What kind of year is 2024 going to be? Let’s kick things off with a bang. “Global economy headed for worst half-decade in 30 years, World Bank warns.” Ouch.
To understand 2024, we’re going to employ a little framework—an easy one, don’t worry. We’re going to use the macro trends that I often discuss here, dig into them, and simply…extend them a little bit. Ready?
Stagnation. Stagflation. That’s the first macro trend I’ve been discussing with you a great deal lately, for a very good reason. More or less everyone’s stressed out, worried, and in despair about the economy. We’ve covered tons of stats about that—70% of Americans feel “financially traumatized,” probably because the majority of people are now “cashflow negative.” That, in turn, is because we’re living through what my fellow economists term a “cost of living crisis.”
But is it going to go away anytime soon? The answer to that question is a blunt: no. Inflation, pundits will point out, is returning to “normal” levels. That makes little to no difference to the average person, because, of course, prices are still astronomically high. Think of how much more your grocery bill is now, still, than it was a scant few years ago. Pundits will cite “disinflation,” which means slowing levels of inflation: the price of bread went up a little less than expected. But that’s not the same as deflation, which means actually falling prices. Will prices fall? As in, ever again…back to some kind of purportedly “normal” levels?
Dubious. That’s because of course once prices rise, they tend to stay risen. Prices are “sticky,” in other words, not least because companies like profit margins, but more so, because that’s how the system works. To drop prices is to drop profits, and there goes your cushy CEO gig, at the hands of some psychopathic private equity in $12,000 loafers.
So the cost of living crisis is here, unfortunately, to stay. It’s a good thing that prices have…stopped…rising…by so insanely, horrifically much…but that’s sort of like saying it’s a good thing your heartbeat’s down to 140 bpm. Still too high. Too high for what? Among other things, we know that people can barely make ends meet today—scratch that, they can’t, which is that startling statistic about 51% of people being “cashflow negative” means.
So why is the World Bank predicting the “worst half-decade in 30 years?” For all the reasons above, and more. Prices aren’t falling, just rising more slowly, but meanwhile, people are stretched to the absolute limit. That leaves less left over for savings and investment—and as people pile up more and more debt just to afford the basics, we inch closer and closer to a mega-level debt crisis. Already, the world’s debt levels are at astonishing levels, raising questions of just how much more the system can take, before dominoes begin to topple one another over. At some point, we risk something very much like the following: people can’t pay their debts, banks fail, countries get jittery, call in each others’ debts, only to find they can’t make good on them, either, and then we’re off to the races of a Great Depression 2.0.
Still, it’s already something very much like a depression for most people—who, again, can’t make ends meet anymore, on the meagre leavings that capitalism throws their way. A depression is just a prolonged period of economic shrinkage, and that’s what’s happened in real terms to the average household—and shows no real signs of abating, at least not in the sense that matters, as in, people feeling comfortable, confident, and secure once again.
That brings me to my next macro trend. This one I’ve called “the Modern Crisis of Being.” That grand-sounding name is there for a reason—this one matters a very great deal. Part of my job is to look at well-being, and when I look at the data, I’m absolutely horrified. The simplest definition of well-being is just happiness minus unhappiness—and in what I’ve called the most important chart of the 21st century, you can see happiness, in all its components, contentment, fulfillment, etcetera, flatlining and falling, while unhappiness, in all its components, despair, anxiety, depression, pessimism, explodes off the charts.
We are in an historic crisis of well-being. Well-being is cratering, and not just in those ways. In nearly every way there is. Loneliness. Disconnection. The feeling that things have gone wrong, and will never be right again–dread. Distrust. Hostility. Enmity. Rage and spite and even hate.
And we’d be fools, at this point, not to admit it. We’re playing a very strange game these days: mainstream media won’t talk about this incredibly complex range of negative emotions people are feeling and dealing with, as life has taken a very serious and dark turn for the worse—instead, it sets a norm that we’re not to discuss this stuff, that it’s impolite, or foolish, or “not real” in a material way. It does this by “both-sidesing” the issue of human emotion and well-being itself. But there aren’t two sides to this issue. How we feel is real.
The statistics exist for a reason, to tell us the truth, and to deny that there’s a profound crisis of well-being is like denying climate change—it’s a form of trying to bicker away…reality itself. Don’t follow this model: we should all be thoughtful people, and denying the reality of our emotions and lives isn’t just foolish—it’s self-destructive, and disrespectful, too, to one’s self, and to others.
