Are Developed Countries Decadent?

Yes, provocatively says Ross Douthat, a conservative New York Times columnist, in a recent lengthy column that deserves reflection by us all. [1}

Introduction

He starts with the assertion that in the 21st century the U.S. and other developed countries “are aging, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future, spurning both memory and ambition while we await some saving innovation or revelation, growing old unhappily together in the light of tiny screens.” In other words, we “really inhabit an era in which repetition is more the norm than invention; in which stalemate rather than revolution stamps our politics; in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private life alike; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, consistently underdeliver.”

This is an overall depiction of “decadence,” which Douthat defines as “economic stagnation, institutional decay and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development .” This “stagnation is often a consequence of previous development.”

He then expands upon this opinion by examining current economic, social and political factors.

Economics

“The decadent economy is not an impoverished one. The United States [for example] is an extraordinarily wealthy country, its middle class prosperous beyond the dreams of centuries past, its welfare state effective at easing the pain of recessions, and the last decade of growth has (slowly) raised our living standard to a new high after the losses from the Great Recession.”

But, Douthat says, the U.S. and other developed canopies are not dynamic. “American entrepreneurship has been declining since the 1970s. . . . [There is] a slowdown, a mounting difficulty in achieving breakthroughs [in science and technology].”

One of the sources for this assertion was a 2017 paper by a group of economists, “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?” These economists asserted, ““We present a wide range of evidence from various industries, products, and firms showing that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.”

Another source was Northwestern University economist, Robert Gordon, whom Douthat describes as “one of the most persuasive theorist of stagnation.” Gordon had concluded, “the period from 1840 to 1970 featured dramatic growth and innovation across multiple arenas — energy and transportation and medicine and agriculture and communication and the built environment. Whereas in the last two generations, progress has become increasingly monodimensional — all tech and nothing more.”

Society

“America is a more peaceable country than it was in 1970 or 1990, with lower crime rates and safer streets and better-behaved kids. But it’s also a country where that supposedly most American of qualities, wanderlust, has markedly declined: Americans no longer “go west” (or east or north or south) in search of opportunity the way they did 50 years ago; the rate at which people move between states has fallen from 3.5 percent in the early 1970s to 1.4 percent in 2010. . . . Nor do Americans change jobs as often as they once did.”

“Those well-behaved young people are more depressed than prior cohorts, less likely to drive drunk or get pregnant but more tempted toward self-harm. They are also the most medicated generation in history, from the drugs prescribed for A.D.H.D. to the antidepressants offered to anxious teens, and most of the medications are designed to be calming, offering a smoothed-out experience rather than a spiky high.”

“[P]eople are also less likely to invest in the future in the most literal of ways. The United States birthrate was once an outlier among developed countries, but since the Great Recession, it has descended rapidly, converging with the wealthy world’s general below-replacement norm. This demographic decline worsens economic stagnation; economists reckoning with its impact keep finding stark effects. A 2016 analysis found that a 10 percent increase in the fraction of the population over 60 decreased the growth rate of states’ per capita G.D.P. by 5.5 percent. A 2018 paper found that companies in younger labor markets are more innovative; another found that the aging of society helped explain the growth of monopolies and the declining rate of start-ups.”

“Sterility feeds stagnation, which further discourages childbearing, which sinks society ever-deeper into old age — makes demographic decline a clear example of how decadence overtakes a civilization. For much of Western history, declining birthrates reflected straightforward gains to human welfare: victories over infant mortality, over backbreaking agrarian economies, over confining expectations for young women. But once we crossed over into permanent below-replacement territory, the birth dearth began undercutting the very forces (youth, risk -taking, dynamism) necessary for continued growth, meaning that any further gains to individual welfare are coming at the future’s expense.”

        Politics

“From Trump’s Washington to the capitals of Europe, Western politics is now polarized between anti-establishment forces that are unprepared to competently govern and an establishment that’s too disliked to effectively rule.”

“The structures of the Western system, the United States Constitution and administrative state, the half-built federalism of the European Union, are everywhere creaking and everywhere critiqued. But our stalemates make them impervious to substantial reform, let alone to revolution. The most strident European nationalists don’t even want to leave the European Union, and Trump’s first term has actually been much like Obama’s second, with failed legislation and contested executive orders, and policy made mostly by negotiation between the bureaucracy and the courts.”

        Douthat’s Conclusion

“Complaining about decadence is a luxury good — a feature of societies where the mail is delivered, the crime rate is relatively low, and there is plenty of entertainment at your fingertips. Human beings can still live vigorously amid a general stagnation, be fruitful amid sterility, be creative amid repetition. And the decadent society, unlike the full dystopia, allows those signs of contradictions to exist, which means that it’s always possible to imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance.”

“So you can even build a case for decadence, not as a falling-off or disappointing end, but as a healthy balance between the misery of poverty and the dangers of growth for growth’s sake. A sustainable decadence, if you will, in which the crucial task for 21st-century humanity would be making the most of a prosperous stagnation: learning to temper our expectations and live within limits; making sure existing resources are distributed more justly; using education to lift people into the sunlit uplands of the creative class; and doing everything we can to help poorer countries transition successfully into our current position. Not because meliorism can cure every ill, but because the more revolutionary alternatives are too dangerous, and a simple greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number calculus requires that we just keep the existing system running and give up more ambitious dreams.”

“The longer a period of stagnation continues, the narrower the space for fecundity and piety, memory and invention, creativity and daring. The unresisted drift of decadence can lead into a territory of darkness, whose sleekness covers over a sickness unto death.”

“So decadence must be critiqued and resisted . . . . by the hope that where there’s stability, there also might eventually be renewal, that decadence need not give way to collapse to be escaped, that the renaissance can happen without the misery of an intervening dark age.”

This Blogger’s Conclusion

The societal facts cited by Douthat are well known, and this blog has commented about the economic challenges presented by lower birth rates and aging populations of the U.S. [2] and of his home state of Minnesota. [3] Therefore, this blogger has been and is an advocate for increasing U.S. welcoming  refugees and other immigrants in accordance with the U.S. history of immigration, which should be an U.S. advantage over other countries. [4] Douthat, however, does not mention immigration. Nor does he mention the high costs of raising children in the U.S. as a deterrent to having children. This blog also has discussed declining birth rates and aging populations in Japan, China and Cuba. [5]

This societal situation is also shown by recent U.S. declines in important international socio-political indices: freedom of the press, human development, level of corruption, income inequality, global peace and social progress. These may well relate to Douthat’s thesis.[6]

I agree with Douthat’s assessment of the political scene at least in the U.S. In fact, I believe that the U.S. Constitution is obsolete in so many ways, especially in its anti-democratic U.S. Senate which gives greater weight to land than to people, its filibuster rule, its Electoral College for electing the president and to the difficulty of amending that document.

Douthat’s discussion of current economic conditions presented new facts and analyses for this blogger. As a result, I will be studying Douthat’s forthcoming book, examining the paper by Robert Gordon that is hyperlinked in the column; finding and reading the paper by an unnamed group of economists that is discussed in the column; reading the over 1,000 comments on the column published by the Times; and searching for other opinions on these issues.

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[1] Douthat. The Age of Decadence, N.Y. Times (Feb. 9, 2020). He will expand on this topic in his book: The Age of Decadence: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success (to be released Feb. 25, 2020). An earlier column provided a slice of his analysis in discussing the second decade of our current century: The Decade of Disillusionment, N.Y. Times ( Dec. 28, 2019).      

[2] ] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: More Warnings of the Problems Facing U.S. Aging, Declining Population (Aug. 14, 2019); Implications of Reduced U.S. Population Growth (Jan. 10, 2020); U.S. Needs Immigration To Keep Growing and Maintain Prosperity (Feb.16, 2020).

[3] ] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Minnesota’s Challenges of Declining, Aging Population (Oct. 2, 2019); Slower Growth Projected for Minnesota Population in the 2020’s (Dec. 29, 2019).

[4] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Another Report About U.S. Need for More Immigrants (Aug. 25, 2019); Japan Shows Why U.S. Needs More Immigrants (Sept. 1, 2019); Prominent Economist Says Cuts in U.S. immigration Threaten U.S. Economy and Innovation (Oct. 12, 2019); Immigrants Come to U.S. To Work (Jan. 31, 2020); U.S. State Governments Celebrate Refugees’ Accomplishments (Feb. 2, 2020); U.S. Needs Immigrants To Keep Growing and Maintain Prosperity (Feb. 16, 2020).

[5] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Japan Shows Why U.S. Needs More Immigrants (Sept. 1, 2019); Japan Implements New Law Allowing Increased Immigration (Sept. 15, 2019); Cuba’s Aging and Declining Population Continues (Dec. 13, 2019); Continued Demographic Squeeze on Japan (Dec. 26, 2019); “The Chinese Population Crisis” (Jan. 21, 2020); Cuba’s Low Birth Rate, Increasing Emigration and Declining Population (Feb. 3, 2020).

