Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Atlantic's slough of despond

Some time ago, The Atlantic's James Fallows wrote a reasoned, detailed and agnostic-to-hopeful assessment of the perception that the United States might be entering its long-anticipated decline.  Fallows concluded that the country has ample economic and cultural resources; that its fatal flaw might be the clunky democratic machinery bequeathed by the too-hard-to-amend Constitution; but that we had muddled through that difficulty in the past and might continue to do so (my take here).

A grimmer collective assessment is implicit in this month's Atlantic's dystopian take on the standard "year in ideas" feature.  This dyspeptic compendium may not reflect decline -- it's just fourteen journalists' perceptions -- but it does bespeak contagious pessimism begat by an anemic recovery.

The 14 biggest ideas of the year can mostly be placed three categories: no change, trivial change, and malign change. Or, sliced another way: lack of progress, useless diversion, and loss. Some of the changes -- the Arab Spring, wave elections, the rise of large middle classes in Asia -- are presented as at least potential positives -- but with a good deal of ambivalence. And in fact, those "ideas" in the "no change" and "trivial change" categories are mostly pretty malign too. Let's have a look:

No change

The Green Revolution is neither (Megan McArdle): "Unfortunately, although we have better and better technologies that enable us to use less fossil fuel, we have no scalable way to use none, or anything close to none."

Bonds are dead/Long live bonds (Clive Crook): "For now, capital has no other safe haven, so private investors will think hard before shunning the market, and will likely settle for a moderate increase in yield"

Wall Street, same as it ever was (Felix Salmon): Meanwhile, Wall Street pay is back at record highs—that didn’t take long—and the financial industry once again accounts for more than 30 percent of U.S. corporate profits. This doesn’t look like low-margin utility banking, where you take a small fee for matching buyers and sellers, borrowers and lenders. Beware. This is big-money gambling, back with a vengeance, and riskier than ever.

The Arab Spring is a jobs crisis (Robin Wright): But freedom also comes with a price tag of great expectations. And the uprisings have done little as yet—beyond providing the right to gripe in public—to improve daily life....y age range of 15 to 29. So the early euphoria and momentum will be hard to sustain as the post-rebellion letdown engenders further public discontent. Many countries may face a second crisis, maybe even a series of crises.

Elections work (Gwen Ifil):  I like it when we’re reminded that our actions at the polls have meaning, and that we have to pay close attention before we cast our votes—or fail to cast our votes.

Trivial change
The maniac will be televised (Walter Kirn): "If the old advice to electronic communicators was to speak in sound bites and keep things simple, to cut through the noise by being straightforward and countering confusion with consistency, the new winning strategy is the opposite: embrace incoherence and become the noise."

The players own the game (Will Leitch): "The athletes control these businesses—it’s the players’ jerseys we’re wearing, not the owners’."

Gay is the new normal (Jonathan Rauch): " ..it is the opponents of gay equality who will insist they are the oppressed group, the true victims of civil-rights violations. Indeed, they have already developed, and are vigorously marketing, a “gay bullies” narrative"

Malign change

The next war will be digitized (James Fallows): With last summer’s discovery of the insidious Stuxnet virus, we know...that this threat is more than hypothetical. We also know that it can be posed by states, as the latest form of war, and not just by bands of scammers...

Grandma's in the basement/junior's in the attic (Hanna Rosin): "Recent census data show that the number of Americans ages 25 to 34 living with their parents has jumped to about 5.5 million...Compounding this full-house phenomenon, the grandparent generation is “doubling up” too."

Public employee, public enemy (Jonathan Chait): "... public-employee unions emerged from a sleepy little corner in the demonology of American conservative thought to briefly occupy the role of villainus maximus in an ideology-laden fight over the soul of the American workforce."

The rich are different from you and me (Chrystia Freeland):  The reality today is that the rich—especially the very, very rich—are vaulting ahead of everyone else. Between 2002 and 2007, 65 percent of all income growth in the U.S. went to the richest 1 percent of the population. That lopsided distribution means that today, half of the national income goes to the richest 10 percent....These meritocrats are the winners in a winner-take-all world. Among the big political questions of our age are whether they will notice that everyone else is falling behind, and whether they will decide it is in their interests to do something about that.

To be fair, the two changes pegged as biggest are presented with some ambivalence as potential positives -- call them...

Danger-fraught opportunities

Nothing stays secret (Dana Priest): The death of secrecy isn’t quite upon us, but we’ve seen ample evidence this past year to suggest that it’s probably fast approaching...Forcing the U.S. government to give up its addiction to secrecy in foreign affairs might be a good thing in the long term, although painful in the short term. After all, international relations based on secret-keeping—like relations between people who have something to hide—are inherently fragile.

The rise of the middle class - just not ours (Gillian Tett):  The emerging markets thus no longer represent just a “supply shock”; they are creating a “demand shock” too...Who or what will meet that demand? Will those new middle-class families who are working at, say, Indian call centers or Chinese factories just buy local products? Or could American companies have an opportunity to serve them? And if so, could that opportunity eventually lead to new American jobs, as those consumers start to travel, read, download apps—and plug in to a globalized lifestyle? The full tale of the “squeezed middle” has yet to be told.

Taking the fourteen articles as a whole, the collective picture is of institutions in decay and under siege -- from restive, suffering citizenry, uncontrollable technology, ever-more powerful vested interests and macroeconomic forces.  The takeaway may not be exactly 'run for the hills.' But it's a long way from 'yes we can.'

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