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Negative noughties

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CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

September 11 is roughly the midpoint of my nearly two decades of American yatra, first as a visitor, then as a working professional. In that sense, my time here can be broadly divided into before 9/11 and after 9/11.

The America of the 1990s was notable for its optimism and energy. The Cold War was over. A young team of Clinton and Gore had been elected to the White House. The country was on the cusp of major breakthroughs in technology (including internet) courtesy, ironically, the hated military-industrial complex.

It was the boom years. You didn't need a college degree to strike it big, only VC funding. Minnows were making millions selling dreams. On my first visit in the late 1980s, a backpacking pilgrimage to rock music shrines before discovering the blessings of Hindustani music at home, they threw job offers at me like confetti. Atypically, I declined, returning legally - and reluctantly - some years later. Meantime, droves of immigrants were streaming into the country, but there was nary a peep about job loss. Instead, Washington introduced various visa programmes (including H1-B ) to regulate guest workers.

There was the odd blip. A terror strike on World Trade Centre in 1993 was seen as an aberration. Another attack in Oklahoma in 1994 was regarded as a domestic anomaly. Sporadic hits against US interests abroad, from the Khobhar Tower bombings in 1996 to the attack on USS Cole in 2000, didn't faze America. Taliban were official guests of the Clinton administration. The term al-Qaeda hadn't been heard. Osama bin Laden was a shadowy nuisance, someone Clinton swatted at once when the hornets of a domestic scandal were buzzing around him.

Such was America's level of self-confidence that it propelled a man of dubious credentials into the White House in a questionable election. After all, the US was surging on auto-pilot, and although the internet bubble had popped once, there was, to paraphrase a bard of rocking years, "music in the cafes at night and (a technological ) revolution in the air. "

Then the planes struck and America got tangled up in blue.

Looking back, one now gets the sense that al-Qaeda didn't merely hit the twin towers and the guts of the US establishment;it struck at the heart of the sense of optimism and buoyancy that was an American hallmark. There has been an unremitting and pervasive feeling of pessimism and gloom in the US from that moment onwards. The nonchalant nineties have made way for the negative noughties (2001-2011 ).

Where did America go wrong? One obvious explanation is that Washington did not defuse or defang the terror threat abroad as it grew while the US lived it up in the rah-rah 1990s. But there was another peril it did not prepare for - the havoc that technology, the silent killer, had quietly begun to wreak. Technology is wonderful and we celebrate the efficiencies it brought, but few foresaw the consequences.

You could already sense it though at the cusp of the millennium;it struck me one time when I completed an airline ticket transaction over phone through voice commands without speaking to a representative. A home I bought didn't need a single meeting with the seller or mortgage lender;everything done online, through email, or phone. Gas station attendants were disappearing in favour of self-serve;stores then introduced self-scanned check-outs.

In the past decade, millions of jobs have been erased in this fashion and they are not coming back. You see it all around all the time. It's been years since I stepped into my bank for a human transaction;Larry, my mailman, is on the verge of furlough and the inevitable layoff (the US postal system is shrinking rapidly) because snail mails and sent postcards are passe;last week, a speeding ticket I received was recorded by an electronic camera, not a patrol cop with a radar gun.

Bank tellers, booksellers, postmen and speed patrols have joined gas station attendants and checkout clerks on the list of soon-to-be-extinct workers. Where will it stop? Some new-tech green areas were supposed to create more jobs but that has turned out to be a chimera. Sunil Sharan, a former director at General Electric, noted in a recent Washington Post column how GE's Smart Grid, while environmentally beneficial, would end up replacing 28, 000 meter-reading jobs.

Terrorism had little to do with all this. In fact, quite paradoxically, terrorism has added jobs to the economy because of the growth of the military-security industry. America would have been upbeat even in the face of terrorism if it hadn't lost seven million jobs in the past decade and faced a near 10 per cent unemployment. Terrorism killed with a bang;technology turned out to be the silent destroyer.

chidanand. rajghatta@timesgroup. com

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