Defining the Decade

Optimism and pessimism run a fine line in a decade’s retrospection. Did we enjoy ourselves? Did we hurt the world? Have we advanced or digressed? To cover 10 years is in itself a daunting task, but it is necessary. If we are to learn from our mistakes and benefit from our discoveries, we must first observe them.

Politics:
A World Divided, Again

The world has seen two different U.S. presidents enter office, as well as leadership changes in the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. It has seen the global power spectrum hint at shifting from West to East. And it has seen more natural disasters and wars than the world has experienced in the last 30 years.
The world entered the 2000s with an overblown fear of computer crashes and near-apocalypse, but in a matter of minutes the “Y2K” threat was observed non-existent.
George W. Bush took office on January 20, 2001 to the tune of debatable election results in the form of a faulty Florida ballot and an electoral college win despite a popular vote loss to democratic candidate Al Gore.
Bush’s first six months in office took a sudden turn on Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon would have far-reaching ramifications.
“Sept. 11, and more generally the rise of Islamic fundamentalism or jihadism have been the most significant events of this decade,” Washington University political science professor Randall Calvert said. “9/11 led to the Iraq War, which fed the jihadist movement and probably amplified and lengthened the confrontation between the Islamic world and the West.”
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has created a conservative, extremist section of the Islamic world that loudly condemns western democracies.
A polarization between western and Middle Eastern nations ensued.
“The attitude of the Bush administration severely affected our relationships with citizens of other countries,” Saint Louis University sociology professor Gretchen Arnold said. “The U.S. was immensely unpopular throughout the world. This might not seem important, but if those nations are democracies, and the people dictate policy, then it becomes extremely hard for the U.S. to work with other nations on issues of common interest.”
Calvert also believes that the Bush administration’s foreign policy was ineffective.
“Under Bush, the U.S. approach to the world was remarkably and counterproductively unilateral and aggressive,” Calvert said.
The administration’s post-9/11 policy towards the international world politically separated the U.S. from a globalizing planet. Many, however, do not view this separation adversely.
“Honestly, the ‘global image’ of the U.S. is irrelevant to a large extent,” CHS chemistry teacher Brad Krone said. “In my personal life, my actions are determined by my personal integrity, and what I believe to be right and wrong. I can’t really concern myself with whether or not someone else thinks that my actions hurt my public image. The leadership of the U.S. should make decisions based on what is right and wrong for our country, not based on how the international community will perceive our actions. Obviously, I would rather see the U.S. viewed positively by other nations, but I certainly do not believe that such thinking should ever influence our government’s decision-making process.”
Unlike the Vietnam War and World War II, the American people do not feel the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as closely. Lower casualty rates, no threat of drafting, and a careful spin on war information separate the harsh realities of war from its image at home.
“In a similar way that the threat of communism was used during the Cold War, now terrorism is often being used as the same kind of ideological weapon,” Arnold said. “Terrorism becomes the reason to close off borders and generates more hostility toward illegal immigrants. It becomes a kind of rhetorical tool in political discourse.”
Although there were certainly not as many protests during the 2000s as during the 1960s, poor approval ratings for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan impeded the government’s efforts. Many at CHS have strong opinions about the war.
“I honestly think we could stop more terrorists if we sent textbooks, built schools and taught in Afghanistan,” senior Lewis Kopman said. “We’re not going to scare radical Islamic fundamentalists into stopping.”
English teacher Rebecca Taylor also questions the effectiveness of violence during this decade.
“I do not understand why in this late age of the twenty-first century we are still fighting wars,” Taylor said. “I think that’s the central question of the human condition.”
Unpopular international policy funneled directly into unpopular administration ratings. The Bush administration steadily received low approval ratings, with a bottom point of 25 percent approval, second only to Truman’s short stay at 22 percent in 1952.
“One thing that really irritated me about all of the Bush Bashers over the past eight years is that they would never give him credit for the safety experienced in this awesome country from September 12, 2001 until he left office,” Krone said. “The simple fact is that there was not another terrorist attack on our country during his two terms. He took serious action to solve a serious problem, and now it sounds like current administration would like to prosecute him for it — what a joke!”
Bush and his cabinet witnessed disaster after disaster, with the Indian Ocean tsunami striking in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. These calamities have further emphasized global turmoil as a theme of the 2000s.
Europe grew in influence and power during the decade as it integrated through the European Union. The EU now holds significant authority in the political world after combining lesser powers into a conglomerate.
China’s global political stance has changed dramatically, as the government has gradually moved to a capitalistic system with a communist majority in the government.
Central and South America have also become much more prominent in the political world.
“A significant event of the decade is the elections of populist-leftist heads of state in Central and South America,” Calvert said. “The most notable is Hugo Chavez.”
Chavez, the president of Venezuela, provided a contrast to the standard capitalist democracies of the United States in the 2000s.
In the heat of global economic meltdown, the 2008 election brought political fervor out of the American people that had lain dormant before. The political parties introduced charismatic and patriotic candidates in John McCain and Barack Obama.
“I think that the American political system goes through cycles of polarization and moderation,” Kopman said. “We’re at one of those points at which the political parties are becoming more radicalized. It’s become almost impossible to not be religious if you’re a member of the Republican Party and it’s become almost impossible to be a social conservative and be a member of the Democratic Party.”
With a clear moralistic and ideological division drawn, the 2008 election resulted in the election of the first African-American president, Barack Hussein Obama. He won the election under the campaign promises of “hope” and “change”.
Approaching the completion of his first year in office, Obama fanatics are seeing the reality of the “hope”: politics remain largely the same. Almost a year has gone by and a health insurance reform bill now exists—but it is certainly not the dramatic change his constituents were pining for.
Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize gave him recognition for a dramatic shift from the Bush administration’s foreign policy, but only time will show his true impact.
Politics were far from calm during the Bush administration, and the Obama administration has yet to show that government leadership can turn the negativity of the decade around. The relative peace of the 1990s has been turned on its back.

