Today marks the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Since it is the last day of both the year and the decade, one might ask the question, what has this period taught us? Even more important, what have we learned?
I can think of three important lessons. I am not sure, on the other hand, whether the Country has digested these events and learned anything.
War on Terror. It is difficult to understand, even today, how such an event as 9/11 could have taken place. Sufficient precaution were in place but not followed. Further, had the capability to lock the pilot’s cabin door been in place, it is arguable that the disaster might have been averted. So what did we learn?
Not much based upon the Government’s reaction. First, the event became politicized and the term “war on terror” was coined. This was a thinly veiled ploy to gain Republican election victories. Under this political cover, we have seen an invasion of a sovereign country that posed no imminent threat (pure opportunism since there was no connection between Iraq and 9/11), Abu Ghraib (reflection of the tone at the top of the Administration), enhanced interrogation (torture), and Gauntanamo detention facilities (indefinite detention).
Financial sector implosion. During the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, the financial sector found (created) ways to make a lot of money (fees) on mortgage and other lending transactions. Mortgages which once were tied to the original lender (at least in part) were now being sold and resold. Once the mortgage sold (or resold), the previous mortgage holder was free from any future liability. Banks knowingly and willingly repackaged these mortgages and created instruments that spread the risk around the world in pieces that bore credit agency high ratings. Financial firms then expanded the use of an unregulated form of insurance. Once they began to see the imminent collapse of the mortgaged backed financial instruments, the use of this unregulated insurance instrument was seized upon even more. Financial firms thus created a global interwoven web of insurance and cross insurance policies. The result was that each institution could show healthy looking balance sheets (based upon the potential payoff from these insurance contracts). No one took into account the consequences of what might happen if the “insurer” could not pay. So, what did we learn?
Not much based upon the size of bonuses and salary packages that followed the financial bail outs. The simplest learning should have been that banks have little or no regard for their social or moral position. Further, they produce nothing yet they collect fees that place financial firms as the largest maker of corporate profits. Sensible regulation should have been a no brainer but such proposals were made to look like an attack on motherhood.
Healthcare reform. Comparisons of the US health care delivery system with those of other civilized, modern, industrial countries consistently show that the quality of US health care is mediocre while costing more than any other country. Further one aspect of US health care is that unless you can afford it, or fit some poverty category, you do not get health care until it is too late or too costly, and on top of that, insurance companies in pursuit of higher profits can deny anyone coverage for their own reasons. With models of many successful plans around the world, what did Washington reformers learn?
Not much based upon the 2009 reform. For sure, President Obama’s reform eliminated the ability of insurance companies to deny coverage and this is morally a great step forward. The reform also promises to slow the increase in premiums but did nothing to attack the current high cost or address the underlying factors of why the outcomes of the US health care system lag behind places like Germany, France, the UK, Canada, and Japan. All elements of the health care industry (AMA, hospitals, drug companies, and insurance companies) attacked the suggestion of any reform that might affect them. Not a one said lets step back and fix this socially and financially broken system).
The first decade of the 21st century has put in sharp focus the evolution of American values and misuse of capitalism. America was founded upon individual hard work and progressive ideals. Our country has flourished based upon hard work, innovation, and updating our progressive values. America has always been at it best when the gulf between the rich and the poor, while real, were not excessive. America has always flourished when education was put to work inventing and making things. America has always flourished when the concept of “one man, one vote” was expanded to include all person, male or female, rich or poor, gay or straight, religious or not.
I hope that the second decade will demonstrate that these historic traditions have not been lost and America can flourish again.