Saturday, November 26, 2016

Friday, July 22, 2016

Hudson talk notes on Plutocratic Insurgency

The point of commonality across all the speakers at yesterday's Hudson Institute event on Plutocrats, me included, was that the United States (and indeed almost all countries in the Global North, though we were all focused on the United States) desperately needs a new social-political compact that provides avenues for broadening the class base of wealth creation in the old industrial core. If we don't develop such a compact, ugly, ugly things are going to happen politically.

My own argument, which I confess I hadn't much planned in advance, but which seemed like the right one when my speaking slot came up after Tyler Cowen and Jeffery Winter was:

1. Trumpism and Brexit are both symptoms of the fact that large numbers of people in the old industrial heartlands feel as if they have been left behind and out of the cultural and economic gains of the last generation. These political phenomena are among other things a backlash against the effects of the twin insurgency which Trump (and Brexit) supporters believe has ruined one community after another. In particular, it is lower-education, low-mobility groups in the population who have been most adversely affected:

2. In this, they are entirely accurate: we are at the end of the Kondratiev Wave which began in the 1970s on the basis of information technology and neoliberal policy reforms. This most recent K-wave generated significant productivity growth in the 1980s and 1990s based on improved capital flows and supply chain optimization (e.g., during the E and P phases of the K-wave). Since 2000, however, as the K-wave reached it mature (R phase) phase productivity gains have slowed way down, and innovation in the infotech space has given way to unproductive nonsense like Facebook and Pokemon Go: a good sign that there's not a lot of additional productivity to be wrested out of the current configuration of technology. Furthermore, while the income benefits associated with the productivity gains were somewhat broadly spread in the 1990s, since 2000 virtually all the gains have gone to the upper income echelons. The downturn of 2008 represented the death knell of that structure of accumulation (that is, the K-wave entered its D phase), and the closing of the technology frontier is having all sorts of malign political effects.... 

3. Until/unless we both get a new K-wave going on the basis of new platform technologies (who knows what that will be: biotech? robotics? AI? clean energy?) and rework our political order so that the economic benefits of the productivity gains from these new technologies are broadly distributed, we're going to be screwed. The major challenge on the latter score is that our political institutions are completely dysfunctional, including above all in their ability to reform themselves in the context of political polarization. Then again, maybe Trump is successfully killing off conservatism in this country, allowing for significant political reform. In which case we may be on the verge of a new technological and political dawn.

So, I ended on a note of hope!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Between Ta-Nehisi and Me

I was asked this morning what I make of Thomas Chatterton Williams's somewhat acerbic take in the London Review of Books of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, and I thought maybe I would respond in public, since I haven't actually said much about Coates, other than to declare on Twitter that I regard him as the country's most vital public intellectual.

There are a number of things I find remarkable about Ta-Nehisi Coates. First, from a scholarly perspective, I have been struck by how self-consciously he is re-working the black intellectual-historical experiential tradition, from ex-patting in Paris, composing a book in the form of a letter to his son, closely reading Du Bois, etc. Second, I’m amazed at how he has emerged so suddenly, from almost complete obscurity (by this I mean that until about 2010, I’d never heard of him) to replace Andrew Sullivan as the country’s most vital public intellectual. What I mean by “vital” here is that he is consistently and originally grappling with (what I personally regard as) the most profound moral-political problem facing the country today, and doing so in a way that, while deeply marinated in theory and historiography, is free of jargon and cant.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

But the real source of my fandom lies in what I see as a deeply kindred sensibility to my own, one that I suspect is at least in part generational (he’s just a couple years younger than me). Coates refuses many of the tropes that malignantly affect so many intellectuals (and politicians, and business leaders, and…) in this country — the demand to remain sanguine, to look for solutions, to hew to the pragmatically possible. Instead, he is interested in describing the existential burden of blackness in America, its deep historical origins, its insistent material specificity, its apparent ineluctability. In other words, it is precisely the fact that Coates rejects "any optimism about or faith in the possibility of national redemption" (as Williams complains) that most deeply resonates for me, not so much at the intellectual level, but really in terms of existential disposition. Coates reflects, albeit with a different topical focus and arrived at by way of a very different personal and intellectual path, the same attitude I myself have today (as expressed above all in the “Twin Insurgency” piece I did in 2014 and in the “Politics of the Post-Climate Change World” in 2011). For me, this sensibility looks backward with a somewhat bitter regret about the failed dreams of technocratic modernization (and, not at all unrelatedly, those of the civil rights movement), and forward with resignation toward the civilizational doom that runaway climate change promises. In other words, I share with Coates the sense of living in the aftermath of hope. It’s a post-Obama, post-Anthropocene sensibility: we no longer believe everything will eventually be OK, or even have much faith that it’s going to get much better. In fact, Coates and I both believe that in the long run, it will probably get worse. We’re both post-modernists in the Lyotardian sense: we are incredulous about both narratives of progress and narratives of agency.

All of this is a very long way to say that while I don’t disagree with what Williams is saying about Coates — that Coates believes that the world consists of individuals who lack agency and who are victims of structural forces beyond their ability to control or even to fully comprehend — I see this as a feature, not a bug. As to the fact that Coates seems to believe that some white people lead lives that are charmed in ways that a black man’s life never can be, I also agree with that. For those who choose to be complacent about both their privileges and the direction of the planet, all is indeed for the best because this is, at least for them and at least for the time being, in fact the best of all possible worlds. And I know it, because when I take off my intellectual hat and put on my party-boy hat, that’s exactly what it’s like for me.