Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 13 March 2024

 The account below is accurate enough - especially on declining GDP per capita in Western countries since the end of "les trente glorieuses" (thirty glorious years) after World War Two, to 1975 - and this despite an unsustainable fiscal expansion, especially in the US, France and Britain that is sure to turn to catastrophe. But it falls short because it leaves out, amongst other matters, first, environmental and urban degradation; second, social and cultural malaise and anomie; third, frighteningly deteriorating global conflict; fourth, global population explosion and anarchy, with large numbers of "failed states" in the throes of gangster banditries masquerading as "governments", from Chinese Dictators to Russian oligarchs, to Indian Hindu castes, to South and Central American drug cartels. 

Enjoy your lives while you can, my friends!

Opinion | Why We Gave Up on the Future

An illustration of a red sun, seen through the thorny stems of plants.
Credit... Ibrahim Rayintakath
David Wallace-Wells

By David Wallace-Wells

Opinion Writer

You’re reading the David Wallace-Wells newsletter, for Times subscribers only.  The best-selling science writer and essayist explores climate change, technology, the future of the planet and how we live on it.

In America, now, we are living at “the end of the future,” the historian Steve Fraser wrote this month in Jacobin, surveying the country’s political landscape and finding it pretty exhausted.

He didn’t mean that the United States has come to the end of a sci-fi roller coaster, but that we’ve largely turned our backs on the very idea of remarkable change. In what we used to tell ourselves was an optimistic nation, faith in progress has given way to a political and social age that has largely discarded visions of pathbreaking novelty, he writes, and increasingly focuses instead on intramural arguments about which elements of a nostalgic past to emulate.

On the right, Fraser describes a mangled MAGA vision of America before or without the new left, a vision that has, like a magnet, attracted “all the anxieties unloosed by the decay of an antiquated industrial capitalism.” And on the left, he sees empty revolutionary gestures alongside many varieties of a New Deal reboot — federal policy intended to restore American manufacturing, for instance, or unions straining to recover membership levels, benefits and protections common at midcentury.

The essay has won praise from a number of political theorists for identifying our “politics of restoration,” one that, Fraser writes, “tacitly acknowledges that the future, in the way that word has customarily been used, is dead. Or, if it lives on, it does so on life support.”

To me, this account of a sclerotic, backward-looking present leaves out a lot of discombobulating change, both within politics and without: a green industrial revolution unfolding and animating the Democratic Party agenda; the rapid transformation of the Republican Party into a shape-shifting cult of personality; the rapid development of a miracle vaccine and an incipient golden age for medicine, heralding great hopes for obesity and cancer and cystic fibrosis, among many other advances; the arrival of A.I., with all its attendant anxiety and hype; a new horizon for civil rights and some radical social experimentation around the meaning of gender identity; and a cohort of techno-optimists obsessed with accelerating the pace of progress, some of them so obsessed with the principle, they’re willing to discard the guardrails of liberalism along the way.

But as a measure of mood and political rhetoric, the stagnation diagnosis fits much better. As the imaginative and spiritual lives of Americans have become increasingly preoccupied with partisan politics and as those politics have grown increasingly hostile and zero-sum, we’ve come to see the future in increasingly bleak and zero-sum terms, as well. Joe Biden’s State of the Union invocations of an American comeback aside, the basic vibe across the political spectrum is pretty glum and exhausted.

You can see the gloom in poll after poll documenting Americans’ declining faith in their country, its politics and its future. But the phenomenon is probably more visible on the vocal margins than at the dour median, with vocal “doomers” about A.I. and climate change, long Covid and Covid vaccines, fertility levels and the “woke mind virus,” among other sources of panic. And there is now another emerging archetype: doomers about doomerism, who believe that pessimism is a kind of social poison, and that bleak visions of the future have probably already curdled our culture and its prospects, and may consign future generations to worse outcomes still.

For some, hoping to jump-start a new age of technological optimism, all this pessimism looks like a maddening kind of a puzzle. The world is wealthier than it has ever been, they point out, and by many measures it is also “better,” in aggregate if not for everyone. So why are people feeling so grim about the future that they’re tempted to retreat into visions of the past?

