Saturday, January 29, 2011

Partying Like It’s the Clinton Years!

I guess I’m getting old. I’m just not as quick to anger about politics these days. It used to be that whenever I would read a newspaper’s opinion piece that I disagreed with, I would dash to the keyboard and peck out my angry response as a letter to the editor or as an Internet forum post. These days, I’m more apt to just roll my eyes and say, “There they go again.” (And the fact that I’m saying something so Reaganesque shows just how benthic my standards of expression have sunk.)

However, now and again, I’ll read something that I’ll just toss away at the time — but then, it will stay with me. And stay. And stay. And stay. And finally, I’ll decide to write something about it. But by then, a good chunk of time will have elapsed, enough to dull anyone’s interest in my response to what I read. But I guess that’s why God created the Internet. Now, I can blather on, to my heart’s content, about yesterday’s news blissfully ignorant of the fact that no one is interested in what I have to say. Isn’t technology wonderful?

’Round about New Year’s Eve, I was reading the San Fernando Valley’s Daily News, and my eye lit upon an op-ed titled “For New Year’s — Partying Like It’s 1999” by Tom Purcell. I found the premise of piece agreeable: how much better off the United States was at the end of the last decade of the twentieth century than it is at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first. The article begins with a checklist of things that made the twelvemonth of the Prince song so yearn-worthy:

• The unemployment rate was 4.2 percent in 1999.

• Dot-com stocks were still creating lots of paper millionaires.

• The U.S. deficit for that year was $1 billion — that’s right, “billion” with a “b,” a far cry from the $1 trillion to $2 trillion it is nowadays.  [Actually, according to U.S. News and World Report, the U.S. budget had no deficit but instead ran a surplus of $125 billion.  So, things were even better than Purcell says.]

• Things were going so well, we had to make up crises, such as Y2K, the Millennium Bug!

In casting doubt on the validity of the Y2K crisis, Purcell goes on to say: “Y2K, wrote The Wall Street Journal, was, essentially, a giant hoax.” But as far as I can tell, it wasn’t the reporters of the WSJ who pronounced Y2K a hoax; it was the Journal’s conservative opinion columnist James Taranto. That tidbit told me that Purcell was writing from a perspective that I probably wouldn’t agree with. The gist of Purcell’s piece was that things were going so well during the ’90s — and he itemizes a few of those things — that he would rather celebrate the bygone year of a decade ago than celebrate the upcoming one.

To my eye — and if you know me at all, you would probably guess that I would say this — Purcell never mentions the most significant factor between those idyllic times of the fin de siècle ’90s and today’s more worrisome atmosphere: the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush. In fact, Purcell never mentions Bush once in his entire article.

Purcell is a humor columnist (as well as a scribe for The Colbert Report), so his piece was obviously never intended as penetrating look into how we went from the prosperous ’90s to the floundering present. But to me, Purcell’s piece was a paean to the prosperity and good times of the Bill Clinton years — without giving Clinton any of the credit. In fact, Purcell only mentions Clinton once: in the context of him being an accomplice to the Y2K “hoax.”

If Purcell had decided to look more deeply into the causes of what made the ’90s so good, maybe he would have attributed a heaping helping of those good years to Clinton’s policies (yes, some of which were shaped in grudging concert with a Republican Congress), such as his tax rate on the wealthiest 2% of Americans. And if the humorist wanted to look more deeply into why things went so bad in the ’00s, maybe he would have incriminated Bush’s countermanding of those policies. But I suspect that such a conclusion would conflict with the writer’s right-of-center views.

It seems to me as though Purcell is bending over backwards to ignore Clinton’s decisive role as the shaper of the ’90s prosperity and Bush’s role as the prime mover of the undoing of that prosperity. I get the idea that Purcell believes that the ’90s would have been good years regardless of who was in the White House, and that the following years would have been bad irrespective of who inherited the Oval Office. If that is indeed Purcell’s perspective, I disagree with it. I think that much of America’s flourishing in the ’90s was due to the hard work of the Clinton Administration and its partners. And I think that most of this country’s reversal of fortune was due to the Bush Administration’s reversal of Clinton’s work.

There is, however, something that Purcell and I would agree on: times were so good during the ’90s that they allowed room for the fabrication of faux crises. But if I were to name an exemplar of such a counterfeit calamity, I wouldn’t name the Y2K frenzy, which, for all I know, may have been a legitimate looming threat that was successfully averted. I would point to something else: the decadent luxury that our government took in impeaching a president over his sex life.

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