By most material measures we’re doing better as a species than we ever have. That is, in an absolute sense. But a lot of human life is about relative prosperity. I recall hearing once that role playing games which emphasized egalitarianism, with no “winners” or “losers,” often had a difficult time gaining users. We are a cooperative species, but we’re also a competitive species. The idea of a rising tiding lifting all boats is appealing, but so is the idea that one needs to have a larger McMansion than the Jones’. Non-zero sum interactions are splendid, but as social organisms we evolved to a great extent in a world dominated by zero sum games. Our rationality counsels that we trust in reason’s logic, but our emotions drive us toward cognitive biases such as loss aversion.
Three articles in The New York Times prompt me to reflect on the shortsightedness of modern life in the developed and aspiring developed world. First, It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk. Basically the transformation of college into the new high school. Second, As Families Change, Korea’s Elderly Are Turning to Suicide. The focus of this article is how modern economic and social tumult are tearing apart the fabric of South Korean life. But it also focuses on the mad scramble for the “best” education which drives many to penury: ‘Some parents, the “edu poor,” drained their savings to pay for cram schools that operate after regular school and on weekends.’ Finally, In China, Families Bet It All on College for Their Children. This despite the fact that there is a surfeit of graduates in many areas.
All of this can be put into perspective by this Peter Turchin piece, Return of the oppressed: From the Roman Empire to our own Gilded Age, inequality moves in cycles. The future looks like a rough ride (here is a long review of Turchin’s work, as well as an interview). Turchin’s descriptive argument is that we are looking at an age of greater inequality, where aspirant elites will be competing for fewer positions of glory and the middle class will shift downward. This is embedded in a more formal theoretical system of ‘secular cycles’ which he has developed previous in his books and articles, but which need not concern us in detail here. Rather, it is well known that in the developed world the wage gap between skilled and unskilled workers has increased since 1970, reversing the great decline after 1800. In short, the middle class society arguably ‘peaked’ in the 1960s in the developed world. Though the great lift out of poverty in the developing world has resulted in an aggregate increase in per capita health and wealth across the world, the lower half of the economic distribution in the developed world is exhibiting symptoms of immiseration. Though real absolute gains in economic productivity mean that the white American working class can purchase consumer gadgets of incredible power, their life expectancy is dropping.
The structural conditions underlying the shift are moving like inevitable forces of history. Barring a Butlerian Jihad economic productivity will continue to increase, but fewer and fewer workers will drive this growth engine. For two centuries many have falsely predicted the negative impact of technology upon labor, but over the past few decades we have seen a genuine increase in the wage gap between the skilled and unskilled. So I think it’s time to wonder if we’re finally near the end of one cycle of broad based gains in wealth due to increased productivity, as a generation has passed and inequality has continued to increase. This is of course in the context of the fact that billions are slowly rising themselves out of grinding poverty. The pie is growing larger, but the developed segment is redistributing itself in a manner in which the elites are monopolizing more and more.
What to do about this? First, I think it is foolhardy to presume to every individual should receive higher education so as to increase their productivity, and become managers, technicians, and researchers. Not all positions require higher education. And there are only so many researchers and managers that are needed. There is the idea that the economy will diversify and consumption will start to be geared more toward services which only humans can provide, because ultimately the elites do have to consume. But this will take a cultural change in outlook. It was respectable to be a factory worker, serving the broader institution of the corporation. Will it be as respectable to be the entertainers, assistants, and household help of the elite? What we might see in the new economy is a revived form of ancient clientage, as elites accrue to themselves various dependents which provide both services and signal prestige.
This may seem fanciful and unrealistic. But what I do know is unrealistic is the idea that everyone can become a scientist, physician, lawyer, or accountant. There is a new economic order coming, and everyone is understandably scrambling for their positions toward the higher steps of the pyramid. But are expenditures to gain credentials truly beneficial to the body politic? The reality is that many students will learn little, and the credentials will be debased. The sum totality of their ‘education’ will be a transfer of payments to the university system, as well as a debt load which they will not be able to discharge.
What’s the solution? I have no fixed idea, but step one is to start talking about the problem and the likely reality that we need to radically reorient our understanding of what it means to be a successful citizen and how a society can flourish. 2,500 years ago something similar happened during the Axial Age. Philosophical and religious systems arose which synthesized the various tensions at the heart of complex post-Neolithic civilizations. The Classical Greeks, Indians, and Chinese, were a brutal people. But they smoothed over the coarseness of earlier ages, for example, the disappearance of human sacrifice as a mainstream part of the social order. Ultimate the religions and traditions which crystallized during this period were a reaction to the fact that the tribal ethos of the Neolithic could go only so far during the literate age of mass polities. Religion in particular operated at the intersection of symbolic egalitarianism, concrete hierarchy, and a synthesis of philosophy and superstition. Out of this melange arose the Whiggish sensibility, expanding upon the egalitarianism at the heart of world religions, and creating the modern liberal individualist sensibility. It seems to me that one of the primary preconditions for a robust liberal individualist polity, a middle class dominated society, is in the first stages of death across the developed. Can liberal individualism survive the death of the middle class? I have no idea.