This crisis of well-being that we’re in the midst of is, like I said, absolutely shudder-inducing, at least to me. You see, I’ve studied well-being for decades by now. And what we’re experiencing is different, new, and unprecedented. People are more pessimistic today than they were during the last…World War. The levels of stress, despair, distress, and depression are startling—more than half of young people say they’re “completely numb” and “overwhelmed” on a daily basis.
In this context, our systems aren’t delivering. What should we expect from our systems, institutions, paradigms? Well-being itself, at the most basic level. But what the Modern Crisis of Being tells us is that our systems aren’t working. We all feel that, intensely, of course, but it’s worth examining the meaning of that set of emotions. We are a civilization now failing at its most basic task, which is delivering well-being in all its forms to people. That is what ties together all these crises that are now converging.
What’s the effect of a crisis of well-being? Sociopolitical destabilization. For happy, contented, fulfilled people, perhaps, democracy is a destination that’s within reach. But for people in whom despair, disappointment, pessimism, and dread are curdling, as they do, into spite, rage, and hate?
So the third great macro trend I often discuss—the decline, sorry, implosion, in global democracy, is all but sure to continue, too. Democracy’s in incredibly dire shape, and sadly, most people don’t know it, because the mainstream media doesn’t talk about well, if at all. But the statistics are as simple as they are chilling. In the space of two decades, democracy’s gone from 40% of the globe, to just 20%. That’s a rate of decline of 10% a decade. And it’s why I often say that the extinction of democracy is within sight. That doesn’t mean it will happen, but it certainly means it could—at current rates of decline, we risk losing democracy within the next two to three decades.
And even that’s sort of missing the point. Is a world that’s just 10% democratic…really one that’s democratic in any meaningful sense anymore? And yet that’s on the cards, beginning this year. This is the year that America decides, and not just between Presidents, but between democracy and authoritarianism itself. Don’t take it from me. Trump himself is out there promising to be dictator, vowing vengeance, openly planning to purge government and install something more like an autocratic regime of fanatical loyalists. If the election were held today, Trump would probably win it. And that 20% would drop to something more like 15%. Bang, another huge loss for democracy, just like that.
A raft of elections and contests are to be held around the globe this year, more than in recent decades, and we might well see democracy plummeting to levels that could scarcely have been imagined not so long ago—within the veil of extinction itself. If Trump alone wins, the cause of democracy on the planet suffers perhaps its most serious blow in the most modern era—who is to lead the democratic world, set its agenda, fight for its norms, gird its institutions, what’s left of it, anyways, if America turns autocratic? Then we enter a genuinely frightening new era in history—the Age of Autocracy.
2024 might well be its opening scene.
Then there’s climate change—I don’t have to tell you too much about that. Already, last summer, we saw record after record shattered, and mega-scale impacts arrive decades ahead of schedule. Who could forget Canada burning, making the air in Chicago and Manhattan unbreathable? The mega-scale impacts of climate change aren’t going to magically stop arriving—they’re going to get worse and worse, not least because we haven’t kicked our dependence on dirty energy, but for the deeper reason that, civilizationally, we don’t even know how to have agriculture or cement or steel without fossil fuels yet.
We have barely taken a few steps on the journey to reinventing ourselves as a civilization, and meanwhile, the window’s narrowing. As the mega-scale impacts of climate change continue to arrive—and it’s all too easy to forget that they already are, in the winter—more and more severe consequences will be faced. Our basic systems will begin to buckle and break—in many places, they already are—for water, food, and clean air. Prices will rise, insurance and finance will become harder and harder to obtain, and as people already wracked by a cost of living crisis face those costs, societies and polities are likely to destabilize further and harder.
So. What kind of year will 2024 be? A very bad one, most likely. But that’s sort of the wrong question. A better way to think about it is: how will history remember this decade? I think it’ll say something like: those were the years everything went wrong, because they didn’t seem to grasp how serious their situation really was. They didn’t do much, or at least not nearly enough to stop climate change—how could they, when they were busy giving up on democracy itself, as rage, despair, and bitterness swept the globe, the human heart convulsing in folly, society after society tearing itself apart?
These are the bad times, my friends. They’re going to be here for a while. But how long is “a while”? Will we see good times again? That much depends, in a way, on us—and I mean people like you and me, for whom the eternal flame of civilization and the pillar of democracy are still cherished, treasured accomplishments in history. Do they matter to enough of us, though? This is the year we’re going to find out, and it’s not looking good.
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