Of the many tall tales spun by President Barack Obama during the State of the Union address this week, there is one—and perhaps only one—that most Americans believe to be true.
The old yarn goes something like this: A long time ago, the United States was an economic powerhouse. We built things with our hands and worked in factories, and we loved it.
Our recent prosperity, on the other hand, was built on a house of cards—intellectual innovation, risk, freewheeling markets, and international trade—and was nothing more than an illusion.
"We can't afford another so-called economic 'expansion' like the one from the last decade—what some call the 'lost decade,'" Obama explained. The president went on to promise he will do all he can to stop any pesky so-called "expansions" in the future. And I believe him.
A recent poll shows that Obama is not alone in his aversion to the 2000s. According to a Pew Research Center poll, more than 50 percent of Americans hold a negative view of the decade. Yet the 2000s, like previous decades, were, by nearly any measure—be it health, standard of living, the environment, or technology—a success.
The average unemployment rate during this "lost decade"—which included one of those unfortunate man-made disasters, to the country's financial center—was 5.6 percent. One would think that the president—a man who believes a "jobs" bill that only saw unemployment go from nearly 8 percent to more than 10 percent was a wild success—would be sort of impressed.
No. Obama tells us a real economic expansion will be based on legitimate, tangible economic drivers, such as high-speed rail systems no one wants and government-subsidized "clean energy" nobody uses. (Trains and windmills? Could the ox-yoke-and-millstone sector be far behind?)
Which suckers are going to buy our solar panels? Free suckers, that's who. According to Freedom House—a group that measures political rights and civil liberties around the world—during the "lost decade," the percentage of the world's population living in freedom climbed from 35 percent to nearly 46 percent. Leading the way was China.
So whom did the president single out for populist scorn during his State of the Union speech? Not Iran. Not Saudi Arabia. Not Venezuela. That, I suspect, would be counterproductive and inflammatory. We're not haters. No, it was China, our second-leading trade partner.
Now, I'm not suggesting that the president prostrate himself in front of any Red Chinese tyrants—though chances are he will—only that he understand it's free trade that brings peace to nations.
China is headed in the right direction, but our lot in life hasn't been dreadful, either. Our "so-called" prosperity helped survival rates for cancer patients rise and deaths caused by HIV and AIDS decrease. Life expectancy in the United States—even while we welcomed immigrants from the poorest of nations—increased from 77 to 78.5 last decade, matching the percentage growth of the '90s.
Meanwhile, teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. have declined dramatically, and higher education enrollment has exploded, with 40 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 24 enrolled in college. Our "so-called" prosperity saw the gross domestic product rise from $9.7 trillion to $14 trillion last decade.
Still, the Pew poll shows that 50 percent of Americans believe the 2000s were a real downer, whereas only 16 percent of them think the same of the '70s. The '70s! I suppose that because there is a good chance most of us will be reliving that wondrous decade in the coming years, those poll numbers might change.
None of this is to say we don't have many genuine problems to deal with. Yet with all our tribulations, during the past 60 or so years (including the past 10) we have seen, in a historical context, unrivaled prosperity. Moreover, it's prosperity that's real.
As always, the state of the union will be just fine—if only our so-called leaders in Washington would let it be.
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