Umair Haque - Mo, 12/09/2013 - 20:00
This is the first generation of Americans in modern history expected to enjoy lower living standards than their forebears. It is the first generation in modern history whose life expectancy is dwindling. It is the first generation of modern Americans whose educational attainment is declining. It is the first generation of modern Americans who face less opportunity than their parents.
Shorter, nastier, dumber, harder, bleaker. That’s the future for not only Americans, but for many in the world’s richest countries.
Let me be clear why this is so remarkable. It’s not that the great wheel of prosperity is merely decelerating. It is that it actually seems to be turning backwards. The great wheel of progress already ground to a halt—several decades ago, if measured in terms of average incomes. And the real danger now? That it may be beginning to spin—in reverse.
Perhaps it’s just a blip. Perhaps it’s a temporary malfunction. Perhaps I’m overreacting — after all, the economy’s growing, right?
Yes… it is. And that’s precisely the problem.
For that is what tells us we are in truly uncharted water. The economy is indeed “growing.” But the top 1 percent have taken 95 percent of the gains in this so-called “recovery.” The plain fact is that the average household is poorer in the “recovery” than during the “recession.”
We cannot suggest that an economy is perfectly fine—nay, even healthy—just because a tiny number are growing richer while the lives of the vast majority are literally growing shorter, nastier, dumber, harder, and bleaker.
I can think of many other examples of progress slowing. Of prosperity decelerating. The great wheel’s motion is never even; there are bumps in the road of human progress — sometimes the great wheel spins furiously, sometimes, it hums along gently, and sometimes, it sputters and strains.
I can think of almost no other example in the history of modern democracies of progress actually becoming regress. Short of war or cataclysm, it is literally unprecedented. And that’s not the half of it. It’s unprecedented…because it should be impossible. If the rich get richer, it should be precisely because they create goods of real value to people, which elevate their living standards. In a working economy, “growth” should reflect real prosperity multiplying.
But when growth rises and living standards fall? That begins to hint that there is something wrong—very wrong, perhaps terribly wrong—with the way things are. It suggest that what is happening to this society is not merely a simple, passing, self-healing ailment; but a chronic, possibly permanent, definitely debilitating condition. Not a flu—but a cancer.
Economics has no language—no word—to describe this condition: one in which the economy is “growing” but human progress is reversing. It’s not a depression—for that’s a situation where growth flatlines. It’s not a recession—for that’s just a temporary setback in growth. A “dark age” would signify both a decline in growth and a decline in living standards.
We have no words for this condition because economics has no concepts with which to fully grapple with—let alone understand—it. And economics has no concepts with which to understand this condition because economics believes, more or less, that it simply isn’t possible. Progress cannot go backwards when an economy is “growing”; because growth, as I’ve noted, is believed by the acolytes of the cult of economics to be the alpha and omega of human prosperity.
What, then, do we call it?
For we must give it a name, this secret hidden in plain sight. The secret that, if it were to be mentioned, would—and should—instantly discredit our leaders. Would and should silently condemn our institutions.
Given that the growth rises even as life expectancy, mobility, and educational attainment fall — that GDP expands even as the lives of the vast majority contract from shrinking health, intelligence, income, wealth, relationships, stability, security, meaning, and purpose — I suggest we call it a Great Inversion.
In this post-recession twilight zone, our economy is upside-down and inside-out.
I won’t pretend to smile, pat you on the back, and offer you bullet-pointed “solutions.” Because to a phenomenon this great, this unprecedented, this historic? I don’t believe there are any.
But I do believe that maybe, just maybe, if we have the wisdom to think through the above, the empathy to feel the tremendous suffering the future already surely holds, and the courage to see what is right in front of us—well, then, maybe, just maybe we can reach another turning point.
Not one in which human progress goes into reverse. But in which it goes into overdrive. In which the great wheel hits the redline and we all surge forward.
That’s the real challenge of the 21st century. Not just more tired, piecemeal incrementalism; not more excuses for a broken status quo; not more apologists and yes-men for leaders barely worthy of the term; not more dead ideologies and empty dogmas—the very ones that led to a Great Inversion. But revolutions. Millions of them. In every mind; in every undreamt dream; in every skyward eye. In every life.