The intuitive explanations could fill a book, and do fill the endless scroll of social media: gridlocked and gerontocratic politics, yawning income inequality and the claustrophobic housing crunch, the continuing climate crisis and the unabating epidemic of gun violence and rising rates of overdose. To that list, Fraser adds some structural history and social shortfalls characteristic of what he calls “a developed country undergoing underdevelopment”: stalled life expectancy, crumbling infrastructure, the return of child labor. (He doesn’t really discuss the rollback of reproductive rights, though that is one major reason many Americans feel shoved back into the past.)

There are also somewhat less concrete contributors to social malaise: the fact of a world-historical trauma, in the form of a pandemic that killed more than 25 million people and upended the lives of billions of others; a widespread sense among Americans that the country’s standing in the world has declined, perhaps precipitously; ubiquitous smartphones and their assembly-line production of envy and anomie; media bias and the negativity appetite it reflexively serves.

But I want to emphasize what seems to me to be a very obvious material basis, too. That is: Beginning in the postwar years, every generation in what are now the wealthiest countries of the world observed higher levels of economic growth during youth and young adulthood than they experienced in middle age, then watched as those levels fell further through later life. In the United States in particular, real per capita growth rates were less than half as high in the 2000s as they had been across the three decades before, and only about one-third as high as they had been in the 1960s. In the 2010s, things perked up, but growth was still lower than it had been in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Social-media memes about the utopian ease of middle-class life in the postwar era are a form of delusional nostalgia — poorly informed about the economic realities of the era and inarguably blinkered about racial and gender injustice. But 90 percent of Americans born in 1940 went on to earn more money than their parents had, the Harvard economist Raj Chetty has shown. For those born in the 1980s, the share had fallen to 50 percent — just even odds. If this isn’t the central social and political fact of the United States in the 21st century, it is surely one of them: generational mobility becoming a kind of lottery, which Americans are just as likely to lose as to win. This country as a whole isn’t worse off than it was a generation or two ago, if you measure in absolute terms. But it isn’t unreasonable to nevertheless feel a kind of nostalgia — not for the material and social conditions of the past but for the imaginative possibilities that era seemed to extend into its own unknown future.

None of this is exactly news — mature and wealthy economies tend to grow more slowly, rates of American growth have been in decline since the 1960s, and commentators have been speculating for at least a decade now about the causes and the impact of a “great stagnation” or even “the end of growth.” And over the course of that past decade, American economic performance has, in fact, begun to rebound — not to the level the country observed in previous decades but enough to make it the envy of the rest of the wealthy world.

This is often invoked in the spirit of American triumphalism, but it also illustrates just how profound the stagnation has been elsewhere. According to the World Bank, Britain’s nominal per capita G.D.P. is still 8.4 percent below its 2007 peak, 15 years after the financial crisis. In South Korea, decades of robust growth have slowed to a crawl. In Japan, the figure is smaller than it was in 1995. Across the E.U. as a whole, home to almost 450 million people, per capita G.D.P. has grown since 2008 — those same 15 years — by just 1 percent. Across all of sub-Saharan Africa, home to 1.2 billion already-impoverished people, per capita G.D.P. is smaller than it was a decade ago.

You can’t reduce human well-being to a chart of G.D.P., of course, and in absolute terms, the world as a whole is still a whole lot more prosperous than it was 50 or 30 or even 10 years ago — that is what happens when you stack even shrinking incremental gains over decades. But the relative gains have indeed shrunk, particularly in the richest parts of the world, which means what might once have looked like an exhilarating, onrushing future has begun to arrive instead at decelerating speed.

This isn’t a fantasy, or a nostalgic delusion; it’s just a basic description of recent economic history. And it suggests that, rather than pessimism causing slowdown, pessimism follows from slowdown. In theory, at least, the pattern may reverse, and the past few years of world-best performance in the United States do offer reasons to hope that, here at least, it may be reversing already. In the meantime, it shouldn’t be too surprising that anyone’s faith in the future has shrunk, too — and with it, the horizon of possibilities held aloft by that increasingly fragile faith.

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