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How Would You Describe the First Quarter of the 21st Century? Plus, Lost Decades, and The Mistakes History Will Say We’re Making

How Would You Describe the First Quarter of the 21st Century? Plus, Lost Decades, and The Mistakes History Will Say We’re Making

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  1. Scientists struggle to explain ‘really weird’ spike in world temperatures (The Sydney Morning Herald)
  2. The Shocking Paper Predicting the End of Democracy (Politico)
  3. The post-2020 surge in calls for banning books, visualized (WaPo)
  4. Trump will face the first ever criminal trial of a former US president starting on April 15 (El Pais)
  5. Everyone wants the latest chips. That’s causing a huge headache for the world’s biggest supplier (CNN)
  6. 'You feel like something is dying': Climate change puts Colombian coffee production at risk (ITV)
  7. Election Workers Are Bracing for Another Barrage of Trump Threats (Vanity Fair)
  8. Climate report issues 'red alert' warning after record-breaking temperatures caused 'misery and mayhem' in 2023 (Sky News)
  9. Chuck Todd and ‘Morning Joe’ Hosts Object to NBC’s Hiring of Former R.N.C. Chair (NYT)

A calamity? A dumpster fire? Red alert for civilization? It’s hard to believe, but we’re almost a quarter of the way through…the 21st century. How would you describe it so far? That’s not a rhetorical question. As you read, have a think, and let us all know in the comments. You see…

There’s a kind of weird gaslighting going on at the moment. Which is that things are not good, and we all know it, but we’re not really supposed to talk about it. Sshhh—don’t rock the boat. But what if it’s sinking? Sorry, those are loaded words. Before I get there, let’s review.

How is the first quarter of the 21st century going, objectively speaking? We social scientists think of “objectivity,” a tricky notion, in two ways: factually, empirically, of course, but also compared to “counterfactuals,” or how things could have gone if. In this case, both kinds of thinking are helpful. 

A Lost Quarter Century

We economists sometimes speak of “lost decades” or “lost generations.” But the first 25% of the 21st century is shaping up to be something different: a lost…quarter of a century. And maybe more. 

Politics, economics, society, this mess we call human civilization. The first quarter of the 21st century has emphatically not gone well. We’ve reversed many of the gains we saw in previous eras.

Think of democracy, and the statistic I often cite for you (sorry.) Democracy’s fallen from over 40% of the world to just 20%. In what timeframe? In the first quarter of the 21st century

So you see what I mean by “reversing the gains of previous eras.” How long did it take to get to a world that was even 40% democratic? I suppose that depends on how you see it, but I’d say the more accurate answer is: centuries, if not millennia.

Or take the economy. Today, middle and working classes are shells of their former selves. They don’t enjoy the stability, security, self-esteem, place in society, meaning, purpose, of their forebears, their parents and grandparents. 

Meanwhile, for young people, we have generations now in downward mobility—a fairly shocking pattern, in which Gen X did worse than Boomers, Millennials worse than Gen X, Zoomers worse than Millennials, and so on. 

When did all that take place? The first quarter of the 21st century.

That’s just a brief review—I’ll shade it in in a moment. For now, the question is…

So what happened here?

The First Great Failure of the Early 21st Century, or Globalization

Of course, all that took place even in an era where economies were said to be, by and large, “booming” and “growing.” But somehow, all that didn’t translate into much, socially, politically, culturally, or even technologically.

What happened is that globalization failed. Those who brokered deals—like for Chinese labour, or American money, and so on—became ultra rich. They were already usually rich, because of course it takes money to sit atop bottlenecks. Yet they were allowed to keep all these gains, instead of sharing them even a little fairly with the rest of society.

And so what happened next is a pretty familiar tale by now. The working and middle class began to implode. America developed its Rust Belt, Europe its neglected industrial zones, and even in China, the putative path to upward mobility soon enough broke down, and today, young Chinese, unable to find jobs, call themselves the “lying flat generation.”

So: the gains of this nexus of trade deals and capital called “globalization” failed, and it failed aggressively

The Big Mistake History’s Going to Say We Made

What do I mean by “failed aggressively"? I mean that, looking back on it, history’s going to be pretty baffled. Asking itself: why did they make such an elementary mistake?

It wouldn’t have been asking much, after all, to share the gains of globalization a little more equitably. The super rich would still have been…super duper rich. They just might not have gotten ultra mega rich—but at this point, their wealth is what we economists call a “deadweight loss,” meaning they can’t spend it in a hundred lifetimes, let alone one, and so it just sits there, lumbering down the rest of us like a black hole.