[6] Declining U.S. Rankings in Important Socio-Poltical Indices, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 19, 2019).

South Africa’s ANC Members Killing One Another 

On September 30 the New York Times reported that over the last several months at least three members of the African National Congress (ANC) who had spoken out against corruption in the political party had been murdered. [1]

Another ANC member who had spoken out against the corruption and who is now in hiding said, “if you understand the Cosa Nostra, you don’t only kill the person, but you also send a strong message.” He added, “We broke the rule of omertà,”  saying that the party of Nelson Mandela had become like the Mafia.

Moreover, about 90 politicians have been killed since the start of 2016, more than twice the annual rate in the 16 years before that, according to researchers at the University of Cape Town and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime.

According to Mary de Haas, an expert on political killings who taught at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, “The politicians have become like a political mafia. It is the very antithesis of democracy, because people fear to speak out.”

In the meantime, South Africa’s economy is struggling. According to the Wall Street Journal, the “economy has plunged into recession, its rand currency has slid and pressure is mounting from a dissident faction within his ruling party [the ANC].” These problems are occurring “amid a selloff in emerging-market assets, rising oil prices and a historic [South African] drought that cut agriculture production.” The country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said, ““The economy moved against us.…We were too slow with some reforms.” But “Now the reforms are coming fast and furious.”[2]

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[1] Onishi & Gebrekidan, Hit Men and Power: South Africa’s Leaders Are Killing One Another, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2018).

[2] Parkinson, Steinhauser & Keeler, Economic Problems Exacerbate Challenges for South Africa’s Leader, W.S.J. (Sept. 26, 2018).

Discussion About Cuba at the Washington Conference on the Americas

On May 8 the U.S. Department of State hosted the Americas Society’s Council of the Americas’ 48th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas with U.S. administration senior officials and distinguished leaders from across the Americas to focus on the major policy issues affecting the hemisphere..[1]

The speakers at this event were Acting Secretary of State John J. Sullivan; U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley; U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and Benjamin Sasse (Rep., NE); other U.S. State Government officials (U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for International Affairs, David Malpass; U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary of Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, Ted McKinney; U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Francisco Palmieri) plus Brazilian Ministry of Finance Secretary for International Affairs Marcello Estevão; and International Finance Corporation Chief Executive Officer Philippe Le Houérou.

The bulk of the comments were directed at combatting corruption and at criticizing Venezuela and then at Nicaragua with only a few barbs at Cuba, as discussed below.

Acting Secretary Sullivan’s Remarks[2]

Acting Secretary Sullivan said, “Our engagement in the Americas, of course, is not a recent phenomenon. Since the birth of our republic, the United States has had strong relationships in the Western Hemisphere, bonds built on geography, shared values, and robust economic ties. We strive to coexist peacefully and to do so in a mutually beneficial way.”

The U.S. “Caribbean 2020 strategy is increasing private sector investment in the Caribbean, promoting Caribbean energy security, and building resilience to natural disasters. The Caribbean Basin Security Initiative seeks to enhance maritime interdictions, build institutions, counter corruption, and foster cooperation to protect our shared borders from the impact of transnational crime.”

“Threats to the hemisphere occur on a number of other complex fronts, requiring coordinated and sophisticated responses. Whether building capacity to counter cyber threats, supporting de-mining in Colombia, or combating trafficking in persons, the United States is committed to being the security partner of choice for the Americas in the years ahead.”

“The United States is the top trading partner for over half of the 34 countries in the Western Hemisphere. Annually, we trade $1.8 trillion in goods and services with the hemisphere, supporting millions of jobs and leading to an $8 billion surplus in goods and services in 2017.”

“Underpinning our economic engagement is respect for the rule of law and shared values. Corruption both undermines and corrodes the confidence our citizens have in democratic institutions.”

“Finally, we must keep working together to ensure that the people in this hemisphere can live according to democratic values. . . . While most of the region enjoys democratic rule, a few outliers – Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela – continue to undermine the region’s shared vision for effective democratic governance as enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter.” (Emphasis added.)

The United States remains committed to championing freedom and to standing with the people of Venezuela and Cuba in their struggle to achieve the liberty they deserve. . . . We look to our partners – including governments and civil society organizations – to join us in speaking up whenever and wherever the hemisphere’s shared democratic principles come under attack.” (Emphasis added.)

