The End of the Noughties

December 2009

Over at the FT, some of my favourite end of decade articles are: The decade the world tilted east, How the noughties were a hinge of history, The end of Britain’s long weekend, Ageing populations will pile on the pain, Global tides that shaped the Noughties. These articles have mostly picked up on the theme of economic decline in the West and the ascendancy of China. From these articles we have:

First, we are seeing at least the beginning of the end not just of an illusory “unipolar moment” for the US, but of western supremacy, in general, and of Anglo-American power, in particular.

I am trying to remember now where it was, and when it was, that it hit me. Was it during my first walk along the Bund in Shanghai in 2005? Was it amid the smog and dust of Chonqing, listening to a local Communist party official describe a vast mound of rubble as the future financial centre of south-west China? That was last year, and somehow it impressed me more than all the synchronised razzamatazz of the Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing. Or was it at Carnegie Hall only last month, as I sat mesmerised by the music of Angel Lam, the dazzlingly gifted young Chinese composer who personifies the Orientalisation of classical music? I think maybe it was only then that I really got the point about this decade, just as it was drawing to a close: that we are living through the end of 500 years of western ascendancy.

I love the lines about the Orientalisation of classical music. Beautiful work Niall Ferguson.

Comparing the optimism of December 1999 with December 2009 the various articles have:

Wind the clock back 10 years to the start of the new millennium and things looked very different. The public finances of the Group of Seven leading economies posted a small surplus in 2000 for the first time in years, surpluses that were as large as 3.9 per cent of national income for the UK and 1.9 per cent for the US and Canada.

Larry Summers, then US Treasury secretary, had recently announced the US would start to use tax revenues to purchase US Treasury bonds before they fell due and predicted the country faced “the prospect we will pay off the whole national debt some time in the next 15 years”.

The optimism was catching. It reflected the economic success [the dot com boom] and favourable demographics of the 1990s... Hope for the noughties was overwhelming. And wrong.

Ten years on, the projected annual government deficit among advanced economies for 2010 is 8.3 per cent of national income, a level that guarantees public debt continues to rise.

Far from paying off national debt, International Monetary Fund estimates show accumulated government debt in 2010 of 107 per cent of national income, up from around 70 per cent in 2000.

This unhappy position will require tough decisions from all countries over public spending and taxation once the recovery has started, particularly in the US and UK where the annual deficits exceed 12 per cent of national income. But the problems are deeper than just rectifying the missed opportunities of the noughties and consolidating public finances. Population ageing will raise the demands on pension and healthcare budgets this decade in a way not seen before.

It all sounds terribly depressing, but is that because we are concentrating on the Western perspective and missing the bigger picture of improving conditions in China? One of the articles is very pessimistic:

... the retreat of the glaciers (and polar ice caps) tells us the primary datum of the decade has been physical degradation of the planet. Give me a sceptic and I will take him to Shanghai or São Paulo on a day of ripe smog and see how sceptical he remains while coughing his guts into a mask and peering at brown sunlight as if through a dome of begrimed glass. Lake Baikal is a saline puddle and the Sahara is heading for Timbuktu. If the earth is not yet in its terminal death rattle, it sure ain’t looking good. Population pressure on shrinking and degraded resources in the poorest parts of the world is unrelenting and no mega-city – Lagos, Caracas, Rio, Mumbai – is without its mountain range of trash on which humans can be seen like skeletal goats picking over the black plastic for something to eat. Along with drought and famine, pandemics have returned: in which, like some as yet unwritten scripture, the animal kingdom – avian, porcine, bovine – is a bellwether of human perishability.

All of which seems to put the nail in the coffin of a collective optimism born 200 years ago, when the Enlightenment envisioned a world illuminated by reason, banishing the afflictions of ignorance, poverty, war and disease. That the arch-prophet of this smiley-faced secularism, the Marquis de Condorcet, perished while imprisoned by French revolutionary authorities should have told us something. But his own endearing naivety was replaced by waves of chin-up teleological certainty – capitalist, Marxist, Fordian – all beckoning us to the sunlit uplands of a sweeter future.

Regular readers of my blog know how I feel - I am infected with precisely the same teleological positivism which Simon Schama condemns so effectively in the brilliantly written postmodernist tirade above. I could say that the Noughties is the decade of mass media entertainment, of mindless celebrities, vacuous politicians, titillating tabloids and worthless ideological broadsheets. This mindless cultural decline is plunging us into chaos, the decline is now terminal, the process is thankfully self annihilating. From the ashes of civilization the phoenix will rise.