It wouldn’t have been asking much, and it would have been the far wiser…move. Policy. Idea. Call it what you want. Sharing the gains of globalization equitably would have meant things like resuscitating America’s dying industries, instead of letting a Rust Belt develop, pumping money back into communities, providing pathways and money for retraining, developing new sectors for people to work in. In Europe, it would’ve meant expanding those famously generous social contracts, instead of chipping away at them, leaving the average person feeling insecure and unstable.

History’s pretty clear on why that would’ve been the wiser move. What happens when working and middle classes implode? When they fall into sudden impoverishment, lose their place in society, feel humiliated, neglected, abandoned? Authoritarianism and fascism do, of course, and that’s an old story, from Rome to Weimar Germany and beyond. 

Why didn’t we remember that lesson? Well, that “we” is a little unfair. I imagine many of us did. But a generation of leaders didn’t, and a generation of economists, pundits, and columnists—intelligentsia, in other words—didn’t think it mattered much, either. Back then, as globalization was failing, the sentiment of elites was sort of “let them eat cake.” So what if their jobs are being shipped overseas and their towns and communities falling apart and their lives falling apart? Suck it up, wimps! That’s creative destruction for you. That’s what it takes to really…


The Second and Third Great Failures of the Early 21st Century

While all this was going on, of course, there were two more great failures happening, in tandem, and for the same reasons. Because this paradigm—call it hyper capitalism, neoliberalism, whatever you wish—discounts the true costs of things, it didn’t count the costs of, for example, despair, social ruin, and class structures imploding. But it also didn’t count the costs, of course, of climate change. 

And so planetary havoc began to beckon. By now, we all know that the mega-scale impacts of climate change have begun to arrive. But think back a quarter century, if you’re old enough: many of us would scarcely have believed that they’d arrive this fast and hard, the way they have. If I’d said 25 years ago “Canada’s going to be on fire, and American cities are going to be choking on the fumes,” most people would have laughed at me. Yet here we are.

And that sort of…denial? Willful ignorance? Kept happening, for far too long, because of third great failure of the 21st century, which was technological. Technology used to mean “general purpose technologies” that genuinely transform people’s lives. From the microchip to the wheel. But in our age, technology got reduced and diminished to “tech,” meaning apps and social media, and that was what money poured into, like a gusher.

But not into the stuff we needed far, far more than that—new general purpose technologies for clean, air, water, and food. As a civilization, right now, at this very moment, we have literally no idea, none whatsoever, how to produce any of our basics, from cement to iron to steel to glass to agriculture, without fossil fuels. We are in a deep and dire trap, which is why we’re already at basically 1.5 degrees of warming, and heating up fast.

Meanwhile, the true costs of “tech,” this stunted, diminished version of technology, weren’t counted either, and so the sort of creepy dudes who ran these platforms and apps quickly discovered they could do fairly terrible things, like hook kids on the dopamine rush of another hit, and get away with it. So we had a double whammy—not just a lack of investment in what we needed, but malinvestment, meaning, investment in stuff that makes us worse off, which is pretty inarguably what all this “tech” is now doing, from slathering us in misinformation to making young people miserable, to rotting away democracy itself with the bilious acids of spite, hate, and venom.

History will count all those as mistakes, too, of course.

How Much More of This Century Are We Going to Lose?

That brings us back to now. We’re living through something genuinely unprecedented, at least in the modern era. A lost quarter century. Even great wars didn’t have those sorts of impacts, and of course, sure, they cost more in terms of immediately lost lives, but that’s not what we’re comparing: the drag on human possibility itself.

That sinking feeling we all experience these days? What we feel when we say “the world’s in chaos,” or “times are pretty dire,” or “wow, this decade is bleak,” or what have you? Go ahead, admit it, it’s OK, you don’t have to pretend. It’s the sort of creeping knowledge dawning that we are blowing it. That a lost quarter century has happened, and greater and longer stagnation and regress is in the cards, unless and until things change. It’s a kind of dread, panic, and fear, about the long-term, not just today, but yesterdays and tomorrows, a “how did it all go so wrong?,” or, “how the hell did we get here?”

All of that’s…how I’d describe the first quarter of the 21st century. So now it’s your turn. Fire away and let us all know what you think. I think that we need to discuss it more, because so far? We’re supposed to mostly pretend, la-la-la, that things are fine. We all know they’re emphatically not. Perhaps we should update the old saying, then. Gaslight me once…

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