The world didn't end today. Those who had feared an ancient Mayan prophecy meant the apocalypse can breathe a sigh of relief. Pessimists, though, can feel free to continue holding their breath until the stroke of midnight, just to be sure. Then, Americans among them can turn their attention to a more immediate danger: the "fiscal cliff"' that threatens to flatten the nation's economy.
Dec. 21, 2012, is the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. Some thought it would be even shorter than usual because the Maya, who carved a civilization out of the jungles of Central America between A.D. 200 and 900, had foreseen this day as the moment when planet Earth would reach its expiration date. A poll taken in May by the research firm Ipsos found 10 percent of the world's population believed the Mayan calendar "marks the end of the world." In addition to spectacular ruins, this ancient people left behind a "Long Count" calendar that stretched backward in time to a theoretical inception in 3,114 B.C. and forward to an endpoint, which happens to be today.
In recent years, doomsayers, occult practitioners and Hollywood moguls seized upon the prediction as a subject for faith, fun and profit. Some adopted a Web rumor that a rogue planet called Nibiru would emerge from space and smash Earth to pieces. Others worried that a black hole at the center of our galaxy would suck the planet into its powerful vortex. Still others trekked to Mayan ruins in the Guatemalan rain forest, where they sensed the vibes of renewal rather than destruction. "The force is strong here," Jimena Teijeiro of Argentina told Reuters. "We are being propelled to a new age of light, synchronicity and simple wonderment with life."
The less hopeful purchased "bug-out" bunkers -- shelters buried underground to which people could escape to wait out any unfolding disaster. Deep Earth Bunker, a Dallas-based company, sold more than 1,400 units to the fearful using a simple pitch: "Where will you go?" Prices range from $50,000 for basic structures for small families to $10 million for community shelters that hold hundreds.
In 2009, the disaster film "2012" reached the silver screen, portraying the prophecy's fulfillment in the form of a massive solar flare that heats the Earth's core and triggers catastrophic earthquakes. Thanks to special effects that include a vision of Los Angeles falling into the sea and tsunamis inundating Asia up to the Himalayas, the movie earned about $700 million worldwide. Subsequent disaster programs debuted on cable TV, including the National Geographic Channel's "Doomsday Preppers," which depicts survivalists preparing for various end-of-the-world scenarios such as destruction by a terrorist-delivered electromagnetic pulse, economic collapse and global pandemics.
All of this is a distraction from the real disasters that lie on the horizon. The national debt stands just under $16.4 trillion, and unfunded liabilities owed to Social Security and Medicare recipients add another $59 trillion to the total, according to the National Center for Policy Analysis. In addition to the federal sea of red ink, state and local pension programs are equally insolvent, with politicians resistant to efforts to bring budgets back into balance. Rather than going boom, the world is simply going bust.
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