The Abyss Stares Back

Every year, I mark the New Year as with my post-vote essay on Brexit) I have also commented on events-in-progress.

There hasn’t been a New Year’s post for a couple years now. Some of you have written me privately asking what happened. Has life derailed me?

Well…not really. While life has taken some interesting detours which cut into my writing time [link to podcast announcement], those detours are not why the New Years’ posts have failed to materialize.

I did write them. I just never published them.

Call it a failure of nerve—ironic, considering how “we must hold our nerve” has been a recurring theme in these posts. The 2019 and 2020 posts were simply much, much darker than I was willing to drop on my blog without being around to answer replies. And, since coping with family emergencies had simply taken me out of the game where public presence was concerned, well…

But considering what’s going on, I am not comfortable putting this off any longer. And, since I’m more publicly accessible now than I have been the last few years, I can hold up my end of whatever conversation results.

So hold on to your hats. Here we go.

In my New Years posts, I have meditated at length on a changing world that would soon experience a radical break. I was expecting that break to come in 2022 or 2024, when the Boomers (the largest generational cohort worldwide, even though they’re now late in life) hit median retirement age.

I expected that it would create a series of sharp, stiff shocks to global governance and economy, and would finally force the periodic dissolution and re-formation of the American two party system that is long overdue. I expected that the 2020s would see an American crime wave, the dissolution of the EU and perhaps a war in Europe, and the more-or-less complete withdrawal of America from the world stage.

I further argued that the future on the other side of these difficulties was likely to be one of onward-and-upward if we could only hold our nerve, as many of the trends that would cause the difficulties would set the stage for a new era of prosperity once the contraction and conflict had shaken out.

It’s time to publicly update that thinking.

Consensus in the foreign policy community has long been building that the world needs a new order to replace the very-outdated cold war order—preferably one that plays the unprecedented peace and prosperity of the past 80 years forward to another peaceful century for the liberation and enrichment of the greatest number of people possible. The Covid-19 pandemic—or, as I like to call it (in full awareness of the historical connotations), “the plague”—has revealed to the hoi polloi just how out-dated that order is.

That’s progress. It’s a damn sight better than voting a President out of office because we’re scared of the phrase “New World Order.”

But it’s too little progress. And the hour is later than you think.

Henry Kissinger thinks that this will be the dawn of a new era of globalization and cooperation—that it must be, and that America should seize this historic opportunity to take the lead.

But the hour is far later than even he thinks.

The plague has moved up the generational timetable. The longer this shutdown goes on, the more Boomers (who don’t die) will take their retirement and run every time the stock market bounces back. It’s also moved up the timetable on the disintegration of Europe and the consequent wars, the implosion of Russia and the consequent wars, and the implosion of China and the consequent wars.

Dark New World

If the Boomer retirement/die-off had been the gradual loosening that was in the cards until a few months ago, we would have had a good fighting chance to adapt our domestic and international institutions as needed. We might have even done it in a more-or-less orderly fashion, reshaping the future from the decaying-but-still-kicking remains of the past. I am convinced we would have found ways to continue the world uplift under drastically different underlying circumstances, because we would have had time to adapt before everything turned violent.

In other words, a healthy reshuffling. Difficult, but very doable—and far, far preferable to the alternative.

That ship has now sailed. This plague removes our off-ramp. The great demographic transition is here. And coming coming this sharp, this soon, and with this much extra mortality makes its worst possible consequence inevitable instead of optional.

Why would I, the “eternal optimist,” say such a thing?

Because every social institution, financial scheme, economic theory, political philosophy, and theory of ethics since the Renaissance depends on one, single, dependable feature of human culture.

It is this dependable feature that drives increase in standards of living even as it drives the classes apart. It allows individuals to exist more-or-less on their own as much as they care to. It under-girds liberal values and all progressive ideologies (including those of previous generations, which we ignorantly call “traditional” or “conservative”). It is the root of the latitude for our humanitarian impulses toward human rights and excess compassion. It creates great fortunes, propels poverty reduction, champions the individual, gives rise to women’s rights and racial integration and cosmopolitan values. It allows the international movement of people and capital, and the reasonable expectation that tomorrow will, on balance, be better than today.

We believe that tomorrow will be better than today because, today, we know more. We’re smarter. We make moral progress through trial and error. And, dammit, we can be better and we have the obligation to be.

All because of that one dependable feature of civilization:

Growth.

You and I (and everyone we have ever known) have lived our lives on the growth train. It started chugging with the Black Death, when a stable social order based on de-facto slavery (feudalism) was upended by a sudden labor shortage. It freed our ancestors from servility, and their experience of freedom of movement and freedom of thought led their descendants to throw off tyranny. It led them to free slaves. It even led them to enfranchise property-owning commoners, then tax-paying men, then former slaves, then women, all in rapid succession (as historical time scales go).

There was always a new market to develop, discovery to make, product to invent, deal to be had. The growth train pushed these newly free peoples out into colonialism, which devolved (after several vicious wars and many atrocities) into a much gentler regime of world trade, and to the greatest baby boom in history…

…followed by the greatest baby bust in history.

And, in every developed country except the United States, France, and New Zealand, that baby bust is permanent.

There are no Millennials.

There are no Zoomers.

Everywhere else looks like the Gen X baby bust extends into an ever-diminishing infinity.

So why the baby bust?