U.S. Ambassador Haley’s Remarks[3]

“I am here today because the Trump Administration places a high priority on the Western Hemisphere, its security, its prosperity, and its freedom. And we recognize that the United States must reassert our leadership in the hemisphere.”

“I have seen time and time again at the United Nations that when the United States fails to lead, we suffer, and the world suffers. This is even more true in our relationships with other nations. There is no substitute for strong U.S. leadership, based on our values of political and economic freedom and respect for human rights.”

“The prosperity of the United States is critically tied to the prosperity of the hemisphere. Our future is bound up with our neighbors.”

“Among other things, we are each other’s largest and best trading partners. The United States sells more goods and services to our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere than we do to China, Japan, and India combined. While a lot of attention is placed on issues of trade with China, we should keep in mind that we trade nearly three times as much with the Western Hemisphere as we do with China.”

“We are also dependent on each other for our security.”

“And the principle that ties it all together is something else the United States has in common with most of our neighbors in the hemisphere – a commitment to freedom. . . . The western hemisphere is increasingly dominated by countries that share our political and economic principles.”

“The great human rights activist Natan Sharansky had a test for evaluating the freedom of societies that he called the “Town Square Test.” According to Sharansky, if someone can walk into a town square and express his or her views without being arrested, thrown in prison, or beaten, then they lived in a free society. If not, they lived in what he called a ‘fear society.’”

“As we look across the Americas, it’s pretty easy to tell the free societies from the fear societies. It’s a testament to the people of Latin America – and the love of freedom and dignity that exists in the human heart – that most of the hemisphere is free.”

“Across Latin America, the good news is that these challenges are increasingly dealt with through a commitment to the rule of law and democratic institutions. The region is far from perfection, but the progress is unmistakable.”

The democratic process  “has exposed the rot at the core of the Nicaraguan government. Like his patron in Caracas and his mentors in Havana, the Ortega government has stayed in power by rigging elections, intimidating critics, and censoring the media.” (Emphasis added.)

The Cuban-Venezuelan-Nicaraguan model of socialism, dictatorship, corruption, and gross human rights violations has proved to be a complete and total failure. It has caused the suffering of millions of people. (Emphasis added.)

“We cannot allow the last, few surviving authoritarians to drag down the hemisphere. As neighbors, the United States and all the nations of Latin America are bound together on this journey.”

Senator Rubio’s Remarks[4]

Senator Rubio’s hostile opinions regarding the Cuban government are well known and appear to be a major factor behind the Trump Administration’s policies on Cuba. At this conference, Rubio was brief. He said, “What I care about in Cuba is political freedoms. The ability to have independent political parties, and a free press and to speak your mind, that’s what I support in Cuba.” (Emphasis added.)

About a week later, a Rubio complaint led the State Department to cancel a seminar, titled “Cuba under [Miguel] Díaz-Canel,” because it only was going to feature speakers who support normalization with Cuba. The scheduled speakers were Carlos Saladrigas, president of the Cuba Study Group; Marguerite Jimenez of the Washington Office on Latin America; American University professor William LeoGrande; and Philip Peters of the Cuba Research Center. LeoGrande and Peters also are advisers to Engage Cuba, a bipaartisan coalition which favors lifting the U.S. embargo.

Americas Society Background[5]

The Americas Society “Is the premier forum dedicated to education, debate, and dialogue in the Americas. Its mission is to foster an understanding of the contemporary political, social, and economic issues confronting Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada, and to increase public awareness and appreciation of the diverse cultural heritage of the Americas and the importance of the inter-American relationship.”

Its Council of the Americas is “the premier international business organization whose members share a common commitment to economic and social development, open markets, the rule of law, and democracy throughout the Western Hemisphere. The Council’s membership consists of leading international companies representing a broad spectrum of sectors, including banking and finance, consulting services, consumer products, energy and mining, manufacturing, media, technology, and transportation.”

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[1] State Dep’t, Deputy Secretary Sullivan To Deliver Opening Keynote Remarks at the 48th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas (May 7, 2018); Council of the Americas, Washington Conference on the Americas.

[2] U.S. Embassy in Havana, Remarks at 48th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas (May 8, 2018).

[3] Americas Society. Remarks: U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley to the 48th Annual Washington Conference (May 8, 2018).

[4]  Press Release, VIDEO: Rubio Delivers Remarks at Annual Washington Conference on the Americas (May 8, 2018); Torres, State Department postpones event on Cuba after Sen. Rubio protests, Miami Herald (May 17, 2018).

[5] Americas Society, About AS/COS .