Time Magazine has defined the 2000s as the Decade from Hell. One can hardly argue, but this writer has a unique reason to concur. The specifics of why my personal story mirrors so much of what occurred and why I now choose optimism for the forthcoming years will come in parts II and III. But for now, I begin with the first steps taken to restore the constitution, the reputation, and the economy of the United States.
Part I: A new Beginning
The most egregious gripe of the year is that the Obama presidency is a failure, and I myself started the year off with my own set of disappointments. Accustomed as I and most of us had become to unmitigated cynicism with our government and politicians, I was getting ahead of myself, and although I may have had some salient points (Rev. Rick Warren at the inaugural?), I could not yet anticipate the deft political moves just starting to play out. So to those who are still living in the utopian ideal of overnight 180 change, as if there weren't an antediluvian Senate and oligarchic financial sector to contend with, I say, simply, "Oh, dear God! Get real!"
In an April 2008 column, I discussed the Dirty Diaper Theory, in which a Republican president (particularly the two Bushes, but Hoover also comes to mind) leaves the most fetid pile of mess for the next president to clean up. The Nixon/Ford double whammy was beyond Jimmy Carter's outside-the-beltway attempt to clean up, so things got even worse with the next round. Reagan and Poppy Bush left Clinton a housing crash, the S&L collapse, a stagnant economy in which advertising was dying and dozens of magazines ceased publishing, not to mention a few hundred thousand veterans from the Gulf War with inadequate VA funding and two health crises that were not yet acknowledged (AIDS and Gulf War Syndrome). For all his many faults, what pissed off the Republicans more than anything was that Clinton actually managed to clean up those messes; what pissed off progressives was how he did it (which, in hindsight, exacerbated many of the problems).
If Poppy Bush left a dirty Pamper, GW Bush left a mess redolent of the bathroom floor of a frat house after a tequila and pizza bash with a clogged toilet, to boot. This was beyond diarrhea in a diaper this is a nation-sized bathroom covered in human sick and initially little more than a toothbrush with which to clean it up. Why the toothbrush analogy? Well, this is where my frustration begins, with both progressives and conservatives: The fiscal year of the Federal budget ends on October 31. Therefore, aside from emergency stimuli, the entire government was still operating on George Bush's budget until 7 weeks ago. The tools (mostly staffing) were simply not there until now to really get things going.
The SEC the singular agency which might have helped avert much of the financial collapse (remember, they passed on inspecting Madoff three times) had a hiring freeze in place for three years (2003-2005, inclusive), during which time, through attrition alone, the Commission became so understaffed that it was malfeasance by neglect in the financial sector and don't think for a second that Wall Street didn't craft it. In hindsight, we found that banks, brokerages, insurance companies, and public corporations of all sizes were getting away with murder. But on the inside, from the perspective of the civil servants, even more insidious things were going on.
One SEC attorney has described to me how cases would cross his desk one, for example, in which a whistleblower had provided courtroom-ready evidence and he was never allowed to pursue it. Why? Because field offices of the SEC must send any cases they want to prosecute to Washington for approval. During Bill Donaldson's tenure, as well as the first two years of Chris Cox (under Attorneys General Ashcroft and Gonzales) as SEC Chair, few of the files came back. After all, Donaldson also pushed through the new rule collaboratively written with, principally, Goldman Sachs' legal and lobbying staff, which effectively extracted the SEC's own teeth, and made regulation voluntary in any bank holding company undoing oversight that had been in place since 1934. Meanwhile, the CFTC (Commodities Futures Trading Commission) had been explicitly forbidden from even looking at the very core issue of "commodities" like credit derivative swaps and bundled securities traded as bonds.
So, I recommend a look at the list of 90 accomplishments of the Obama Administration (in the first 10 months). Sometimes, when we get caught up in what has not yet happened; that is to say, with 30 years, thousands of policies and entrenched Washington behavior to clean up, the swift, if incremental, changes thus far have (naturally) been under-reported and megatons of media oxygen have been instead polluting the air like so much methane from cow farts (another enormous problem for another day). No wonder the patriotism that accompanied the President's inauguration has been displaced by apathy and disgust: the bloody meat-grinder of the congressional sausage making process (now availably in crystal clear Lucite: six months of health care misinformation) has filled the airwaves and front pages, while many significant, some monumental achievements have gone undiscussed.
In Part II, I will be revealing two changes that occurred this year that had a direct effect on me.