June 7, 2018
The Causes of Western Existential Anxiety
The Western world is in crisis.
People feel left behind as wealth disparity widens and traditional means to create "The American Dream" - or more broadly, the Western middle class dream - no longer work. It used to be that a working class job would support a family and retirement. This notion has evaporated, leaving a vast swath of the population with existential anxiety. And they want answers.
But what caused this? Why did the formula for a middle class life change? And why is Western democracy in crisis?
This is not easy to answer. There is a multitude of variables converging to brew a toxic social and economic cocktail. Three of most prominent variables are technology, globalism and productivity growth.
New technologies have helped automate various production processes. This means that machines and computers have helped eliminate many of the solid working class jobs in the Western world.
Moreover, with an abundance of workers, but shrinking supply of jobs, labor power has weakened. Consequently, wages, benefits, pensions and job security have weakened for those who remain employed in production processes. Invariably, technology has left millions of working class people in the dust.
Unfortunately, automation technology has only begun to replace humans. Over the next decade millions more jobs - from truckers to processing clerks - are expected to be replaced by lines of code.
The free movement of labor and capital has benefited the world in aggregate. However, large portions of the population has suffered as manufacturing plants moved overseas to emerging markets (like China), jobs were off-shored to cheaper countries and cheaper imports overtook domestically produced items. While domestic consumers benefited immensely from cheaper iPhones, TVs, clothes and more, the old world manufacturing jobs were destroyed. China's entrance to the World Trade Organization in 2001 precipitated this decline by suddenly flooding the global market with cheap labor.
Rising productivity benefited all Western nations. Institutional memory is one that believes high productivity growth is a given. The Industrial Revolution brought the steam engine, electricity, combustion engine and petroleum to the world. These technologies lifted the fortunes of Western society for about two centuries as new and increasingly better ways to utilize these technologies were developed. Everything from manufacturing to transportation to laundry were revolutionized. In the 1980s the personal computer entered the mainstream. During the 1990s, the Internet expanded. These two developments raised raw processing and communications power to unimaginable levels. Altogether the developments over the past couple hundred years created massive amounts of wealth that was relatively painlessly spread across society - even to those who were otherwise left behind - via social welfare programs.
Unfortunately things have changed. Since roughly the year 2000, overall productivity growth has stagnated. We are still becoming more productive, but not at the same rates as during the past couple centuries. It is quite possible that the productivity explosion of the modern human era is an aberration in human history. Mankind made a number of discoveries that are very difficult to replicate. For instance, oil and electricity can only be discovered once. It will take a revolutionary new energy source to replicate the benefits bestowed on Western civilization by oil and electricity. At the same time, mankind is running out of new ways to make big productivity gains using the old discoveries. So productivity growth has slowed.
This means that wealth creation as a society slows. Wealth is still being created but not at the previous pace. So the spoils are more likely to be hoarded, as opposed to shared with those left behind. This would help explain widening income disparity while the rich become richer.
A Wicked Cocktail
Technological change, globalization and productivity declines are creating existential anxiety for millions of working class people living across the Western world. While owners of capital flourish, working class folks, like coal miners and machine operators, no longer have a role in their economies and are suffering.
What do they do? How do they pay their bills? The heroes of the working class past are now relics of an old world economy, but remain every bit as relevant in the voting booth.
This is a world built by liberalism and centrist conservatism. Indeed, the Republican demi-god - Ronald Reagan - was an unapologist globalist. Classic liberal ideals, such as the free movement of goods, people and capital were exalted by centrist conservatives during the final decades of the productivity boom. Today, these ideologies are seen as elitist.
The new Republican ideology is one that expels the empiricism and logic of the past. For these things no longer matter when your world has crumbled around you. Instead, a new conservatism has arisen - one that speaks to the heart rather than the mind. As long as people hear what they want, facts don't matter.
How many parents of terminally ill children reassuringly lie that "everything will be OK"? Even the child who deep down knows the truth seeks comfort in the lie. Who can blame anyone for seeking comfort, despite the cognitive dissonance required? As long as people feel hopeless they will welcome the lie, even if it clearly conflict with science, facts and empiricism.
The half of America that is bearing the brunt of the economic and social upheaval caused by technological change, globalism and productivity declines have now put their faith in a man that taps directly to the vein of their crumbling existence. By broadcasting what was traditionally said behind closed doors and by trading platitudes for likes, this type of man defies convention, which usually included a blend of rhetoric and fact. But with the unconventional comes more unconventional.
This man doesn't play the part, throws things off kilter and defies accepted norms. This man tweets constitutional threats and broods incessantly over petty squabbles. At the same time, he is the bare-chested strongman riding on horseback making unsubstantiated claims that he will make things great again. He is the opiate for the pained relics of an industrial era.
Don't let your iPhones, Netflix and Instagram fool you - we are undergoing the natural demise of an economic era of unusual productivity growth and wealth creation. With economic and social agitation comes political upheaval. Unless the world again discovers new fundamental and groundbreaking technologies rivaling those of the Industrial Revolution, societal polarization and Western existential anxiety will only worsen.