Just as our attention spans diminish, our ability as a nation to look back in time and understand cause and effect diminishes in this age of instant information. Often, it seems we are able to look back only as far as the last election to try to understand the problems we face today.
Solving the big problems that confront the nation requires a more long-range look-back. Our problems must be understood as being tied to a chain of many links; decisions, choices and policies forged decades ago have left us where we are today.
Thomas Friedman, author and New York Times columnist, has co-written a book that attempts to explain our current economic and political quagmires by looking back. His approach makes sense. In a Sept. 4 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Mr. Friedman laid out a timeline that began in 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
“This problem didn’t start in 2008 with the sub-prime crisis,” he said. “This problem, in our view, started at the end of the Cold War.” Specifically, Mr. Friedman argued, “We misread our environment. We interpreted the end of the Cold War as a victory.”
Though some conservatives like to credit President Ronald Reagan with winning the Cold War, if that is so, it came at great cost. U.S. military spending increased throughout the 1980s which drove the Soviet Union to try to match it; the Soviet economy collapsed in part because it over-extended its resources. The U.S. economy didn’t collapse, but the hangover from drinking the Soviets under the table came in big deficits and debt and the recession of 1991.
Despite misunderstanding the end of the Cold War, Mr. Friedman notes that “the ’90s turned out to be quite a party, thanks to the peace dividend” — the slowing of military spending — and “thanks to the massive productivity boost from the Internet.” Another assist came in low oil prices — remember in the late 1990s, when a half liter of bottled water cost more than a gallon of gas?
But rather than rethinking its place in the world, the U.S. partied on.
The 9/11 attacks ended the party and re-ordered U.S. priorities. But they were the wrong priorities. Military spending got back into high gear. Mr. Friedman characterized the decade’s focus as “chasing the losers from globalization” — meaning Osama bin Laden and the millions who sympathized with his message that the West had disenfranchised them from prosperity.
Meanwhile, strong, expanding economies began emerging in nations like China, India, Chile and Brazil.
Instead of reassessing national and individual spending priorities, Americans refinanced and upgraded their homes and the federal government sent out checks to people and enacted tax breaks.
“We injected ourselves with credit steroids,” is how Mr. Friedman put it.
So the generations that endured the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War, he said, have been supplanted by a people who borrow and spend.
Mr. Friedman’s book, co-written with Michael Mandelbaum, is called “That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.” The key challenges, the book argues, are finding our place in a global economy, adjusting to an age of hyper-connectivity and fast-emerging information technologies, energy consumption and the nation’s chronic deficits.
That short list should inform the upcoming election campaign season.