Longing for the golden era of the 1990s

Are we having a moment of nostalgia for the 1990s? I think I am after reading two articles on the subject in as many days.

Remember the 1990s?  The U.S. economy was in an expansion where we seemed to have cracked the code on balancing inflation and unemployment.  There was a budget surplus.  Europe was looking forward not just to the euro, but what Bret Stephens described today in The Wall Street Journal as a future of shared “cultural conventions, consensually agreed rules and a belief in the virtues of social solidarity overseen by a redistributive state.”  Capitalism had triumphed over all.  There were hopes for Russia, China, and emerging markets everywhere.   

Of course, people all over the world also were waking up to the power and possibilities of the internet, an entirely wonderful thing then.  It could save you from having to make trips to the library, and it could raise millions around the world out of poverty.  But this was before the internet started to seem a little too overpowering at times – before the anxiety of endless smartphone notifications and the publicizing of every single thought and event in our lives on social media. 

Come to think of it, it was before we saw that big storied global banks could go bankrupt -- or that whole European countries could.  It was before internet trolls and grisly executions being posted online.   As Simon Kuper wrote in a wonderful column in this weekend’s FT, it was a time when “Bush hadn’t heard of Sunnis and Shiites.”  For Kuper, it all ended the day we saw planes deliberately flying into New York’s World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.  “Western optimism, prosperity, privacy, security et cetera,” he wrote, “have since evaporated.”  

Bret Stephens wrote today in The Wall Street Journal that “The decade from 1989 to 1999 was an age of political, economic, social and technological miracles.”  After the Berlin Wall fell, a confluence of events and conditions created a boom in global trade and interconnection -- what Stephens calls an “Era of No Fences.”  Stephens remembers that he read a book in the early 1990s by Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres called The New Middle East, which optimistically saw barriers in the region falling away as market forces brought people and economies closer together.  At the time, it didn’t seem farfetched.

Seeing the immense disorder in the Middle East today, it’s hard to remember that people once thought that way.  Life is so much grimmer today in some ways, and yet so much easier in others.  We’re so much more mind-numbed with data, and yet so much smarter.  Here is how Simon Kuper sums up the grisly realism of our current century:

“The one upside: we’ve become less trivial.  Nowadays lots of westerners have heard of Sunnis and Shiites. Punters in Irish pubs can tell you what a ‘senior bondholder’ is.  A 700-page tome by a French economist can top best seller lists.  The fastest-selling Dutch book since Harry Potter is a study of London’s banks.  But I preferred the age of innocence.”