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A Boom Deferred

A few new economy boosters were able to pass themselves off as thinkers during the five years (1995–1999) we now think of as the “Nineties.” But Being Digital and Rational Exuberance and their genre-mates are now just historical curios. The bubble popped, and where are they?

There is a different story to tell about those of us who really were young during that era—not just borrowing our dizziness from the market—and beginning to think about the world we’d grown up into. What happened? It’s a long way from over yet (the Dow’s still bullish; America’s still preeminent; we still drink that expensive potent coffee) but things are not the same. “We were so young!” we say already, flipping through a deck of snapshots of ourselves in foreign places. “And the dollar was so strong!” Generations whose youth coincides with periods of great optimism are forever marked by the experience.

Not utopia, but it was nice. If the end of the Cold War meant scores of countries crumbling into civil war, it also offered a chance of general peace that we and others might not be so dumb as to pass up. Our own chances of being incinerated seemed markedly reduced. Yes, wage arbitrage in the global economy was getting ugly, and America couldn’t remain the world’s buyer of last resort without acquiring a serious balance-of-payments problem. And if something swells like a bubble, and shines and shimmies like a bubble . . . Still, the Nineties brought more peace and prosperity than we’d ever expected. If we ourselves weren’t making much money, and were sometimes jealous of former classmates who were, there was comfort in feeling we could always sell out, if we wanted to.

A boom! But what if you didn’t like it? Another World is Possible, went the slogan. Only nobody could tell us which world. “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism.” Thus spake Jameson. The economy was very busy on the surface with its creative destruction, but that didn’t conceal a basic stasis. It seemed the important things would never change, and maybe we’d grown up into a stilled world.

Things feel different now. Our classmates in Silicon Alley lost their jobs and applied to graduate school. (Welcome.) The balance-of-payments problem worries the bond-traders these days as well as the socialists. Clearly the Republican Party will cut the taxes of the rich (though Clinton’s tax hikes ignited the boom) and spend make-believe money until the Rapture. Can we live in their big houses then? If there’s comfort to be had when you think about the US economy, it’s in Balzac’s maxim that only petty debtors are ever in danger; a big enough debtor is too big to fail. Right?

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