In the new issue of Commentary, Nicholas Eberstadt writes a piece so sobering that it makes Carrie Nation look like Foster Brooks (it was the ’70s, you had to have been there). Eberstadt, a demographer, looks at economic, health, and demographic data for the US in the 21st century, and sounds the alarm.
Yes, things are very different indeed these days in the “real America” outside the bubble. In fact, things have been going badly wrong in America since the beginning of the 21st century.
It turns out that the year 2000 marks a grim historical milestone of sorts for our nation. For whatever reasons, the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then—and broke down very badly.
The warning lights have been flashing, and the klaxons sounding, for more than a decade and a half. But our pundits and prognosticators and professors and policymakers, ensconced as they generally are deep within the bubble, were for the most part too distant from the distress of the general population to see or hear it. (So much for the vaunted “information era” and “big-data revolution.”) Now that those signals are no longer possible to ignore, it is high time for experts and intellectuals to reacquaint themselves with the country in which they live and to begin the task of describing what has befallen the country in which we have lived since the dawn of the new century.
What has gone wrong? Well, take the economy. By some measures, it’s robust. The stock market has gone through the roof, and Americans are richer than ever, on the whole. Sure, the windfall is unevenly distributed, but still, a rising tide lifts all boats, right? Why are so many people so angry that they voted for Donald Trump?
Those numbers don’t really tell the story of what’s going on, says Eberstadt. If you dig deeper, you’ll see that because of the 2008 crash, the US has suffered what amounts to a “lost decade” in GDP growth — which between 2000 and 2007 was already weak compared to the period between 1948 and 2000. Economists can’t figure out precisely why this is, but they agree on this: economic growth is going to be very minor for the foreseeable future.
On the employment front, the work rates — people engaged in any paid employment — are dismal, at “their lowest levels in decades.” Writes Eberstadt, “Unless you are a labor economist, you may not appreciate just how severe a falloff in employment such numbers attest to. Postwar America never experienced anything comparable.” Eberstadt:
On Wall Street and in some parts of Washington these days, one hears that America has gotten back to “near full employment.” For Americans outside the bubble, such talk must seem nonsensical. It is true that the oft-cited “civilian unemployment rate” looked pretty good by the end of the Obama era—in December 2016, it was down to 4.7 percent, about the same as it had been back in 1965, at a time of genuine full employment. The problem here is that the unemployment rate only tracks joblessness for those still in the labor force; it takes no account of workforce dropouts. Alas, the exodus out of the workforce has been the big labor-market story for America’s new century. (At this writing, for every unemployed American man between 25 and 55 years of age, there are another three who are neither working nor looking for work.) Thus the “unemployment rate” increasingly looks like an antique index devised for some earlier and increasingly distant war: the economic equivalent of a musket inventory or a cavalry count.
“There is no way to sugarcoat these awful numbers,” says Eberstadt.
They are not a statistical artifact that can be explained away by population aging, or by increased educational enrollment for adult students, or by any other genuine change in contemporary American society. The plain fact is that 21st-century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work.
There are other economic measures Eberstadt talks about, all of them shocking. The people inside the bubble don’t see any of this, he says, because they’re doing pretty well. They may not understand why public trust in institutions is plunging, because everything’s working out for them. But that’s them; that’s not most of America.
It’s not just an economic problem, Eberstadt says. Family breakdown has been proceeding since the 1960s, so that’s not new, nor is the steady decline in civil society — the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon. The decline in health statistics is something new, and ominous.
Eberstadt mentions the famous 2015 study by Anne Case and Angus Deaton showing rising death rates for middle-aged whites, especially the working class — much of it “accounted for by suicides, chronic liver cirrhosis, and poisonings (including drug overdoses).” Overall life expectancy in the US recently posted its first decline in decades. The data show that “health progress in America essentially ceased in 2012—that the U.S. gained on average only about a single day of life expectancy at birth between 2012 and 2014, before the 2015 turndown.”
There’s the opioid epidemic, of course. Get this:
In the fall of 2016, Alan Krueger, former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, released a study that further refined the picture of the real existing opioid epidemic in America: According to his work, nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts—an army now totaling roughly 7 million men—currently take pain medication on a daily basis.
We already knew from other sources (such as BLS “time use” surveys) that the overwhelming majority of the prime-age men in this un-working army generally don’t “do civil society” (charitable work, religious activities, volunteering), or for that matter much in the way of child care or help for others in the home either, despite the abundance of time on their hands. Their routine, instead, typically centers on watching—watching TV, DVDs, Internet, hand-held devices, etc.—and indeed watching for an average of 2,000 hours a year, as if it were a full-time job. But Krueger’s study adds a poignant and immensely sad detail to this portrait of daily life in 21st-century America: In our mind’s eye we can now picture many millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work and not looking for jobs, sitting in front of screens—stoned.
There’s more — lots more — but you get the idea. Eberstadt says:
The funny thing is, people inside the bubble are forever talking about “economic inequality,” that wonderful seminar construct, and forever virtue-signaling about how personally opposed they are to it. By contrast, “economic insecurity” is akin to a phrase from an unknown language. But if we were somehow to find a “Google Translate” function for communicating from real America into the bubble, an important message might be conveyed:
The abstraction of “inequality” doesn’t matter a lot to ordinary Americans. The reality of economic insecurity does. The Great American Escalator is broken—and it badly needs to be fixed.
You can read the whole thing if you’re a Commentary subscriber.
Economist Tyler Cowen has even gloomier news. He says when people talk about the coming mass automation of jobs, they talk about how it’s going to be a new Industrial Revolution. That’s not a comforting thought:
The shift out of agricultural jobs [in the first Industrial Revolution], while eventually a boon for virtually all of humanity, brought significant problems along the way. This time probably won’t be different, and that’s exactly why we should be concerned.
For example, depressed wages. Cowen says the lack of wage growth we’re living through now is reminiscent of the first Industrial Revolution. And there’s this:
Industrialization, and the decline of the older jobs in agriculture and the crafts economy, also had some pernicious effects on social ideas. The early to mid-19th century saw the rise of socialist ideologies, largely as a response to economic disruptions. Whatever mistakes Karl Marx made, he was a keen observer of the Industrial Revolution, and there is a reason he became so influential. He failed to see the long-run ability of capitalism to raise living standards significantly, but he understood and vividly described the transition costs and the economic volatility.
Western economies later turned to variants of the social welfare state, but along the way the intellectual currents of the 19th century produced a lot of overreaction in other, more destructive directions. The ideas of Marx fed into the movements behind the Soviet Union, Communist China and the Khmer Rouge. Arguably, fascist doctrine also was in part a response to the disruptions of industrialization in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
I like to think we will be more intellectually moderate this time around, but the political developments of the last few years, and the observed global tilt toward the authoritarian, are hardly reassuring.
Read the whole thing. I’m going to revise one of the Benedict Option talks I’m going to deliver this week to account for all this. The Benedict Option is primarily a way to hold on to the orthodox Christian faith in a time of chaos, turmoil, and decadence. But I’m beginning to think that it is also a way to build solidarity in the face of economic chaos and political turmoil of a sort that will characterize American life in the decades to come.