03/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

America's Lost Decade

History is overdetermined, as the last decade proves so well. Do you remember that beautiful stretch of zeros, those sweet nothings, like so many unhatched goose eggs, like the odometer of a gleaming new car just driven off the lot? Oh, purest virgin decade of an untouched millennium, how did we lose you? Let me count the ways.

So much was lost. Money, power, time, most of all time, especially all the innocent lifetimes cut far too short. So little time to pay the piper for the looming deficits in our accounts payable of all sorts. Our personal and collective financial deficits are the superficial papering over of apparently unpayable deficits we face with the planet itself. All of these are the natural product of the deficit of ethics and courage we each face within.

It's fitting that, in the Lost Decade, a search engine emerged as the virtual commons of the global village.

It fits that, the emblematic TV series of the decade was "Lost," which concludes its final and 121st show this May. "Lost" raised "Survivor" into the realm of the mythic and so elevated the "Survivor" reality show we all inhabit to the mythic as well. "American Idol" was the other great distraction of the decade. And worshiping idols, of one sort or another, is precisely where we all got lost.

But there is one great loss that just might compensate for all our other losses. We lost the American Empire. And for that we can thank George W. Bush. This lost soul who found Jesus led U.S. to Afghanistan, the legendary graveyard of empires, and on to Mesopotamia, the cradle of empires. Like Jormungand, the fire breathing, carbon spewing serpent of Norse mythology, the grand dragon of empire finally embraced the whole world and grasped its own tail, just a running dog after all, furiously chasing its manifest destiny.


Now we have nothing. Our kids are understandably a bit pissed. Never in history has a single generation squandered so much wealth in so little time. Let's get this in perspective. By the end of World War II, the lion's share of the accumulated capital of all the empires of 5,000 years of human history, an enormous dragon's horde of plundered wealth was here, right here in the good old U.S.A. Plus we had all the intact means for producing more wealth, 20th century style. And in a mere 40 years, we've handed the better part of that golden horde right back to the Chinese as if we were paying an emperor's ransom. Well, maybe we were.

Call it reverse colonialism. That's the big story of the decade, the one we'll be grappling with for the rest of the century. Over four hundred years, the elites of the non-European world sold out their long term interests to the West to gain short term local advantage. Coastal Native American tribes like the Wampanoags made alliances with the Europeans to gain advantage over more powerful tribes in the interior like the Mohicans. The Hindu maharajas of India made alliances with the Europeans to fend off the Muslim moguls. The kingdoms of West Africa's slave coast were built by selling Africans from the interior to make sugar and cotton in the New World for Europe, to distill the purest white sweetness and softness from the purest black bitterness and hardship.

Now the worm turns. Our elites have made untold fortunes selling out the interests of the West to free themselves from the political and economic power of organized labor by outsourcing our manufacturing base to the Chinese! And in good conscience, sleeping soundly with the satisfaction that they were liberating untold billions of people from the direst poverty. The decade closed with a climactic economic crisis as Western capitalism was saved by the central bank of Communist China. Amazing grace!

Funny the way manifest destiny turned out. The West pursued a narcissistic narrative of world redemption, a redemption that would somehow outweigh all the sins committed in that pursuit. Every land conquered, every slave sold, was done explicitly to save those savage souls for Jesus. And what profit, to gain the world but lose our souls?

Unbeknownst to us, the Chinese were pursuing a kung fu revenge saga. A vast dragon's horde of precious metals had trickled away to China over the ages until the Opium Wars of the mid 19th century. There was nothing the West produced that the Chinese wanted, so all Chinese luxury goods had to be bought with hard money -- gold and silver. As a consequence international trade was ultimately deflationary for the West. Then the French and British forced the Chinese to permit us (the U.S. was a major player in the trade) to sell them opium. This sent a gold mountain of hard currency flowing back to the West, expanded the money supply, built the sweatshops of Lowell, Lawrence and Manchester and fueled the long boom that paid for the rise of 19th century Western imperialism. As the young Gladstone said at the time, "if there was ever a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know."

So today the forces of the West are embedded in Afghanistan, that bone littered graveyard of empires, fighting for a government and against an enemy that are both growing rich off the opium purchased by the citizens of the West. Now that's called karma. It's just as loopy as the darkest, vengeful dream of an opium addled nobleman watching the vast wealth of China ebbing out in the late 1800s, but there it is.

Sure, we're still the world's sole superpower, but an utterly impotent one unless backed by the super wealth of our new imperial paymasters. It was no coincidence that Obama went to China right before finally announcing our troop surge in Afghanistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan form China's unstable western frontier. The Taliban had been training militant Uighars, China's restive Muslim minority in neighboring Xingjaing province, before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Besides the threat of instability, there's the opportunity of untapped natural resources, vast deposits of iron, copper and gas, to be exploited. China has acquired the rights to develop a huge new copper mine in Afghanistan and it's oil industry has signed more contracts with the Iraqi government than U.S. firms to date. China is well on its way to winning the peace even as our war on terror expands into Yemen.

We paid an emperor's ransom, and for what? Ask first, what did we lose? We lost an empire. Good riddance. And what did we get? At the end of the decade a new goose egg appeared, this one filled with a promising arch of red and white striped wheat fields beneath blue skies inside the big O of Obama's promise. And in 2008 we were all drawn, willingly or not, through that big O into a brave new world, a new world filled with ... nothing. Nothing but all the mangled detritus of the world we'd just left behind, nothing but the broken pieces of a long lost republic that always worked better on paper than in person. And a search engine. Welcome to the found decade, the decade when we find out what we're made of, where, if God ever did bless America, we find that one thing that makes life worth living.

We lost the world. Now, if this is truly the home of the brave, if we aren't too afraid to look hard and deep, we find our souls. Buck up, my fellow Americans. Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. Happy new year.