The Era of Missed Opportunities

Traffic ConeTwo days ago, I was walking home from the train station when I heard a loud noise explode from behind me. The dreadful cacophony sounded like a goose was being strangled in 3-D surround sound. I turned, and saw that a group of teenagers had appropriated a traffic cone: one of them was using it as a megaphone. The lad was rather skinny, diminutive, but with the bright orange cone, at least he was able to say “hello” in the most disruptive, annoying manner possible.

I had hoped that they would stop after a few paces; after all, it was unlikely that the cone was something the group carried with them wherever they went. But for about half of my journey home, they were right behind me, continuing to use the megaphone en route. Both I and about half of my town got to hear the speaker’s honest opinion of several of the girls in the group: I’m fairly certain that the audience was as un-edified by the experience as I was. Fortunately, a divide in the road meant I went down one track, and they went down another, their voices continuing to rage against the dying of the early autumn sunlight.

Alone at last, I began to think about George W. Bush. I realise this thought is not linear given what I’d just experienced, but the idea of a stolen megaphone giving a loud voice to a diminutive individual is something of a metaphor for his reign. If he had not been President, and the power of his thoughts had not had any amplification, how much better off would we have been?

I must admit that my thoughts were given some additional potency given his recent statement about the $700 billion bailout of American financial institutions. In some respects, it was amusing: after being told for years about the evils of socialism, here we were, being told it was necessary to support the largest, rottenest and most bloated features of the capitalist landscape. In other respects, it was maddening: I don’t accept that this money has to be spent in the way they describe. Rather than use it to bail out the banks, why not use it to help those who are disadvantaged by the banks failing? A simple question, but I see few asking it.

The bailout, as Bush wants, is likely to happen, and the office of the Presidency combined with George W. Bush’s will are enough to create sufficient public and political paranoia to make it so. We’ve seen this same dynamic at work in determining whether or not to invade Iraq. Without the megaphone, this intellectually incurious man would have been one voice drowned out, perhaps solitary in his opinion.

I try not to think about what we’ve lost in the past eight years. While the world of 2000 was by no means a perfect place, it was in much better shape than it is now. Yes, challenges remained in former Yugoslavia, and Palestine was still a source of conflict and strife, but at least there were a lot more Iraqis who were among the living. At least America was not broke. At least the world was not painted in quite as dark hues, coming from a palette of blood, environmental degredation and violence.

I have no doubt that the World Trade Centre would have been attacked, regardless of who was President. I believe Osama bin Laden was and is trying to provoke a war between the Muslim and Western world as part of his personal political programme; I reject the idea that he is particularly Islamic in any proper sense of the word. However, the correct response was not to instantly take up arms, though rounding up bin Laden and his gang for trial in the Hague is absolutely the right move. What 9/11 did was open doors that had previously been closed; the French summarised the mood quite well. Le Monde, a paper not traditionally favourably disposed to America, said “today, we are all Americans”. Regimes that had hitherto been hostile, even Iran, were dismayed by the act. That should have been a cue for a larger summit on how to resolve the conflicts in the Middle East, with the United States as an honest broker. However, because the wrong man had the megaphone, an opportunity for peace turned into war. A chance to elevate the discussion was cast aside, and the world was plunged into bitterness, rancor, torture and death.

Economically, there was an opportunity as well. After fits and starts in the Nineties, the American budget was moving in the right direction: debt was being paid off. Some of the benefits of growth were reaching those at the bottom of the ladder. All that needed to be done was to keep going, and to add an element of environmental responsibility. This too was thrown away, burned up in the midst of a series of irresponsible tax cuts. Furthermore, nothing was done to restrain the unrelenting greed of bankers on Wall Street: their focus on delivering ever bigger short term returns cannot be dismissed as a contributing factor in creating the false boom and all too real bust. The cleanup of the credit crunch, the unpaid-for tax cuts, and the mounting costs of the war means that the total debt of the United States government is now approaching $10 trillion. To give an idea of how much a trillion is: a trillion seconds ago, reading and writing had yet to be invented.

There were opportunities to improve the environment. In the fight against climate change, time is the most precious commodity; wasting it is more than a pity, it’s a crime. Yet, the Bush era should have as its hood ornament a giant, polished SUV. Perhaps the most appropriate kind is one I saw in New York: it was a long, white stretch limousine that was made out of a Hummer. I was glad there was no opportunity to pull the driver over and ask him how much fuel it consumed; the answer would likely have been as obnoxious as teenagers armed with traffic cones. Yet, I am sure I was in a minority by being outraged by its existence.

I don’t envy Barack Obama, assuming that he wins. It’s a tradition for Presidents to leave behind on the Oval Office desk a letter for their successor, usually providing some advice or just well wishes. I suggested to my work colleagues the other day, half in jest, that should Barack win, there would be a note written in crayon waiting for him saying “ha ha ha”. Obama has to somehow rewind all the damage; fortunately, there is enough goodwill still left for America that he will have plenty of nations cheering him on, and helping where they can. But thanks to the Era of Missed Opportunities, he will no doubt have moments where he will wonder what he could have done if he had the legacy of 2000 to work with, rather than the legacy of 2008. Hopefully these periods of reflection will be momentary: the full extent of regret should be left to historians. I just hope the man meets the measure of the mess.

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