The 10 Worst Decisions of America's Worst Decade

For America, the last 10 years have been the worst I've lived through. From a president "elected" by a Supreme Court vote to a terrorist attack on U.S. soil to a pointless war and a financial collapse that came close to ending social order around the world, the last decade probably comes close to the 1930s for bad things happening.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% While it's always easy to see in hindsight, this disastrous decade could have turned out differently were it not for 10 horrible decisions that took place from 2000 to 2009. Here are my picks for this dubious distinction:

  • Al Gore's decision not to request a recount of all Florida votes. Al Gore won the popular vote count in 2000 by more than 500,000, and the results in Florida were close -- leading to a partial recount. Gore could have demanded a recount of all the Florida votes, which might have kept the election away from the Supreme Court. Though some think a statewide recount would have tipped Florida to Gore, we'll never know how much better or worse a Gore presidency might have been.
  • The Supreme Court's decision to in effect elect George Bush. This decision was a historic hijacking of a democratic process in which a country's citizens elect a leader, rather than its Supreme Court. Granted, the Florida voting was a complicated mess, but this outcome set a terrible precedent and led to what some argue was the worst presidency in American history.
  • President Bush's decision to ignore warnings of a terrorist attack in the summer of 2001. Bush received a Presidential Daily Brief in August 2001 titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S." He also appeared to ignore people who who tried to warn him. If he had heeded those warnings, it's at least possible that 9/11 could have been averted. He did not, and thousands died.
  • President Bush's decision to let Osama Bin Laden escape in December 2001. The battle of Tora Bora could have led to Bin Laden's capture as he tried to flee into Pakistan. The U.S had him surrounded but failed to reinforce the position. So the architect of those terrorist attacks escaped.
  • President Bush's decision to invade Iraq. Bush knew Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and no tie to the 9/11 attacks, but he made both claims to justify going to war against it. Six years later, no Iraqi WMDs were ever found, and Iraq still doesn't have a flourishing democracy. But 4,370 U.S. soldiers are dead (plus untold thousands more Iraqis) and $800 billion worth of taxpayer money has been spent for that war.
  • Government's failure to regulate Wall Street. The idea that free markets would regulate themselves was strongly promoted by former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, and during the decade that view prevailed in the White House. The result was to allow a weakly regulated $10 trillion mortgage-securitization industry to grow unchecked. And that led to millions of homes entering foreclosure; the end of Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers; and very nearly a global financial collapse.
  • Government's decision to let Lehman Brothers go bankrupt. History's biggest bankruptcy -- the $639 billion failure of Lehman Brothers -- was avoidable. While it might have been temporarily satisfying to let the market exact its pound of flesh, that decision to let Lehman Brothers collapse in September 2008 rapidly eroded confidence in the capital markets. And if people had lost all faith in that, the social order may have collapsed.
  • President Bush's decision to more than double the national debt. During Bush's tenure, the national debt increased from $5 trillion to over $11 trillion -- and it has since risen to $12 trillion. This decision to borrow so much money early in his tenure boosted the federal deficit to record levels and severely weakened the U.S.'s financial position. Adding to that weakness were the president's $1.3 trillion worth of tax cuts -- 32.6% of which went to the top 1% of earners.
  • Banks' decision to use too much debt and to mismatch assets and liabilities. Banks borrowed way too much money during the decade, and that made them extremely vulnerable when their leveraged bets went against them. At some points, Wall Street borrowed as much as $30 for every dollar of equity. And Wall Street's decision to borrow short -- meaning the big firms needed to refinance their balance sheet every week or month -- and lend long -- meaning they got repaid over the course of many years -- put the Street's daily survival at the mercy of the very short-term commercial paper market.
  • The SEC's failure to stop Bernie Madoff. As the Washington Post has reported, the SEC had numerous chances to stop Bernie Madoff's $60 billion Ponzi scheme during the decade -- although it turned out that his deception had gone on for decades before that. The SEC's ongoing decision to not pursue Madoff and his fraud cost many people their life savings.
Will the coming decade be better? I'd like to think we can't go downhill from here. But reality is different. It depends on whether our leaders can learn from the mistakes of the last decade and use those lessons to come up with new policies that create and seize the best growth opportunities for America's future.

Meet Peter at The World Money Show Orlando, February 3-6, 2010 at The Gaylord Palms Resort.
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