NEW YORK – I remember talking to a historian shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. I envy your generation, she said. The grip of history is tightening around you, even if you don’t know it yet.
She was right. In short succession, the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan, then Iraq. It began to torture captives from those conflicts and stepped up surveillance of its citizens. The financial system temporarily collapsed — and it almost took the economy with it.
The nation’s first black president was inaugurated. The U.S. government found itself in charge of American International Group and General Motors. Congress passed the largest stimulus bill in history followed, at long last, by health care reform.
The tea party rose, and what was left of the old-line Republican establishment fell. The world’s most wanted terrorist was assassinated in a nighttime raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Routine items of governance — passing budgets, raising the debt ceiling — became battlegrounds for high-stakes partisan showdowns, with the fate of the global economy hanging by handfuls of votes.
All of these events were either initiated in Washington or managed there. The result was an extraordinarily consequential decade in U.S. politics. The U.S. federal government mattered more than at any time since at least the 1960s — perhaps the 1930s.
But the grip of history is slackening, at least in the nation’s capital. The wars are ending. Some of our economic wounds are healing, and others, sadly, we’re choosing to live with. Raising the debt ceiling has become routine again.
We’ve gone from Congress passing legislation that our children will read about to Congress passing almost nothing at all. For at least the next few years, governmental paralysis appears unyielding. An unusually interesting era in U.S. politics is giving way to an unusually dull one.
I don’t want to take this too far. A major foreign crisis could always erupt. Immigration reform could unexpectedly slip through the logjam into law. The 2014 election could be a shocker. Anyone in 1999 projecting then-current trends forward into the first decade of the new millennium would have gotten the landscape very, very wrong. (Just ask the Congressional Budget Office, which projected budget surpluses as far as the eye could see.)
But absent an event that upends the country, Washington seems likely to be a lot less important over the next few years than it was over the past few years. The capital just isn’t where the action is.
Which isn’t to say that Americans don’t live in interesting times. The country is changing even if Washington’s laws are not. In 2004, a spate of anti-gay-marriage amendments on the ballot in swing states was considered — perhaps incorrectly — to have turned out enough conservative voters to re-elect President George W. Bush.
Today, same-sex marriage is legal in 16 states, and a 17th — Illinois — will legalize it in June. Marijuana is now legal in Colorado and Washington.
In 2011, single mothers accounted for 48 percent of first births, meaning we’re near the point — or perhaps past it — at which the majority of first births occur outside marriage. In 2012, a majority of children in the U.S. under the age of 1 were nonwhite. The velocity of demographic and cultural change borders on breathtaking.
Then there’s technology. It has become almost cliche to say, “The phones we carry in our pockets are more powerful than the supercomputers we had in the 1990s” or “An inner-city teenager today has access to more information than the president of the U.S. did 20 years ago.” It’s also true. And we have little idea what it means.
We’re in the early days of figuring out how to use all this information and computational power. Consequently, there’s no shortage of snake-oil salesmen promising utopias we’ll never see, or of pessimists arguing that all this gadgetry has ensnared us rather than liberated us. I’d be a fool to make specific predictions in this space. But the application of all this technological horsepower will probably be a lot more interesting and disruptive than the invention of it.
In terms of human welfare, the most important changes are happening outside our borders. More people have seen their lives improve more quickly in the past few decades than perhaps at any time in human history. In 1990, more than 40 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty.
By 2015, the World Bank predicts, the figure will be just 16 percent. Among people who work in global development, the goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 is now controversial because it’s not considered ambitious enough.
As extreme poverty has fallen, so too has child mortality. The number of children dying before their fifth birthday has declined by about a third since 1990. This is in part because of extraordinary progress in fighting diseases that prey on the young. India, for instance, just celebrated its third year without a single case of polio.
Rapid development in China, and India is among the best news in the history of the human race. It will also profoundly alter the U.S. role in the world — and its sense of mission and place — as the century wears on. The U.S. will not be, and should not be, the world’s largest economy for long. That shift will be accompanied by loss of the pre-eminence in global affairs that the U.S. has exploited since World War II.
I take the optimist’s view, which is that global development is good for the world and good for the U.S. That case is made well in Charles Kenny’s new book, “The Upside of Down” (I’ll pause here to note that Bloomberg View’s own Megan McArdle also has a great new book titled “The Upside of Down”). The rising power of autocratic governments is a real concern.
But we have even greater cause to be thrilled that billions of people will be better able to develop and use their talents as economic demand increases and technology advances.
Even we optimists have to admit that the rise of the rest will be a seismic change. The question, then, is whether the U.S. will accept that shift, or try, somehow, to fight it, alienating or even fighting some of the world’s most populous and powerful countries along the way.
History might be shifting its grip a bit. But it’s still tight.
Ezra Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist.