01/03/2011 03:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A New Decade's Trajectory

The milestone of a new year always gets me thinking about both the past and future, and a new decade being upon us makes me do so even more, so I have been thinking a lot about where we were as a country 10 years ago. In January of 2000, things were looking pretty good in comparison to what we are seeing today, and it is pretty stunning how much the landscape has changed. Back then, we had turned a steep deficit earlier in the decade into a large surplus that appeared to be going as far as the eye could see; our country's economy had emerged out of a tough recession in the George H.W. Bush years into an economy that was producing net new jobs at an average pace of about 3,000,000 a year over the previous several years; poverty rates had been heading down; wage rates for middle-class workers had been heading up at the best rate since the 1960s. In terms of foreign affairs, we were at peace, and the respect we had from other countries was at a high watermark.

Overall, the 90s had been a relatively good decade in American history. There were, however, some seeds that had been planted that would lead to terribly destructive consequences several years down the road. Currency and trade policies were leading to the steady decline in American manufacturing. The telecommunications bill passed in 1996 would lead to a concentration of ownership in media that would be harmful to our democracy. And by far the worst, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, combined with other financial deregulatory measures before and since, would create more damage to our economy than anything other than the Great Depression itself. When George W. Bush came into office, these forces of destruction accelerated, and the result is right in front of us.

Only 10 years later, it is stunning to see how dramatically different the facts on the ground are today in comparison. It is amazing how much damage can be done to a country as big as this one by a few legislative changes and one stunningly bad president stumbling around for eight years. Big federal budget surpluses turned into massively big deficits. Instead of 22 million net new jobs in the eight years before, a net negative new jobs in Bush's eight years, with bone-crunching additional job losses caused by the financial crisis in the first six months of Obama's term. Poverty and hunger went way up. Middle-class wages and incomes were stagnant. In stark contrast to the 1990s, this last decade has been a wasteland for most of America's workers, with only the biggest players in the financial industry, defense and homeland security contractors, and the highest income earners having been the beneficiaries of the last decade's economic trends.

So much damage has been done to this economy, it is hard to imagine us climbing out of this hole for quite a while, but the question in front of us today is this: Can we plant the seeds for a stronger future in the midst of this bad economy in the same fashion that some of the seeds of our economic destruction today were planted in those good years of the 1990s? That should be the defining mission of Democrats and progressives in these challenging days. We should be doing everything possible to help get the economy back on track in the short run, but should keep a strong focus on what will plant those seeds for the future. The bad news, of course, is that the new Republican House has no interest whatsoever in planting those seeds. The good news is that, while it has been easy to miss because Democrats have been so bad about telling people what they have accomplished, there have actually been some strong things done in the last two years that will pay dividends far into the future, including:

1. The investments made in infrastructure through the stimulus and other appropriations, including both traditional kinds like roads and bridges and schools, and more high-tech infrastructure like moving toward universal broadband, will pay off for the next 50 years. There should have been more spent on this, far more since this country's infrastructure deficit is huge, but every dollar invested in this is a good thing.

2. Investments in energy conservation through the stimulus and the work that various government agencies are doing will be paying off in many different ways for decades to come, and investment in other kinds of renewable energy will be hugely beneficial as well. Again, there needs to be much more, but what has been done so far is a good start.

3. Making sure women have equal rights when it comes to ensuring they get equal pay through the Lilly Ledbetter Act will help a lot of women get better wages.

4. While health-care reform will not contain costs as much as it should have because of lacking a public option and the ability to negotiate with drug companies, there are a variety of things done both in health-care reform and in addition to it that will help our economy in the long run. More children will get health-care coverage, allowing more of them to lead normal productive lives as adults; more preventative care for all our citizens will decrease long-term costs and lead to healthier workforces for American companies; more poor people will get care when they need it through Medicaid, keeping many of them from developing long-term chronic conditions; tobacco will finally be regulated, meaning less people will get addicted to cigarettes; stem-cell research will very likely lead to major breakthroughs that will save money and improve Americans' health overall; insurance companies will have to spend at least 80 percent of their revenues on actual health-care claims, forcing them to keep both their administrative expenses and their out-of-control profit margins down. Most importantly of all, with more health-care security available to all our citizens, people won't be locked into jobs they hate for the sake of the health coverage, potentially fostering major amounts of new small businesses and innovation in the American economy.

5. As with the investments made through the stimulus and the changes made through health reform, the financial reform bill passed in 2010 and the credit-card-reform bill passed in 2009 didn't go nearly far enough, but the positive steps they did take are important. An independent Consumer Financial Products Bureau, along with the credit-card-reform measures, have the potential to seriously restructure middle class debt issues in a very positive way. New rules and disclosure on trading are going to be very helpful. Regulating swipe fees on debit cards will be a quick injection of an extra $15 billion a year into the Main Street economy. Auditing the Fed will give us new tools to understand how the banks and the Fed are cutting deals to help Wall Street bankers at the expense of everyone else. As with everything else, when new legislation passes, how good the regulators are will go a long way in determining how much these new measures actually help middle class and poor families, but the fact that we have finally started the process of tightening regulations on the financial industry after decades of bipartisan deregulation is important.

The seeds that have been planted in the last two years are not enough to rebuild the forest fire worth of destruction wreaked in recent years. Progressive activists will have to keep working to both keep these seeds from being eaten by Republican and corporate lobbyist animals (to keep torturing the metaphor), and to plant more desperately needed seeds. And the next two years, we will need Obama to use the powers of the executive branch to make more progress even though Republicans in Congress will stop most good legislative initiatives. Most important to our country's hopes for the future, we will need to do what every other major economic power on earth already does, which is to have a well-constructed strategy for helping the promising new job-producing industries of the future grow and flourish. We need more money for infrastructure, we need more money for green jobs, we need more programs like the swipe fee regulations that take money out of finance and put it into the Main Street economy -- but most of all we need an effective strategy. If we can plant those seeds for the future today, our trajectory over the next 10 years is going to look a lot better than it does after the greed and destruction of the last 10.