Kategorien: Umair Haque
Umair Haque - Mi, 11/06/2013 - 23:46
You know the alien cults that announce to their followers that next year, on October 28th, at precisely 4:05 pm, the master race will arrive, and save humanity? Of course, the aliens never arrive. But that doesn’t stop the cult from believing. It only strengthens their belief.
If, as I’d bet you do, you’re head-shakingly familiar with said cults, allow me to ask you a question.
Has capitalism failed? Or, if you like, is it failing? Let me be clear. I don’t mean: is capitalism useless, awful, worthless? I do mean: is capitalism failing at being the best possible means of organizing human work, life, and play?
Imagine a country called CapitalismStan. Imagine that country’s proud emblem was a great invisible hand. In every town square, its flag flew proudly. Prices were its idols; markets were its temples; products its litanies; and all knew what the great hand stood for: the undying ideals of competition, self-reliance, riches. A man’s worth was his wealth; the measure of people’s time was how much they earned; together, millions worked, hour after painstaking hour, on what they called “innovation”; good works divinely ordained by their titans; the markets.
Yet something was wrong in CapitalismStan. That very society was foundering. Its middle class was collapsing. It had already had a lost decade; and was starting on another. Its young had become a lost generation, desperately seeking opportunity. Median incomes had stagnated for decades. The economy spun headlong into a great recession; and then it “recovered”; but during the “recovery”, the richest 1% captured 95% of the gains. Millions faced chronic unemployment and poverty. Social mobility was low and decreasing. Life expectancy was dropping.
In short, life in CapitalismStan was getting shorter, nastier, unhappier, and harder. Meanwhile, other rich nations—notably those which did not worship the invisible hand so completely, totally, obediently, and unflappably—had prospered.
Does CapitalismStan’s story sound a little bit like America’s to you?
Now, allow me to rebut myself.
Maybe what’s practiced in the USA isn’t capitalism at all. It seems to be a toxic admixture of capitalism for the poor, who are ruthlessly whittled down, in brutal Darwinian contests; and socialism for the rich, for whom there appears to be no limit to bailouts, subsidies, and privileges. It’s a lethal cocktail of cronyism for the powerful; and endless struggle for the powerless. It’s neither fish nor fowl; but a chimera.
So what is this system that is faltering, precisely, if it’s not quite capitalism?
I’d call it “growthism.” It’s not just a system or a set of institutions. It’s a mindset; an ideology; a set of cherished beliefs. And one that’s hardened into dogma. A dogma which is palpably failing; but can’t be dislodged—because it’s become an article of faith, the central belief of a cult, whose priests and acolytes threaten mysterious, terrible, divine revenge whenever their authority is questioned.
Growthism says: growth must be achieved at all costs. When growth is achieved; societies are said to be successful; when it is not, they are said to be failing.
Growthism is willing to sacrifice everything for more growth. Even the very rights which enlightened societies once held to be inalienable. Are you concerned about the rise in extrajudicial mass spying, drone strikes, private security guards, military contractors, or even just the analytics that provide detailed information on what you say, do, and search to both the government and private companies? Too bad! Those are our growth industries, and woe to whatever or whoever stands in their way. Who cares about freedom of speech and assembly or the right to privacy when what we really need is good, growth-creating jobs? Jobs like becoming butlers and maids (or coaches, consultants, and “service-providers”) to the super-rich, who can purchase the “right” not to be frisked, stopped, or surveiled. Heaven forbid people protest. Why, that might hurt growth!
Growthism, then, is antithetical to democracy. Basic political and human rights, from the perspective of a growthist, are niggling sources of inefficiency that must be erased, rubbed out, sanded down. They are sources of social friction and tension that make people less productive workers and that encourage them to do things like wonder, question, agitate, challenge, defy, rebel, and think. Dammit! We don’t want a citizenry! We want a workforce.
Growthism contends that growth is the point; the alpha and omega; the sole purpose of all human effort—and therefore, all human effort must be directed towards growth.