Economics:
Growth and
Consequences

In 2000, the U.S. economy was by far the largest in the world. This size is measured in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or the total value of all goods and services in a given year. A huge shift occurred, however, in the early 2000s.
The introduction of the Euro as the universal currency for the European Union (EU), a process that took two years to complete, set the EU at the same economic stance as the U.S. With relatively similar GDPs, the U.S. was no longer the lone economic giant.
“For the world as a whole, the introduction of the Euro created the early appearance of an alternative to the dollar as an international currency,” Washington University Economics professor Gaetano Antinolfi said. “The Euro is not yet an alternative from a full blown point of view, but a lot of international reserve which are resources countries put away for emergencies is denominated in Euros, and a lot of trade occurs in Euros.”
The integration of the European economies allowed the countries to save on transaction costs when they traded with each other. It also allowed some countries that did not have strong currencies to obtain a strong currency, Antinolfi said.
Outside of Europe, the economies of China, Brazil and India saw a dramatic increase in size during this decade. Combined, their total population is approximately 2.5 billion.
“These have been poor countries for a long time, and they still are by and large,” Antinolfi said. “But for the last maybe 15 or 20 years they have been growing and developing rapidly, and in particular over the last few years they have achieved a size in terms of domestic wealth that makes them important.”
The new significance of these economies will have ramifications throughout the world.
“The world has become a little bit more equal,” Antinolfi said. “There is, therefore, some hope that it can also become more stable from an economic point of view. For example, if you think of the worldwide effect of the current recession in the U.S., the chance that this recession would spread abroad was smaller than it would have been in the past because these other economies had a lot more independence.”
In addition, if another recession occurs in the future, demand coming from economically independent nations abroad may in fact help the U.S. recover, Antinolfi said.
The idea that the new interconnectedness of the global economy means failure in one place will cause turmoil worldwide is thus becoming less and less true.
Globalization is, in fact, a very complex concept that economists themselves are continuing to research. Antinolfi explains that economic globalization encompasses three types of flows among nations: the flow of goods and services, humans, and financial resources. Over the decade, each flow increased dramatically.
“Free flow of resources, if properly handled, should lead to better outcomes for everybody,” Antinolfi said. “But of course this is not a process that is totally smooth. It can create problems.”
One theory is that all cheaper, lower wage services will move abroad. This has already happened to a certain degree, with phone bank services and clothing manufacturers working out of poorer countries, but this has happened at a much lower level than people feared.
“It’s not a gain for everybody, at least for some time,” Antinolfi said. “There are aspects of globalization that are difficult to manage politically and economically.”
At home, the U.S. economy has seen a tumultuous decade. The immediate impacts of 9/11 were largely social and political, but the ensuing economic effects are just as significant.
“If you accumulate just the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and then imagine the cost of handling security, these are immense consequences,” Antinolfi said. “So somebody will have to pay for them, and for the moment by and large the government has borrowed to pay.”
The U.S. is thus indebted to foreign nations, and Americans may soon see an increase in taxes to pay these expenses along with those of the recent bailout and stimulus packages.
More economically impactful than 9/11, the late 2000s recession has been accurately described as the bursting of a bubble.
“What has characterized the U.S. economy in the last ten years are these two big increases in asset prices,” Antinolfi said. “First the high tech bubble, and then the real estate prices. Economists don’t fully understand why these things happen and how they happen, but the consequences as we see them now are potentially very damaging.”
Some economists think that these asset prices increased because the U.S. can borrow in its own currency so easily. All the resources flowing into the U.S. from abroad had to find their way into some good, and so they made their way into house prices.
