2010: What Will be Remembered?

This was recorded in 2009, but I did not know about her until this year

What Will Future Historians Say?

When teaching a history class, covering very recent events can be tricky. Many years often have to pass before the important events of a given era come into focus. Some would even argue that very recent events should not be part of a history class at all. People and events that seem significant today may soon be forgotten, and recent developments that we have hardly noticed may someday get the most historical attention. The only guarantee is that some things will happen in the not so distant future that most of us do not see coming. How many people, after all, predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, 9/11 attacks, or financial meltdown of 2008 in the years immediately preceding these huge events? In each case, historians were forced to go back and rewrite the history books in order to trace the causes of these events. As always, current events force us to reinterpret the past, and a history book can often teach you as much about the era in which it was written as the time periods it is trying to describe.  

Having said this, I am going to engage in a little historical speculation about the year 2010. When American History scholars in the year 2050 write about this past year, what will they talk about? I will break my list into two categories. First, I will mention a few major events that occurred during this past year. Second, I will list some events, issues, and problems that have been around for at least a few years and are not going to go away any time soon. In the end, I suspect that those in my second category will get the most future attention. So if my calculations are correct, then the year 2010, rather than being notable in its own right, will mostly be lumped together with several other years in descriptions of long-term trends.

Big Events

1) The BP oil spill: As the biggest oil spill in American history (so far), this is bound to get some future historical attention What is fascinating, however, is how quickly this has fallen off of the radar screen. Instead of mobilizing people to fight for energy alternatives or environmental protection, the oil spill has demonstrated how committed Americans are to our fossil fuel economy. Much of the public anger, in fact, was directed toward President Obama because of the seemingly slow government response or the temporary bans on offshore drilling. British Petroleum did not take as much heat as I initially expected, and most Americans today seem resigned to the necessity of future drilling. If the environmentalists are right and our fossil fuel economy creates some major havoc in the future, this oil spill will be seen as one of many lost opportunities, another time when our society refused to take drastic steps in order to change its ways. Of course, if the climate change people are wrong, it will probably be seen as a historical anomaly, the inevitable, occasional result of an activity vital to our early 21st century way of life.

2) Passage of health care reform: As the first major action on health care since Medicare, this is bound to get some historical attention. At this point, however, it is unclear if the law in its current form will ever be fully implemented. It is also unclear what the long-term effects will be. Will health care costs continue to spiral out of control, with the federal government footing even more of the bill? Will the quality of care and the general health of Americans deteriorate or improve? There is no way to know yet. Whatever the case, I think (and hope) that future Americans will be embarrassed by the state of health care in the early 21st century. Decades from now, the United States will hopefully have something that can truly be called a system.

3) Midterm elections: The president’s party often does poorly in midterms, so in a sense, last month’s elections were not particularly historic. Still, they gave an indication of the state of political affairs in 2010, particularly the impact of the struggling economy on Obama’s political success. Also, as a footnote to these elections, we have heard a lot this year about the influence of the Tea Party movement. Personally, I don’t see anything particularly unique about the Tea Party. They seem to be preaching the same anti-government message that the Republican Party has been successfully using for decades. Whether the Tea Party will be a sustained political force or just a movement that thrives on being out of power remains to be seen. One can only hope that Sarah Palin becomes a historical footnote in the not so distant future. God help us if she is still remembered decades from now.

4) Tax Compromise: I wrote about this more extensively a couple of hubs ago. To some, this deal is essentially another economic stimulus package. This particular $800 billion bill, however, is more heavily weighted toward tax cuts than government spending. But like the first stimulus package, it will be impossible to ever fully determine how much this agreement has stimulated anything. We can say with some confidence, however, that a financial day of reckoning is going to come, and if we face the kind of deficit crisis that many foresee, this compromise will be remembered as one more example of irresponsible financial decision-making. It is already obvious to many, including myself, that the Bush tax cuts – coupled with steadily growing government spending - have been a financial disaster. I suspect that as time passes, this will become even more obvious.

5) The beginning of a writing “career”: Someday, 2010 will be remembered as the year that Paul Swendson – more popularly known on Hubpages as “Freeway Flyer” – unleashed his writing talents on the world. American culture, of course, would never be the same.

