Saturday, December 31, 2005

Was 2005 a Truly Terrible Year?

Last weekend an 80 year-old relative of mine was agreeing with her Boomer-aged daughter that 2005 was “a terrible year”. Their personal lives weren’t adversely affected in any way, as they were able to reap the fruits of their own prosperity. Both had bought brand new cars, traveled to far away places in comfort, and enjoyed enviable healthiness. No one related to their families were serving in the military nor had lost their life to war, or natural catastrophe. No one they knew had lost a job, and a few of their teenage grandkids and nephews were easily finding work at fast-food place or in an office. The biggest loss in their lives during the past year was the ousting of their favorite anchorman, Aaron Brown, from their favorite cable television channel, CNN. I was hearing repeatedly gripes like: “How dare they rid such a brilliant and fascinating journalist like Aaron Brown in order to promote that vacuous pretty boy Anderson Cooper!”

But oh, was 2005 a terrible year! Granted, as in every year, there were a slew of natural catastrophes beyond our control (won’t signing an international treaty based on speculative science have prevented the past year’s record number of hurricanes? Sorry, the world is far more complex than signatories of Kyoto would like to admit.) There was indeed endless death taking place in the Middle East, which is pretty much the status quo for that region ever since the end of European colonialism. The U.S. lost over 2100 brave servicemen in Iraq and several hundred more in Afghanistan (in the span of 4 years, I might add), an above average military death rate for the year compared to the 1990s or possibly the 1980s, but far fewer than the 1970s, 60s (with Vietnam), 1950s (Korean War) and the 1940s (World War 2). But measured by the actual effectiveness per life lost in engendering a real positive change in a war zone’s political aftermath our recent ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan compare favorably to any before it. Over 50 million people liberated from true tyranny (and no my fellow Marxists, global capitalism is not tyranny!) Over 5 peaceful and minimally corrupt elections have taken place in what were once the most oppressive and terrifying countries on the planet. A chain reaction of countries threw out their autocratic regimes in favor representative democracy (Ukraine, Lebanon, Egypt etc.) Yes 2005 was a terrible year!

Christmas presents were plentiful within my family this year, but the past year has was a rough one economically. I could tell my pessimistic relatives that my employer can’t build new cubicles fast enough to accommodate new employees or that new projects keep popping as far the eye can see. But nothing, not event the fact that over 3 million jobs have been created since mid 2003, or that GDP growth has maintained a high rate for a couple of years that many economists would constitute a boom could persuade these relatives of mine that the economy is gloomy. Don’t you know that gas prices are high (somehow they’ve forgotten about the oil shocks that they actually lived through) or that manufacturing jobs are going to China? Never mind that every industrial index shows that American manufacturing is as productive as ever and that there are signs around the country that factory labor is in short supply, and that productivity is such that factories can produce more with far fewer people. Somehow, if it isn’t a union job that makes some tangible product, it isn’t a job at all. They don’t realize that the only reason manufacturers could promise such generous benefits and perks to their workers was that they weren’t threatened by outside competition. I suspect that many Americans yearn for the days when the rest of the world was dirt poor unable to export or manufacture anything of value while we were living high on the hog producing widgets that wasted vast quantities of natural resources and at the end were of questionable quality. The two elderly types mentioned above are proud owners of Toyotas, and one of them had GM cars most of her life.

Katrina was inarguably a terrible event, and one of them did volunteer at the local shelter to assuage the evacuees. Many lost their lives, and the biggest city affected, New Orleans, will likely never regain its stature because of the storm. It’s not unique that a large American city can be wiped out overnight (witness San Francisco or Chicago), but what was sad about the plight of New Orleans was the relatively little affect it had on the rest of the nation. In terms of the cost to the economy, its logistical infrastructure, and the actual political fallout such disasters usually have, Katrina sadly failed to change the nation in a meaningful way. The national economy continued to expand faster since the hurricane, the port near New Orleans was quickly restored and most shipping routes were transferred to other welcoming port cities, and the political infighting and corruption so dear to Louisiana still continues. The rest of America moved on and within a month after the worst hurricane destruction ever, the reconstruction of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans was relegated to backburner of the nation's pressrooms. The president’s poll numbers briefly dipped during the crisis but now his rating is close to where it was a year ago. Hundreds of thousands of people were devastated, but the majority of the most destitute evacuees have found that they are better off elsewhere than in the city they had fled. The very fact that New Orleans has only regained 80,000 people 4 months since the hurricane implies that the city’s “raison d’etre” was weak to begin with.

Yes 2005, if only for Katrina, was a terrible year. But since it is well agreed that the complete inundation of New Orleans was a ticking time bomb as much as the earthquake referred to as the “big one” will imminently rock California, then good and bad years will only be determined by acts of God. Thus no other positive news or visible progress in the grand scheme of things could ever make it a good year. Not even the unprecedented amounts donated to charity and relief this year by Americans will ever redeem this year.

But truly, when my relatives claimed that the past year was a bad one, it was really a matter of their own limited perspective. Being as old as they were and having lived through dramatic events, I was annoyed that such a relatively good year for most Americans and a joyous one for the millions of newly liberated abroad was considered worse than previous years of casualty-heavy wars, stagnant if not depressed economies with high unemployment, political assassinations and yes, natural disasters. Such selective amnesia is truly breathtaking. But then these two read Jimmy Carter’s latest book malaise, Jeremy Rifkin’s latest silly predictions while believing everything reported on CNN. I get the feeling that people’s memories are short and not judicious in absorbing information. You’d have to declare 2005 a bad year!

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