Others explain that interest rates were exceedingly low, making people feel overly confident in borrowing. By borrowing a lot, they pushed up prices. The process ended abruptly when people realized that the growth was unsustainable.
“It’s easy to see the consequences of these processes, but it’s much harder to understand why they occur,” Antinolfi said.
Yet despite the sudden contraction of the U.S. economy in 2008, the huge increases in asset prices have in fact created an overall trend of growth during the decade. Taken as a whole, the U.S. economy increased in size during the 2000s.

Technology:
Connecting the People

The proliferation of the World Wide Web is the fundamental technological phenomenon of the 2000s. E-mail, Social Networking, and Twitter allow for instantaneous communication. Google, Wikipedia and online news sites put information at our fingertips. But the Internet is more than a tool for procrastination. It is changing the way the world functions and revolutionizing life as we know it.
“The new means of communication makes it incredibly easier to organize people,” Arnold said. “It’s a lot easier for voices to be heard now.”
In Iran, for example, protesters used Twitter to organize protests against the 2009 fraudulent elections. Despite government attempts to filter news coverage of these events, videos of the violence were soon circulating all over YouTube.
Information, then, becomes much more accessible thanks to the web. But technology causes some notable changes in the nature of that information.
Newspapers and magazines are becoming outdated as the Internet displays the news faster and more frequently. But competition also stemmed from television news networks during the 2000s.
Ever-present sources like Fox, CNN, MSNBC, and C-Span have given the America people their opiate: constant news notification. Every event, domestic and international, is discussed on the news before the hour of its occurrence has ended.
“News is about informing the public, but Cable News companies make the news about selling a product,” Kopman said. “They’re not about news; they’re about entertainment. It’s become more commentary than information.”
“It has never been more accurate to call something both a benefit and a threat,” Calvert said. “Ironically, the Internet has vastly increased the accessibility of information and the ability to communicate with others and at the same time posed a huge threat to the sort of news-gathering and dissemination on which democratic self-government has always depended.”
But the Internet can also benefit democracy. As people share their opinions, the world is hearing more viewpoints more rapidly.
The world has entered into a fast-paced conversation that, although dizzying at times, opens up new meanings for the phrase “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. With new venues to critique government policy, citizens can take a more active role in civic life.
People’s private lives are changing just as dramatically. The advent of Social Networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace has revolutionized the way that we interact with others.
“Social Networking Sites have created a new dimension for friendship,” Arnold said. “They have created these different kinds of relationships with people that we never saw before. On one hand, it is not satisfying like traditional friendship, but on the other hand it allows people to connect with people they wouldn’t have otherwise. Still, a person could have thousands and thousands of Facebook ‘friends’ but still feel lonely.”
Kopman, however, is not fearful of isolation.
“The core parts of relationships still exist within those technological venues,” Kopman said. “Relationships will adapt to the way the technology functions.”
Meanwhile, the technology is changing American and global culture in significant ways.
“Twitter and Facebook have exacerbated a celebrity culture that has been present in the U.S. for a while,” Arnold said. “Reality TV shows, which were more prevalent earlier in the decade, have contributed too. Nowadays, you can become a celebrity not for doing anything spectacular, but just for being a celebrity.”
Technology has not only altered the speed of communication, but it has also changed language itself. A new system of abbreviations and acronyms dominates youth culture, casting aside the traditional rules of English grammar.
“Technology has caused an increase in communication but a decrease in the complexity and uniqueness of that communication,” Kopman said.
The Internet has undoubtedly made the world smaller, but this decrease in size comes with the benefits of instant connections and the drawbacks of a world that is constantly on edge.

