Searching for Western 'Decadence'? Look No Further Than Covid-19 in 2020
“Every book about the future is unavoidably a Rorschach test of the anxieties and events of the present. That’s why so many predictions fail; they miss the markers of what is truly new. Forecasters extrapolate, in effect, based on yesterday’s technologies, or on what they think should happen to address today’s troubles.” Those are the words of Manhattan Institute senior fellow Mark Mills. They come from a review he wrote of a new book that is a collection of essays about what’s allegedly ahead, Future Shock.
Mills’ sense of history along with his sense of human nature tells him that what concerns people today, and what they forecast for the future, will not age very well. In other words, he gently made plain to readers of his excellent review that the predictions within Future Shock are probably not worth the paper they’re being printed on.
He would likely agree that if those who forecast to great acclaim truly had vision, along with a deep belief in the vision expressed, they would most likely not express it in books. There’s a lot of money – realistically billions – associated with an ability to see what’s ahead.
Mills’ review came to mind while reading about Ross Douthat’s new book, The Decadent Society. Up front, the thesis is difficult to countenance despite Douthat’s undeniable skill as a writer. Really, how can one person claim, as Douthat does, that “the Western world seems to be in crisis”? That’s quite a blanket statement about something that’s vast. Douthat also sets out to explain why “society ceases advancing” amid “economic stagnation, political stalemates, cultural exhaustion, and demographic decline.” Ok, but staggering amounts of investment flow into Western countries, plus the cost of debt for those same countries is extraordinarily low. Both market signals belie the excellent New York Times columnist’s pessimism.
Indeed, if the West represents decline in Douthat’s telling, presumably Asia or East represents ascendance? If so, it should be said that the symbols of Western capitalism are everywhere in China and any other parts of the world experiencing a little or a lot of growth. If the Western world is deteriorating, it’s hard to tell by traveling outside of it. Market signals yet again reject the pessimism.
Notable is that Douthat himself tries to explain 2008 as part of his bigger argument about the West, he might reply to the above that 2008 proves markets can be “wrong,” but that too would be incorrect. Not written about enough is that over 90% of the housing loans that people still incorrectly bill as the “cause” of the 2008 crack-up ultimately performed. If we ignore the truth, that the 2008 catastrophe was really a consequence of government intervention in the natural workings of markets, we can’t ignore that the vast majority of loans made way back when were low-risk. The rush into housing was the financial system’s way of financing a movement away from risk, not toward it. But that’s another story.
For now it should be said that big money follows those who know what’s happening now, and what’s ahead. It doesn’t subtract from Douthat’s talents as a writer or chronicler of the modern world to say that his analysis likely won’t prove very prescient.
It seems we already have evidence of just that. Per Mills, forecasters “extrapolate, in effect,” based “on what they think should happen to address today’s troubles.” One senses that the troubles Douthat foresaw in his latest book didn’t include a massive reaction by the Western political class to a virus.
About the coronavirus, readers can bring to it their own prejudices. Some think the political response is not muscular enough to what they deem rather lethal, while others (including yours truly) think the alarmism informing a lockdown of so much of the global economy is staggeringly inept, with far-reaching and tragic implications.
Time will tell who’s right, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that what no one predicted is the surest evidence of societal decay, or decadence. This isn’t to say that what’s transpired signals irreversible cultural and economic decline (Warren Buffett has been buying from the pessimists for decades, and it's hard to believe "this time is different" for him and other optimists), but the lighting-fast lurch from economic dynamism to command-and-control has been whiplash inducing. And wholly unexpected. No one was predicting back in February, or even early March, that much of the Western world’s economy would soon be shut down by decree. If they tell you they predicted the “Covid-19 Contraction” which is wholly a consequence of the inept Rule of Man, they’re lying.
Douthat surely didn’t predict this in The Decadent Society. And that's not an indictment of Douthat. Still, it’s a reminder of how difficult it is to make sweeping proclamations about anything that has to do with the future. Or the present. Figure that even those who had an inkling in February and early March that the virus would reach the U.S.in size fashion (or not so much) didn’t predict the political response on the local, state and national level. Yet as this is being written, a quarter of the world’s formerly most dynamic economy sits idle.
To this disastrous turn of events Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith observed in the Wall Street Journal that there “are economic blessings to be counted.” In particular, “Consumers have emptied the shelves of the supermarkets and drug stores” as “pharmacies, groceries and big-box retailers are taking on more part-time employees and paying more overtime.”
