Published online by Cambridge University Press: 14 January 2010
The twentieth century both opened and closed with a bang: the belle époque before 1914 and the “roaring nineties” (Stiglitz, 2003) just past. It was only after the First World War that people looked back at the 1895–1914 period with nostalgia as a “beautiful era” of spreading prosperity, peaceful technical progress, low inflation, and modest financial instability. The 1990s, on the contrary, were seen as the “best of times” (Johnson, 2001) by many of those who lived through the decade – at least, those in the United States. Will future historians confirm this view? If the twentieth century is any guide, much will depend on how the twenty-first century unfolds. If peace again prevails, if productivity growth continues apace at the economic center and spreads to the periphery, if means are found to govern the international economy in ways that make the costs of globalization socially acceptable, then the 1990s may well be remembered as a moment in human history when the foundations were laid for a long period of sustainable growth. If, on the other hand, social, political, and economic instability prevails, as it did after the First World War, then people may indeed look back at the 1990s as “the best of times,” creating the myth of another belle époque. Posterity will magnify the virtues of the last decade in the twentieth century and ignore its shortcomings.