Our Stupid Decade

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Ten years of missed opportunities, from health care to education to national security to entitlements to fiscal stability

In 2010, the U.S. electorate responded to the overreach of the Obama administration — on health care, but not only on health care — by giving Republicans control of both houses of Congress. The Obama administration had big ideas. So did congressional Republicans. Both sides failed, and not only because of the other.

Republicans vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and Democrats vowed to implement it in full.

Neither of those things happened.

Republicans, hamstrung by the fact that their voters have a healthy appetite for free stuff, just like the Democrats’ voters, struggled to come up with a viable alternative satisfying more or less impossibly contradictory criteria: Keeping the popular, expensive benefits of the ACA, especially the mandate that insurers perform the logically impossible task of “insuring against” things that already have happened, while getting rid of the unpopular bits that support the popular ones, especially the individual mandate, without which the preexisting-conditions mandate is more or less guaranteed to cause the insurance market to fail. Republicans have repealed bits and pieces of the ACA but have done little to advance a health-care agenda of their own.

Democrats, hamstrung by the fact that their voters have a healthy appetite for free stuff, just like the Republicans’ voters, did as much as Republicans to hobble the ACA, mainly by refusing to implement the measures meant to help pay for it. Led by Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Democrats put off implementing the tax on medical-device manufacturers, a disproportionate number of which are based in Boston. The so-called Cadillac tax on generous health-care plans, hated by Democratic union bosses, never has been implemented, either; it is formally only delayed, but its repeal is all but certain. Democrats who argued the ACA was the best model for reforming health care immediately moved on to push for a British-style monopoly system.

The Democrats spent a few years complaining about being called “socialists” by conservatives and then rallied behind declared socialists such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Barack Obama, who came to power criticizing the excesses of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, made his peace with extraordinary war powers and then added to them, expanding the drone war and deciding, with no obvious constitutional or statutory authority, to begin assassinating American citizens. Democrats who had produced a whole Chinese opera of discord and wailing over the risibly named PATRIOT Act and the nightmare scenario that Dick Cheney might peek at somebody’s library records, immediately made their peace with extrajudicial killings of U.S. citizens, as long as it was a Democrat pulling the trigger. By 2019, that was understood to be entirely unremarkable.

The Iraq War supposedly ended in 2010. In reality, the U.S. government has been unable to achieve its ends in Iraq or Afghanistan in spite of the extraordinary powers with which it has been invested since 9/11, and Americans have died in Iraq every single year since the supposed end of combat operations there in 2010, almost 50 during the Trump administration alone. President Obama came into office repudiating the Bush doctrine and Bush administration practices but was never able to articulate a plausible alternative. President Trump, who probably could not lay his finger on Iraq on an unlabeled map, has continued the Obama administration’s tradition of incoherence and adhocracy. Political cowardice and the declining political piquancy of Middle Eastern affairs, and of foreign affairs generally, have ensured that two presidents of two parties have left both our enemies and our allies doubting American resolve.

Total federal debt was $12.8 trillion in the first quarter of 2010; today it is almost twice that, at $22.7 trillion. In GDP terms, it has grown from 87 percent to 105 percent. Entitlements remain unreformed, with both the Obama administration and the Trump administration refusing to take one meaningful step on the issue, with reform being held hostage by a combination of cowardice and ideology. France’s socialist president has been a pillar of fiscal rectitude in comparison.

Earlier in the decade in Atlanta, public-school teachers and administrators were sentenced to prison time for cheating on standardized tests in order to paper over the comprehensive failure of the city’s public schools. (Atlanta’s schools are by no means unique in this.) At the end of the decade, celebrities and their enablers were convicted of crimes (and others still were on trial) for bribery and fraud committed in the process of getting their children into elite (and sometimes only decent) colleges. College tuitions were said to be “skyrocketing” in 2010; in the final days of 2019, they were still soaring. Which is to say, education remained unreformed at both ends, from kindergarten through college.

From health care to education to national security to entitlements to fiscal stability, the past decade has been one of missed opportunities. We have had a great number of tedious, self-aggrandizing speeches and, for the past few years, a flaming presidential Twitter account. We have had memes and cancelations, rage mobs, neo-nationalism, resurgent socialism, and generally ineffective government. On the cultural front, we have had stagnation: The top-grossing film of 2010 was Toy Story 3, while in 2019 it will be Avengers 22. The three best-selling books of 2018 were the Michelle Obama memoir Becoming, Girl Wash Your Face, and The Wonky Donkey, which is not an account of the sorry state of the Democratic party.

It was a wonky decade, indeed. And kind of a dumb one.

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