be better? Stay tuned. Oh, and happy new year.”

BUT MAYBE that glass is at least half full. Economists, Krugman included, agree that the massive intervention by governments worldwide stopped the slide toward depression this year and last. Economic recovery, though still fragile, continues to strengthen in the U.S. and abroad.
The world did learn that Sir Maynard Keynes understood macroeconomics. Government in-tervention worked.
The jury is still out on the mark that President Barack Obama will make on history — or the immediate future. I be-lieve his election was the most important event of the decade and could only have happened in a nation driven, for that campaign year at least, by hopeful optimism.
But regardless of how successful he and his party are in turning their ambitious platform into law, Obama’s election has already made the United States a better nation. America is less racist, less sexist, more tolerant of differences. It has become a more perfect union.
President Obama has also burnished America’s image in the eyes of the world, strengthened its ability to persuade others to join it in worthwhile causes and demonstrated that America values principle above raw power.
I also like to think that his election was not so much about race or an inspiring personal story as it was a nationwide yearning for what phi-losopher Susan Neiman calls a “sense of moral purpose; a moral sensibility” that expresses itself in such crusades as expanding health care to every American, improving public education to lift more Americans out of poverty and leading the scientific effort to at least moderate climate change.
These political goals are shared only by optimists; by those who believe that humankind not only can shape its destiny but has a moral obligation to do so.
The strong majority of Americans who voted in 2008 to elect a problem-solving administration labeled the decade just ending as energetic, hu-manitarian and full of hope. That same majority should gather again in 2010 and see that those promises are kept.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.

P.S. The next decade will be better, Mr. Krugman. Stay tuned.