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End of the oughts: a long decade of delusions draws to a close

Baltimore Sun

OK, as virtually every opinion peddler has remarked this week, the "oughts" sucked. For one thing, the decade we're finishing up began and ended with the bursting of unsustainable financial booms. As we headed into the 21st Century, reality asserted itself, as it is wont to do, by shattering the dreams of those who quit their jobs to day trade stocks. It seemed so easy. An ever-rising tech stock boom promised a road to riches untainted by having to answer to a boss, keep regular hours, endure troublesome commutes or adhere to a dress standard. It was back to the real world when the stock bubble went poof.

Thanks to Alan Greenspan and the Fed, desperate to prevent a recession, a new delusion was brought into play very quickly when 14 interest-rate cuts sparked a predictable upsurge in housing prices, leading the greedy and gullible to believe "flipping" real estate properties was a foolproof way to get rich, again without the bother of doing actual work. The economists, the experts, the wizards of Wall Street shouted out their encouragement, saying, as they always do in investment bubbles, that housing values (in this case) would continue to rise, so one needn't worry about borrowing more than one could repay. As we now know, lenders bundled dodgy loans together and deemed them secure investments. They then sold these bundled mortgages to each other, pocketing huge commissions along the way.

There was no shortage of observers pointing out that this credit explosion would end badly, as such things always do. But as long as easy money is being made, few people listen to naysayers. As the axiom has it, debts must always be repaid, either by the borrower or the lender. Think about that and our incredible growing national debt, which is accelerating as we slide into the next decade.

Our leaders seem blissfully unaware of the building financial storm. They keep growing their programs, raising our taxes and lining their pockets, doing business as usual with more zeroes on the end. Members of Congress collect their pensions even after criminal convictions and prison sentences. The Democrats concoct a revamping of our health care system that becomes more unpopular by the day according to pollsters, and say we the people will come to appreciate their efforts down the road. They'd better hope so, because the mood on Main Street is one of anger, and the 2010 election could be the most tumultuous in recent times. Even the creative gerrymandering designed to protect incumbents may not be enough to stave off a housecleaning. One can only hope.

In 2000, we had the disputed presidential election that ended with George W. Bush winning the White House while Al Gore slunk off to reinvent himself as the prophet of disastrous climate change, a lucrative gig indeed. Mr. Bush promised a "more humble foreign policy." Instead, after Sept. 11, we got the Bush Doctrine, which pledged aggressive (preventive) wars against any nation we viewed as even a putative threat. He invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban government for harboring Osama bin Laden. He invaded Iraq on false pretenses, a war billed as one that would pay for itself. Ha. And now, his successor, elected by voters tired of Bush/Cheney and all their ways, is continuing the Bushian foreign policy. Barack Obama promised Hope and Change, but we got more endless war, which the Pentagon and its contractors thrive on. It takes endless war to justify the massive spending on our military. War, like most everything else, is a racket, in this case good for the racketeers but bad for other living things.

Mr. Obama also promised transparency. There is none. He promised to close Guantanamo Bay's notorious prison. He's doing that, but only by moving the people jailed there to a prison in rural Illinois.

Say so long to the oughts. We won't much miss them. But the decade ahead could be a real doozy as flocks of those proverbial chickens come home to roost.

That said, I hope you all enjoy the holiday and revel in the company of loving family and friends.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL .com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is

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