David Segal: Naming the '00s





THERE are 46 days left in 2009, which means it is just about time to commence the beloved and enduring parlor game known as “Name That Decade.”

You know the rules — coin a pithy, reductive phrase that somehow encapsulates the multitude of events, trends, triumphs and calamities of the past 10 years. If you can also rope in some of the big personalities and consumer obsessions, that’s a bonus.

For the ’00s, it seems the trick will be finding a small package sturdy and flexible enough to capture so much upheaval and change. And worry — although in hindsight, it sure seems like we kept worrying about the wrong menace.

The decade began with a frenzy of fear about the Y2k millennium bug, which many technology experts said would sunder computers, crash jets and wreak havoc in every corner of the globe. As that non-emergency passed, a genuine threat quietly gathered in the form of a plot to fell the twin towers.

Later, we scoured Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, which we did not find. As we searched, we built weapons of financial chaos right here at home, with home mortgages, leverage and something called Collateral Debt Obligations.

Fortunes and a staggering number of jobs have vanished, inflicting misery in this country and others on a scale that would surely have exceeded the most garish of Saddam’s fantasies.

So: The Era of Misplaced Anxiety?

“How about the Decade of Disruptions?” suggests Walter Isaacson, the former editor of Time magazine and author of a biography of Benjamin Franklin. “We had coasted through the ’90s with irrational exuberance. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall until the fall of the twin towers, there was nothing unnerving us. It was the decade after the cold war and it seemed like we were done with global struggles.”

“Then we get to a decade that begins with 9/11 and we realize we will be involved with a global struggle. And the decade has various financial disruptions — the dot-com bubble, Enron — culminating in the one last year. It’s been a decade as bumpy as the ’90s were blithe.”

The upside of “disruption” is that it’s flexible enough to capture both the financial meltdown and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what if you just want to focus on our money woes?

“This will be remembered as the era when the North went South,” offers Carmen Reinhart, economist and co-author of “This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly.”

By North and South Ms. Reinhart isn’t referring to geography; she means developed economies and emerging economies.

“If you look at the 1990s, it was a decade of emerging market crises,” she said. “The big peso blowout in Mexico in 1994 and ’95. Asia erupts in the summer of ’97 and the Asian crisis runs into ’98.” And so on.

“Meanwhile, the North was in its Great Moderation phase,” Ms. Reinhart said. “If you look at academic discussion and even public perception, in the first seven years of this decade, people thought the North had beaten the business cycle. Not only did we convincingly show that we have not mastered the business cycle, but we’re having an emerging-market style of crisis. This is something we haven’t seen in the postwar era and it’s something that in the years of the Great Moderation we would have thought unthinkable.”

Actually, the Decade of the Unthinkable is pretty good, too. If nothing else pleasant can be said about the last 10 years, they sure weren’t dull.

“It’s been a tough decade for those of us in the future prediction business,” says the futurist Paul Saffo, who teaches at Stanford University. “Realities have consistently outpaced our wildest imaginings.”

Mr. Saffo said he had struggled to keep his forecasts a few paces ahead of the times, which appears to be the inspiration for his decade appellation of choice.

“Overshoot,” he says. “It’s been a decade of overshoot.”

Overshoot?

“In the ’90s,” he says, “we had all the indicators of the problems that were coming and in our complacency we did nothing. The environment, terrorism, financial markets.”

None of these problems came out of nowhere, he says. But because no one acted, “the problems, once they began, overshot the institutions that could have solved them.”

And this isn’t a problem that he thinks is going away. “Without a doubt, we’re seven billion people driving at light speed down a dark and foggy highway and we can’t see past the windshield.”...

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