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Our cloudy crystal ball

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Zephyr18

Ten years ago, as the first decade of the new millennium was wrapping up, Newsday published two editorials imagining two possible futures unfolding over the next 10 years.

Along one timeline, our elected leaders and the public embraced common sense, cooperation and vision to successfully tackle our most pressing problems. Along the other, partisanship, bickering, selfishness and shortsightedness dominated the decade, stalling all progress and making every problem worse.

Now, 10 years later, it’s clear that some of both visions came true, some to the detriment of the nation, and others missed the mark.

Many of the fears we felt then, like runaway inflation and high interest rates caused by excessive and endless government borrowing, did not come to fruition. The then-low average for a new 30-year mortgage in 2010, 5.07%, has declined to a then-unimaginable 2.81%, and inflation has been below the recent historical average for practically the whole decade.

Board’s forecast on 2010

A miss: “On Long Island, some targeted school district consolidation has taken place, eliminating the smallest and least efficient districts, and savings have been realized.”

Pretty close: “Property tax caps, because they were coupled with spending caps on a state and local level and were not generally overridden by local voters, have brought expenses under control.”

Pretty close: “Our continued and seemingly endless military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq has only deepened the hole [of runaway military spending].”

State of the nation

Many of the disasters that have befallen the state, nation and world since 2010, like the erosion of democracy, loss of faith in elections and power of conspiracy theories here and abroad, and the resurgence of racial conflict in policing and politics were not on our horizon. Climate change and its dangers were not our focus in these pieces, though we wrote on it often. A worldwide pandemic was the subject of movies and bureaucratic table games.

The state and nation were in desperate financial straits and the mood was, if not hopeless, certainly bleak.

The economic disaster that began with housing and stock market meltdowns in 2007 and 2008 was in full swing in December 2010 and the unemployment rate was a brutal 9.4%, with 14.5 million Americans out of work. Today about 19 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits of some kind, but the official unemployment rate is only 6.4%, because the number fails to capture so many sidelined gig workers, a description not used a decade ago.

The national debt, then a constant source of concern at just under $14 trillion, is now nearing $28 trillion, doubling even as the gross national product grew just 40%, but the concern on the part of Congress all but disappeared. That national debt total exactly matches what we predicted, albeit as a laughable worst-case scenario.

The annual deficit, a record-setting $1.3 trillion in 2010, will this year hit $3.3 trillion.

And a GOP-dominated midterm election spurred by the economic crisis and the tea party response to President Barack Obama had divided the government and promised to increase partisanship dramatically in the new year.

Gloom-and-doom scenario

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was getting ready to be sworn in and contending with a $10 billion deficit, never imagining he’d face a $15 billion shortfall a decade later.

In that gloom-and-doom take, we laid out the scenario of a property tax cap never passing, leaving annual levies spiraling upward. Worse, we had every new and more affordable state pension tier that was created being reversed in late-night deals. In fact, the tax cap did pass, generally limiting annual increases to 2% and making a massive difference in the pocketbooks of property owners, and Tier 6 of the pension plan has stood unmolested, saving municipalities and their taxpayers significant money.

But in our optimistic version we had the Medicare and Social Security trust funds being stabilized with reasonable payroll tax increases and tweaks to benefits that never materialized. We envisioned defense spending reduced significantly as we fully disentangled from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we are deploying more money to the military than ever and remain entangled in Afghanistan and tied to Iraq.

We hoped for meaningful income tax reform, with simple rules and most returns filed on a postcard. Instead, corporations got a huge tax cut, New Yorkers lost the full federal deductibility of their state and local taxes, and filing is still a misery. We hoped for school district consolidation for Long Island’s 124 districts and 10 years later, we have 124 districts.

The speed of progress

Some things we fear never come to pass, and some things that come to pass we lack the foresight to fear. Progress, when it comes, springs from cooperation. New York’s latest pension tier and property tax cap, for instance, were longtime Republican initiatives that only passed when a Democratic governor prioritized them.

Looking back over these last 10 years fills us with the humility that comes from understanding how hard it is to predict what might come and how difficult it is to make progress on thorny issues. Predictions are fun, but actual change requires perseverance and hard work and sometimes a perfect alignment of the stars. We all should carry that knowledge into the next decade, because a lot remains to be done and no one wants to be lamenting again that the work is unfinished, or worse, that our troubles have mushroomed in 2030.

In that spirit, join us next Sunday as we look to the decade ahead.

- The editorial board