Culture:
A New Tempo

The culture of the 2000s, as in decades before, has morphed to the whim of the youth. Indie music and films, hip-hop, blogs, vlogs and reality television are now the norm.
Teen music has seen a revival since the boy band era of the late 1990s. Artists such as Taylor Swift, the Jonas Brothers, and Miley Cyrus all cater to a younger audience with more innocent and playful music.
Popular music is fast paced and danceable, big box office movies have achieved near perfect special effects, and thousands of books are now accessible on a wallet sized electronic device, the Kindle. The new culture has geared itself for speedy entertainment and portability.
The youth generation is expanding tolerance to alternative lifestyles. Homosexuality, biracial relationships, and gender role alterations are viewed less negatively than they were in the past.
“With each new generation, relationships between men and women shift. I see youth today challenging the traditional roles,” Arnold said. “They are more accepting of alternative lifestyles, such as the choice not to marry or not to have children.”
Although the nation has not forgotten racial and cultural differences, the American people are on a path toward tolerance. The significance of an African-American president was a universal topic of news coverage after Obama’s election. Some pundits dubbed the U.S. a “post-racial society”.
“The very fact that we elected Obama shows that a majority of Americans are willing to look beyond race,” Arnold said. “On the other hand, he does not at all fit the stereotypical mold of the African-American man. His election is good, but I don’t think it means that there is no longer prejudice against blacks in this country.”
A recent article in the New York Times revealed that the unemployment rate among college-educated black men is twice that of college-educated white men. Many black candidates for jobs feel that they must to hide their racial background in order to get an interview. Race therefore remains an issue in the twenty first century world.
Although women did not make dramatic advances during this decade, they did move forward in the U.S. military.
“A larger number of women have joined the armed forces, we are more accepting of women in combat roles, and many women have risen high in the ranks,” Arnold said. “Some feminists might view the adoption of combat roles as a step back, whereas others would argue that equality for men and women means equal responsibility, no matter what the venue.”
Just as the war in Vietnam was a central rallying point for the youth of the ‘60s, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen low approval ratings at home. Although today’s youth have been criticized for being less active than the youth during the ‘60s, this generation is vocalizing its opinions in different ways.
“The Internet changes things,” Kopman said. “We don’t have to shout in the street when we can put exclamation marks at the ends of our sentences.”
Neither does Arnold find the accusation of apathy to be justified.
“Students are very willing to get involved,” Arnold said. “I think the difference is having issues that they can mobilize for. During the ‘60s, it was the draft. That’s something that directly affected our lives.”
Young people today are questioning authority, but differently. Our culture has and is changing, but the 2000s most significantly saw the increased volume and speed at which this culture changes. Ideas are spreading more quickly than ever before.