Not all the dramatic changes in business in the last 25 years have been on the upside, of course.
Take the airline industry. Three of the five biggest airlines of a generation ago have disappeared in the CNBC era: Pan American World Airways and Eastern Air Lines in 1991, and Trans World Airlines, known as TWA, in 2001. United Airlines merged with Continental Airlines in 2010, and American Airlines with US Airways just last year. All were caught in the turbulence generated when the industry was deregulated beginning in the 1970s. Carriers no longer had to get government permission to change routes or prices. The result was, for passengers, cheaper fares, but less-pleasant accommodations (welcome to the middle seat) and, for the airlines, persistent economic vulnerability.
The big-box music store, a fixture of U.S. popular culture for decades, all but disappeared, too, and the video rental headed in the same direction, as electronic distribution displaced neighborhood retailing and mailer envelopes. HMV closed its doors in 2004, Tower Records in 2006, Sam Goody in 2007 and Virgin Megastores, a brainchild of British entrepreneur Richard Branson, in 2009.
Seismic geopolitical shifts have accompanied the economic and business changes of the past 25 years. Soon after CNBC's launch, the long Cold War came to an end, as in the early 1990s the Soviet Union collapsed, East and West Germany reunited, and many former satellite states rejected Communism. And yet, in 1991, Americans found themselves fighting the first of four significant shooting wars. Two—in Kuwait and the Balkans—were swiftly brought to a relatively successful conclusion; the other two—in Iraq and Afghanistan—have produced long ordeals whose outcomes are still fully to unfold.
The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts were primarily an outcome of 9/11, the largest assaults on American soil since Pearl Harbor 60 years earlier. Besides their searing emotional impact, the attacks provoked a diversion of resources into military and intelligence capabilities—a redirection whose economic and financial effects still aren't fully understood. It may be more than symbolic that only now, nearly 13 years later, has the former site of the World Trade Center's twin towers begun to look once again like a gleaming urban plaza instead of a disaster zone.
The first 15 years of CNBC's life were relatively uneventful economically, with two notable bubbles (in the dot-com space in the late 1990s and mortgage finance in the early 2000s) and two minor recessions (1990-91 and 2001). But then came a financial crash and the accompanying Great Recession (2007-09), which unleashed havoc around the world.