Environmentalists blame urbanization. Traditionalists blame birth control. Reactionaries blame women’s liberation. Progressives blame inequality.

Me? I think it’s over-determined—the consequence of a number of factors all converging, each one capable of explaining the whole thing. But if you pushed me to the wall, I’d blame…prosperity.

Specifically, too much prosperity of the wrong sort (i.e. hedonic and material rather than eudaimonic and cultural), coming too fast to too many places at once. A rate of change we simply, in the end, could not adapt to. It simply broke our civilizational and cultural continuity—not just in America, or Europe, but everywhere development took hold in the last 80 years.

So why not just have more babies, then?

Let’s concede that, eventually, people probably will start having children again. And let’s also ignore the possibility that people won’t, because I don’t want to write about the monstrous ethics implied in forcing people to have children just now (see Romanian history circ. 1987-1993 if you’re really curious).

Would aggressive natalism actually fix things and pull us back from the abyss?

No. At least not in the short term. It takes 25 years for a generation to reach their primary consuming years, assuming that the older generation allows them to mature. It takes them forty-five years to reach prime taxpaying age…under normal circumstances.

But circumstances are no longer normal.

Across the world, by unconscious consensus (acting on short-term self-interest), the Boomers managed to enslave the three subsequent generations to debt servitude (both private and public while making small business formation unprecedentedly difficult.

They pulled up every single ladder behind themselves, squandered their inheritance, beggared their children, and broke the generational contract (on both sides), all to keep themselves in a lifestyle to which they became accustomed as the precious children of a war-ravaged generation.

Then, they failed to surrender the wheels of power (public or private) to their descendants to such an extent that now the developed world’s leadership is nearly saturated with them. This global gerontocracy is unprecedented state in the post-feudal world.

Do we have any reason to believe that the Millennials, where they exist, will behave any differently when they finally become the dominant voting block? Not from the data I’ve seen. We may get lucky, but we can’t bank on it. That kind of gambling is how banks fail.

But if the Black Death created freedom and growth, why won’t the Boomer Doomer Covid-19?

The Black Death created freedom by creating a labor shortage. The early years of the Boomer retirement were just starting to create a new labor shortage that could have pushed us through a little longer, and given us a chance to re-balance for the new, shrinking world.

Because after the Boomers are gone, there is no labor shortage that will help us rediscover freedom or create more growth.

Instead, there is a demand shortage.

You can produce and innovate as much as you want, but if there are no young people to consume those products, there is no economic flow. The smaller up-and-coming generations can subsist quite comfortably on material goods that, thanks to massive productivity gains in the last fifty years, will require only a tiny fraction of the population to produce. This means there will be no taxes to fund social services, whether pensions or health care or welfare or R&D—and no, taxing those producers to fund UBI or forcing the to produce goods below cost won’t work. The planned economies of the 20th century proved very well that imposing that burden on producers will mean that, in short order, there will be no (viable) producers.

So this big intervention package we just passed in the US, funded by $2.2 trillion in borrowed money? There will not be another revenue boom to pay that off. Let alone the next emergency stimulus. Or—and here’s the scary part—the national public or private debt burden of any country on Earth.

No more revenue booms.

Not another one.

Ever.

This is it, folks. There will be no new world order. There aren’t enough stable countries to make one up. Everything you’ve ever known has just ended. The entire rationale of the world since the mid-14th century has just ended. We are now in the Long Contraction, a time when population will shrink and age almost everywhere.

So Are We Just Screwed?

For all its problems (environmental degradation in areas of rapid urbanization and industrialization, the retrenchment of feudal-style quasi-slavery labor arrangements in certain countries that adopted the industrial order while not adopting liberalization, the destabilization of previous colonial possessions exploited to prop up warlords for the purposes of resource extraction, the hollowing out of the middle class industrial base in America and Europe, and the maintenance of centuries-old blood feuds in the Middle East), the globalization era was…well, beautiful. I hoped it would continue, with perhaps some interruptions, indefinitely into the future.

But that peace and prosperity came the expense of human and institutional vitality.

Life has been so easy for so long that our institutions could tolerate amazing levels of corruption and still function (more or less). Now they are corrupt, creaky, brittle, and unfit for purpose. Prosperity has made us, as individuals, fat, lazy, narrow, and fragile.

In this way, at least, there is a sense in which this global-historical tectonic shift is good for us. It is about to force us to be realistic, which is less depressing than those of us who grew up with stars in our eyes might realize.

Opportunity—at all levels—comes from difficulty, because difficulty forces us to be better than we otherwise would want to be. It forces us to be more creative. It forces us to be alive.

Liberalism, conservatism, fascism, globalism, socialism, communism, fraternalism, capitalism, libertarianism, nationalism, mercantilism—these are all products of the long boom. We’ve had nearly six hundred years of upward swing; of single-trajectory thinking. We’ve experimented a lot, and argued and fought about those experiments even more.

We will survive. The human species and spirit survived Genghis Khan, The Fall of Rome, the Bronze Age Collapse, the Great Narrowing, the Ice Ages, and the Teletubbies.

But now, we’re on a different trajectory. We have to learn to make things work in an entirely new way—and not one of us knows yet what that even can look like.

We must find a way to imagine things anew.

Now.

If we do not, we may lose our shot at breaking free of this planet and ensuring the survival of our species and civilizations over the long term.

So dream now, dream big, and start thinking about the future in a very different way than you ever have. Better to start now than to be caught forever in its teeth.

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