About Smith’s analysis, it’s surely a testament to how nimble are some U.S. service industries that they’ve so deftly taken on demand surges. My, how Americans can mobilize.
Still, let’s not forget that savings and investment are the drivers of progress, not consumption. It’s savings that led to the automobile, airplane and computer, along with the internet, smartphones and WiFi speeds that continue to amaze. People talk in awestruck fashion about a 5G future, but based on abundant savings and investment it wasn’t unreasonable before this crack-up to start wondering what would replace 5G, or if copious savings and investment might lead to the leapfrogging of 5G altogether.
So while it’s great for all too many Americans that they can take weeks and perhaps months off with certainty that grocery store shelves will be stocked, that Postmates and Uber Eats will be ready when the overstocked get bored with home cooking, and that Netflix, Amazon Prime and others will have produced “Tiger King” and other content to meet the needs of the idled when they’re not eating, we have to ask about the future. Consumption once again doesn’t drive economic growth, savings do. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that readers can expect slower future progress rooted in the rapid transformation of savings into consumption, not to mention all the savings government will extract from society to pay the individuals it cruelly idled.
More broadly, it’s interesting thinking about the above in relation to the many poor families where father and mother were waiters, service workers, masseuses, baristas, and things like that. They've got nothing now. Their income has been ripped from them, as have the businesses of all too many entrepreneurs. A tragedy is unfolding, yet readers of this piece are surely familiar with myriad happy Facebook and Instagram posts about happy families cooking together, painting together, playing sports together as they "make the best of it". Have the blissful forgotten why life can at least temporarily be so grand despite the imposition of command and control? Shouldn't they maybe keep quiet about how easy is the time off for them amid their baking, “cookie kits” for kids, and home schooling?
To be clear, this isn’t a critique of the superrich whose brilliant mass production of so much has made it possible for so many in the middle to essentially whistle through what is a terrifying time for those not so well situated. Those not well situated are the individuals for whom work was a destination that couldn’t be accessed by superfast internet similarly created by the centimillionaires and billionaires whom all too many in the Middle disdain in illiterate fashion. Life goes on for so many in the prosperous world of the Middle made prosperous by the remarkably unequal who produced so much abundance that all too many can stop working for a few weeks.
At the same time, can't it at least be argued that the decadence Douthat aimed to pinpoint has been found? Just perhaps not where he pinpointed it?
Sorry, but the billionaire rich have earned their brilliant living conditions. What they enjoy is a consequence of a remarkable understanding of the needs of so many, and an ability to anticipate needs previously unexpressed.
Seemingly the more expressed indulgence alongside moral and cultural decline comes from a Middle that’s never had it so good, that can in all-too-many instances as of this writing wait out the “flattening of the curve” while stocking up on endless amounts of food that won’t be consumed, try all sorts of takeout, then digest the abundance while consuming endless amounts of media. In other words, a huge mass of America that is arguably average in terms of commercial skill has the means to basically shut down for weeks, and perhaps longer. Triumph and tragedy at all once.
And what of the political class that authored this hideous shutdown, or lockdown? They’re arguably a careless reflection of a prosperous Middle, and a consequence of what is the tragedy and triumph of abundance. Though it used to be that it was “the economy, Stupid”, the superrich so often demagogued by the political class have created so much affluence (what, you think those jobs you have are a creation of middle earners?) that politicians can blithely shut things down for weeks at a time so that they can grandstand about “stopping every infection.” Politicians can do this while throwing trillions worth of wealth created by the superrich at a problem that is so clearly a creation of politicians. Please stop and think about this. Given how relatively primitive was technology and production 25 and 50 years ago, not to mention wealth, does anyone seriously think politicians could have issued lockdown orders a quarter and a half century ago?
Still, what of those for whom Uber isn’t a verb, for whom going to the grocery store involves checking the price of every item the purchase of which is considered in terms of tradeoffs, who have never heard of The Crown, Breaking Bad or Mad Men, and for whom this shut down has ushered in unemployment, financial ruin, or both? Oh, those people.
To be clear, this way-too-long write-up is not a critique of the superrich who've authored enormous living standard increases for all. No way. They're the heroes. And it’s surely not a call for more government or socialism. It’s merely a suggestion that contra the belief that the Middle is the backbone of society, it’s arguably where the decadence and decay is most apparent, and most loathsome. Sorry for the long read. Your GrubHub order is waiting out front.