6) The world did not end again, although I am sure that Jesus will be coming back any day now. Of course, if the 2012 people are correct, then 2010 was the second to the last full year of life as we know it.

Long-Term Trends

1) Financial Crisis / State & Federal Budget Problems: Technically, the recession ended before this year started, but a lot of people have not been feeling it. Unemployment, and all of the associated pain and stress, remains stubbornly high. Will we follow the pattern of past economic downturns and see unemployment steadily decline over the next few years, or have we moved into a new economic era in which higher rates of unemployment become the norm? Due to technological innovation and outsourcing, it is possible that some jobs will never come back to the United States. Time will tell. Whatever the case, state and city governments, due largely to declining revenues, have been facing budget problems over this past year that are the worst in recent memory. As a teacher, I have seen this firsthand, and every indication is that things will get worse before they get better. To be honest, I am surprised that I have been able to maintain a class load high enough to make a living. In the coming spring semester, I have two fewer classes than this past fall. One can only guess at how tough things may be this coming fall. Many others, of course, have faced times much tougher than I, and our current economic situation is lingering in the backdrop of virtually every issue on this list. There are some hopeful signs, but we are not back from the brink just yet.

2) War on Terror: In my Power Point outline for my Modern American History class, I have written, “War on Terror: (2001 - ?).” I then ask students when (or if) I will ever be able to put a date in place of that question mark. It’s hard to imagine, after all, winning the War on Terror. It’s like winning the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty. But since much of the focus has been on Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States could someday claim some sort of a victory if both of these countries become functioning states with a limited American troop presence. Some troop reductions in Iraq have occurred, but violence continues, and the Iraqi government and economy are still dysfunctional. And in Afghanistan, of course, the American troop presence has been at the highest point since the conflict started, but there is still no end in sight. Troops are supposed to start being drawn down next year, but the pace at which that may occur has not been determined. Meanwhile, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran lingers, Pakistan seems unwilling to do what is necessary to clear out all of the “bad guys,” and efforts to settle the Israeli / Palestinian conflict have made little progress. It looks like that question mark is going to stay there for at least a few more years.

3) Information Age: When people look back at our era, I suspect that this will be the dominant topic. We are living through an age of technological transformation – social networking, online business, handheld devices, digitization of books and other information, etc. – comparable to the industrial revolution of the late 19th century. And just like a person in 1850 trying to predict the long-term impact of the railroad and the telegraph, it’s impossible to determine exactly where we are headed. Change happens so fast, and modern day cultural icons – Facebook, Twitter, Google, Iphones, Youtube, etc. – have only been around for a few years. What will be the next big thing? Did it start this year, and we just haven’t noticed it yet? Some worry that in the rush to jump on board the next big thing, another “dotcom bubble” is forming that could burst in the near future. But even if that occurs, the information age is going to press on. It’s anybody’s guess where this will take us.

4) Partisan Bickering: Partisan tension has existed since the early days of our nation. I have heard many reporters argue, however, that the tension has gotten worse in recent years, and 2010 was no different.  Ironically, President Obama, like President Bush before him, came in arguing that he would be able to bring people together. But while he has been able to achieve some legislative victories, these were accomplished in the face of intense Republican opposition. With more divided government coming in 2011, it will be interesting to see if the two sides will be forced to compromise. Could the tax compromise be the first sign of things to come? Personally, I doubt it. The next two years are likely to be about the 2012 presidential campaign, with each side jockeying for position in an attempt to blame the other for our nation’s lingering problems.

5) International Power Shift: For centuries, we have had a “Euro-dominated” world. When western European dominance subsided in the mid-20th century, The United States and the Soviet Union rose to prominence. Then, with the collapse of the communist bloc twenty years ago, we became the world’s sole superpower. There are signs, however, of another major shift on the horizon. Many European nations are saddled with enormous debt, and countries like Greece and Ireland have been forced to make drastic cutbacks in government spending in order to receive financial bailouts. And the United States, of course, does not exactly have its books in order either. Meanwhile, nations such as China, India, Brazil, and many others continue to grow at an amazing rate. If these trends continue, will we soon be able to say that global power has shifted to the south and east?