That is the great mistake growthism makes. But growth is not an end. It is a means. A means to, at best, expanding eudaimonia; the capacity to live meaningfully well. And a means, at least, to expanding human freedom.
And because it is a means, not an end, growth is necessary—but not sufficient. For what? For prosperity. And nowhere is that more evident that in the USA; where the economy is “growing” but the majority of people under 40 are worse off than their forebears.
But wait! The average Joe now has riches he might never have dreamt of! Giant 3D TVs with subwoofers the size of small countries! A venti-soy-latte-ccino bigger than a beer keg…for $3.99! Soon, he’ll have a flying car…a robo-butler…a self-cleaning house…Talking Glasses That Tell You The Weather!! It’s amazing!
All of those toys are nice. But they are not substitutes for working societies, or real human prosperity, or the fact that it takes a working society to spark real human prosperity.
A good education; transport; energy; healthcare; community; food; all these and more are the foundations of real prosperity. Real prosperity isn’t a supergadget in every pocket…while educational attainment, income, wealth, community, opportunity, and life expectancy are dropping, while insecurity, loneliness, poverty, and inequality are skyrocketing.
Supergadgets, if they are to reduce you and I to something like fat miserable drooling zombies who’ve never read a book and enjoy no rights and don’t really remember why they matter…well, if that’s the upside of capitalism, maybe it’s a bargain only a fool would make.
Remember the alien cults? The aliens never arrive. The leaders turn around and say: followers! The aliens have been delayed on Jupiter! Why, the very fact that they’re not here is precisely how we know they’re coming! They’ll be here next year, same day, same time! Just hold on!
Sound familiar? It’s the story that growthism keeps telling all of us…about our lives. That one day, if we just believe in the magical power of growth, we’ll be saved! It’s just around the corner! The economy’s picking up steam! GDP’s growing again! Just hold on a little while longer. What, things didn’t get better for you this quarter? They surely will next quarter!
Growthism is a kind of cult. Like all cults, it asks us to deny reality; to sacrifice ourselves; to sever our ties with all that we love; and to indulge in magical thinking. Its high priests soothe us with incantations that have been flat wrong for decades. Its acolytes recite the prayers that have failed to bring rain for years. And still, they tell us: keep the faith. One day, salvation will be yours.
Growthism’s great crime—and yes, it is a crime; for it is costing you and I, right here, right now, lives we should be living, instead of the days we find ourselves limited to—is that it prevents societies from developing a sophisticated conception of what prosperity is. And hence, how to attain it. It is failing because it is stifling us from reaching past the tired, rusting idea that prosperity is merely stuff and trinkets, glittering baubles and gewgaws—and that it might, instead, be health, friendship, purpose, wisdom, resilience, happiness, a searing sense that all one’s days have mattered.
My answer, then, is this. Capitalism’s devolved into growthism. And growthism’s to this age what alchemy was to another. It’s a futile, mystical, laughable quest to turn lead into gold. But lead is just lead. And the truest wealth of life is having lived a life that matters.
The problem with alchemy isn’t that it doesn’t work. It’s that it does. It works so well—at telling us what we so desperately want to hear; Pssst! here’s the Secret! The Secret Formula! The Hidden Recipe!—that it leaves us incapable of thinking, feeling, dreaming, wondering, challenging, defying, rebelling. Thus, science remained stuck for centuries while alchemists searched in vain for the Philosopher’s Stone that they knew — they just knew — had to be possible. So, too, we’re stuck—lured by the glittering seduction of growthism.
But there was never any shortcut to turn lead into gold. And there’s no shortcut for building societies that work, in which every single person has a shot at a life that matters. And for each of us, there’s no shortcut for living that meaningful life.
So maybe, then, it’s time for you and I to leave this cult. The aliens probably aren’t going to arrive. The cheap, plastic junk that surrounds us probably isn’t worth what we paid – not just in cash (or, more likely, credit) to get it, but in freedom, time, and tears.
Maybe it’s time for each of us to take a deep breath, tell growthism to shove it, and chart our own new course.
Kategorien: Umair Haque