“These are truly unprecedented times”
This is something we have all heard an innumerable amount of times since the NBA shut down. But, history’s perspective reminds us that all previous generations have proclaimed the same turmoil. Some have referred to Nassim Taleb’s book The Black Swan when discussing the impossibility of forecasting such an event, but that is a misrepresentation of the statistics. We should have been prepared. The department of health and human services has a specific undersecretary responsible for pandemic preparedness, there was a recent act of congress passed reinforcing the importance of pandemic preparedness, and there has been a bipartisan commission working on this pandemic preparedness for the last 5 years. Taleb warns of the perils of trying to “time” insurance yet many of our leaders did precisely that. Worst of all, the White House suddenly discontinued its Global Health Security and Biodefense office established after the 2014 Ebola outbreak to counter future epidemics. Combine the lack of preparation with terrible monetary policy, blatant lying, and what you find is gross incompetence.
Yet people are left asking “when will things go back to normal?” Well, what was normal? Everyone knows we live in a time of constant acceleration, of upward momentum, of transformation or looming disaster everywhere you look. Partisans are girding for civil war, robots are coming for our jobs, and the news feels like a multi-car pileup every time you fire up Twitter. Our pessimists see crises everywhere; our optimists insist that we’re just anxious because the world is changing faster than our primitive ape-brains can process.
But, what if the feeling of acceleration in our “normal” was an illusion, conjured by our expectations of perpetual progress and exaggerated by the distorting filter of the internet? What if Western society inhabits an era in which repetition is more the norm than invention; in which political stalemate stamps out large, productive transformation; in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private life alike; and in which new developments in science and new exploratory projects consistently underdeliver? What if COVID 19 is the kick to wake us up out of our 50-year slumber?
In 2017, a group of economists published a paper asking, “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?” The answer was a clear yes: “We present a wide range of evidence from various industries, products, and firms showing that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.” In his 2011 book “The Great Stagnation,” Tyler Cowen cited an analysis from the Pentagon physicist Jonathan Huebner, who modelled an innovations-to-population ratio for the last 600 years: It shows a slowly ascending arc through the late 19th century when major inventions were rather easy to conceive and adopt, and a steepening decline ever since, as rich countries spend more and more on research to diminishing returns.
Economic and physical limitations exist as hypotheses to explain these diminishing returns, but I would argue the primary driver of this corrosion is decadence.
The word “decadence,” as the great cultural critic Jacques Barzun suggests, refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. Under decadence, Barzun writes, “The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are intolerable results.” He adds, “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” And crucially, the stagnation is often a consequence of previous development: A decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own success.
Top firms successfully lobotomize young STEM talent and manage to snuff out any potential innovators (competitors) before they are an idea. They pay people to drink kombucha and eat greek yogurt just so they don’t compete. This isn’t a criticism of young STEM grads who are put in a position to either provide for their family or pursue big ideas, but more so the system of which they occupy. Young people are the source of economic vitality and dynamism, and their ardour has been robbed in order for hegemonic firms to perpetuate their dominance.
This has caused American entrepreneurship to decline since the 1970s: Early in Jimmy Carter’s presidency, 17% of all United States businesses had been founded the previous year; by the start of Barack Obama’s second term, the rate was about 10%. In the late 1980s, almost half of United States companies were “young,” meaning less than five years old; by the 2008 Recession that share was down to 39%, and the share of “old” firms (founded more than 15 years ago) rose from 22% to 34% over a similar period. And those companies increasingly sit on cash or pass it back to shareholders rather than investing in new enterprises. From World War II through the 1980s, according to a recent report from Senator Marco Rubio’s office, private domestic investment approached 10% of GDP, in 2019, despite a corporate tax cut intended to get money off the sidelines and the investment-to-GDP ratio was less than half of that.
The increase in student debt coinciding with wage increases at incumbent organizations (as well as societal, parental, and peer pressures) has created a skewed risk-reward profile that disincentivizes entrepreneurship, casting us further into the darkness of decadence.
This increase in stable, sterile work and numerous doubtful pressures has also pushed us to stop pursuing big ideas in the areas of research and business because of the ruthless competition for tenure and research funding. As a byproduct of this institutional derangement, fields such as Space exploration, theoretical physics, and real AI research have seen insufficient progress over the last 50 years because of the fear of being called a charlatan or starving.
The Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel, another prominent stagnation, likes to snark that “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” And even the people who will explain to you in high seriousness that nobody would really want a flying car, can’t get around the basic points that Thiel, Huebner, and others have been making. Take any of the great breakthroughs of the industrial age — planes, trains and automobiles, antibiotics, and indoor plumbing — and it still looms larger in our everyday existence than all of the contributions of the tech revolution combined.
We wanted to travel faster, build bigger, live longer; now we communicate faster, chatter more, snap more selfies. We wanted to go to the moon; now we make movies about space — amazing movies with completely convincing special effects that make it seem as if we’ve left earth behind. And we hype the revolutionary character of our communications devices in order to convince ourselves that our earlier expectations were just fantasies, “Jetsons stuff” — that this progress is the only progress we could reasonably expect. The cultural shift towards entrepreneurship and risk-taking is necessary, otherwise, we will continue to go down a path of decadence.
The reader may be thinking that decadence could be seen as good because it has increased innovations of comfort, raising our absolute standard of living above that of pre-decadence. A sustainable decadence, if you will, is one in which the crucial task for 21st-century humanity would be making the most of a prosperous stagnation: learning to temper our expectations and live within limits; making sure existing resources are distributed more justly; using education to lift people into the sunlit uplands of the creative class, and doing everything we can to help poorer countries transition successfully into our current position. Not because meliorism can cure every ill, but because the more revolutionary alternatives are too dangerous, and a simple greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number calculus requires that we just keep the existing system running and give up more ambitious dreams.
But this argument only carries you so far. Even if the dystopia never quite arrives, the longer a period of stagnation continues, the narrower the space for fecundity and piety, memory and invention, creativity, and daring. The unresisted drift of decadence can lead into a territory of darkness whose sleekness covers over a sickness unto death. And true dystopias are distinguished, in part, by the fact that many people inside them don’t realize that they’re living in one, because human beings are adaptable enough to take even absurd and inhuman premises for granted. If we feel that elements of our own system are, shall we say, dystopia-ish — from the reality-television star in the White House to the addictive surveillance devices always in our hands; from the drugs and suicides in our hinterlands to the sterility of our rich cities — then it’s possible that an outsider would look at our decadence and judge it more severely still.
So decadence must be critiqued and resisted — not by fantasies of ennobling world wars, not by Tyler Durden from “Fight Club” planning to blow every Ikea living room sky-high, but by the hope that where there’s stability, there also might eventually be renewal, that decadence need not give way to collapse to be escaped, that the renaissance can happen without the misery of an intervening dark age.
Today we are just 50 years removed from the peak of human accomplishment and daring that put human beings on the moon, and all the ferment that surrounded it. The next renaissance will be necessarily different and will be led by the youth because they are not yet jaded by stagnation. Realism about our own situation should make us more inclined, not less, to look and hope for such a renaissance — for the day when our culture feels more fruitful, our politics less futile, and the frontiers that seem closed today are opened once again. We have a moral imperative to ensure that when we begin to start up our economy we don’t aim to return back to “normal” but, instead aim to build the future we want to see. That’s why we are the ‘Future-Forward’ firm.
Share your vision for the future, and let’s build something that matters.