Final Thoughts

For thousands of years, nations and empires have come and gone. So where is the United States in this cycle of rising power and decline? Our nation has seen plenty of rough times before – the Great Depression, Vietnam, 1970’s hyperinflation, 9/11 – and has been able to bounce back. In 1980, who would have guessed that ten years later, the Soviet Union would collapse, and our nation would take off in the greatest period of economic growth in American history. Prosperity may once again be on the horizon. Or then again, it may not. Try as I might, I can’t get over the lingering suspicion that future generations will not look at us too kindly. This is partly because of lingering problems that we refuse to deal with such as the national debt, environmental destruction, and the depletion of natural resources. My pessimistic tendencies, however, may also be the result of my occupation. I see so many students coming through my courses that seem to lack the drive to work hard and succeed. (Although there are plenty of exceptions.) Do Americans, raised in what is still the wealthiest nation on earth, have the drive to compete with people around the world that may be more motivated and willing to sacrifice? Will we join the ranks of other former great powers that declined when they became spoiled and “soft”? As time marches on, we will soon get the chance to find out.

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Comments 7 comments

Killbill 5 years ago

I like this article, the only thing I disagree with is your placement of the Israeli palestenian conflict under the war on terror headline. To me war on terror means those countries that export terror and make other nations unsafe. While many acts of terror have occurwd in the conflict, I would branch the conflict under the general headline of world peace.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts, and who would have thought that an old YGLA student would read your work!


christopheranton profile image

christopheranton 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

While I can understand your interest in the prospects for your own country, a positive effect of the shifts in global dynamics that seem to be occurring at the moment, might be that americans become less parochial. They are still only 350 million out of a global population of 6000 million.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 5 years ago Author

"Killbill," you were a YGLA student? If you don't mind me asking, what is your actual name, and what classes did you take from me back in the day?

I somewhat agree with you about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I just needed a category in which to place it. I view it as primarily a struggle over a small piece of real estate. However, the perception around the world that the United States supports Israel no matter what is an important factor in American unpopularity throughout the Muslim world. So in that sense, it feeds into potential terrorist attacks against the United States.

Christopher, believe it or not, I was trying to be impartial in describing the rise of the of former "Third World" nations. More equality in terms of global wealth is a positive thing, although it could cut into the standard of living of the former dominant powers. It would also be a good thing for Americans to become a bit less spoiled and ignorant about the outside world.


PeteH 5 years ago

"Will we join the ranks of other former great powers that declined when they became spoiled and “soft”?"

I would argue that the ex-imperial nations are still Great – England, Spain, France etc still have very high standards of living and have all been pulling forward they got shot of their overseas possessions. Certainly in my lifetime I have seen vast improvements in these places while life in the US seems to getting slowly worse.

Also I disagree that empires fall because their rulers get soft; they fall because everything changes.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 5 years ago Author

Relative to the rest of the world, standards of living in the United States and Western Europe are still very high. Spain, however, may be on the verge of a bailout - like Ireland and Greece - Great Britain just implemented some major budget cuts to get its books in order, and France just had riots in the streets over the government raising the retirement age. So the question is whether or not lifestyles in the Euro-American world can be sustained.

I wasn't argued that rulers get soft. I was arguing that the general population can get a bit spoiled by success.


PeteH 5 years ago

My point about the improvement in living standards is that when I first went to Europe in the 70's their life style was something like that of the US in the 30's or 40's. They have caught up; an improvement by degrees of magnitude. The US today is not THAT different to the way it was 30 years ago. The ex-empires have attained real greatness by improving the lot of their citizens.

I see your point about sociological forces being the impetus for empire. My view is that economics & geography are more important. That said it seems bit rude to debate with you on your own blog (a bit like calling round your house & ramming my views on interior decorating down your throat) so I'll happily give you the last word :)


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 5 years ago Author

Debate is always welcome. I don't think that sociological forces - or any other single factor - can completely explain the rise and fall of nations. Still, I think that many Americans who have been born into prosperity have a certain sense of entitlement.

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