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).

Alarming Federal Government Fiscal Challenges

On August 29th Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote an alarming column on the federal government’s fiscal challenges. Moreover, it was not his own opinion he was voicing, but rather that of the Semiannual Report of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that was issued on August 27, 2014.

The CBO Report, Milbank says, shows that “the long-term fiscal disaster, predicted for some time, has crept into the short term.” Here are the particulars for that conclusion from the Report itself:

  • The foundation for the report is the CBO’s own economic forecast that “the economy will grow slowly this year . . . and then at a faster but still moderate pace over the next few years;” that “inflation is expected to remain below the Federal Reserve’s goal, and interest rates on Treasury securities . . . are projected to rise considerably.”
  • Another basic CBO assumption is “current laws governing federal taxes and spending generally remained unchanged.”
  • Federal debt held by the public will reach 74 percent of gross domestic product this year, more than twice what it was at the end of 2007 and higher than in any year since 1950. In a decade, it will hit 77 percent; in 25 years, 100 percent.
  • “85 percent of the federal government’s spending increases between now and 2024 will be consumed by just three items: Social Security (which will claim 28 percent of the increase), Medicare and other health-care programs (32 percent) and interest on the debt (25 percent). Spending on everything else — military and domestic programs alike — would fall to the lowest proportion of the economy since at least 1940, when such statistics were first collected.”
  • “The persistent and growing deficits that CBO projects . . . would have serious negative consequences, including . . . Increased federal spending for interest payments, Restraining economic growth in the long term, Giving policymakers less flexibility to respond to unexpected challenges, and Eventually increasing the risk of a financial crisis (in which investors would demand high interest rates to buy the government’s debt).”

These problems, says Milbank, will come “because of the cowardice of leaders on both sides, who have avoided serious changes to the tax code and to Medicare and the other ‘mandatory’ spending programs.”

Milbank’s comments came before the release of a report by Northwestern University economist, Robert Gordon, claiming that the CBO’s modest projection of U.S. economic growth over the next decade is unattainable. Gordon for several years has argued that reduced labor productivity, reduced labor market participation and meager capital investment have adversely affected the U.S. economy’s ability to grow. Thus, under Gordon’s analysis, the fiscal challenges facing the federal government will only be worse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christian Wiman’s “Gazing Into the Abyss”

Christian Wiman
Christian Wiman

 In 2006 at age 40 Christian Wiman conducted a retrospective examination of his life in his essay, Gazing Into the Abyss, American Scholar (Summer 2007).[1]

This post examines that essay and other writings by Wiman, now a 48-year-old writer and Lecturer in Religion and Literature at Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music.[2]

 Gazing Into the Abyss

He grew up in a “very religious household” of his Southern Baptist parents in West Texas who held “the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God.”

In his late teens (while a student at Washington & Lee University) Wiman rebelled against his religious upbringing and stopped attending any church. This rebellion lasted for more than 20 years or until he was in his late 30’s.

After graduating from college, he began a career as a poet. Indeed, poetry became “the central purpose of his life” for almost 20 years, or until he was 36 years old. Looking back on that period, Wiman can see “how thoroughly the forms and language of Christianity have shaped my imagination“ and “how deep and persistent my existential anxiety” was. Although he rejects the notion that poetry does or should replace religion, Wiman admits that “poetry is how religious feeling has survived in me.” Indeed, the one constant he now sees in his own poetry is God or “His absence.” (In a subsequent interview he said, “my refusal to admit [God’s] presence—underlies all of my earlier work.”)

Then three “shattering” events occurred in his life: one, of “necessity;” the second, of “glory;” and the third, of “tragedy.”

In 2002, at age 36 he encountered the event of necessity or despair. He stopped writing poetry. This was a conscious decision because he told himself at the time that he had “exhausted one way of writing.” Now he believes the “deeper truth” is that he was exhausted. The connection he had felt between word and world “went dead.”

Nearly simultaneously, however, his “career in poetry began to flourish” as he “moved into a good teaching job,” which he left in 2003[3] to become the Editor of the Poetry journal (which he held for the next 10 years); and found a publisher for his previous work. However, “there wasn’t a scrap of excitement in any of this for me. It felt like I was watching a movie of my life rather than living it, an old silent movie, no color, no sound, no one in the audience but me.”

In about 2003, he encountered the event of “glory,” meeting a woman and falling in love with her. He recalls “color slowly aching into things, the world coming brilliantly, abradingly [erodingly?] alive.” He continues, “I was completely consumed” and “for the first time in my life, [I felt] like I was being fully possessed by being itself.” He now had “a joy that was at once so overflowing that it enlarged existence, and yet so rooted in actual things that, again for the first time, that’s what I began to feel, rootedness.”

This glorious state of love prompted a longing for divinity. Wiman and his lover started to pray –“jokingly” and “awkwardly” at first and then “with intensifying seriousness and deliberation”—by naming each thing they were thankful for and praising “the thing we could not name.” On Sundays they half-jokingly entertained the idea of going to church, and on “the morning after we got engaged, in fact, we paused for a long time outside a church on Michigan Avenue” (4th Presbyterian Church on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago?), but did not enter due to his resistance.

In any event, in 2004 when he was 38 years old, the two of them were married.

In 2005, on his 39th birthday, the third event—the one of “tragedy”—occurred. He was diagnosed with an “incurable cancer in my blood.” Christian and his wife “sat on the couch and cried, . . . mourning the death of the life we had imagined with each other.”

Over the next year, they found themselves going to church and discovering “where and who we were meant to be.” He also remembers the walks they took after church and the “moments of silent, and what felt like sacred, attentiveness . . . to: an iron sky and the lake [Lake Michigan] so calm it seemed thickened; the El blasting past with its sparks and brief, lost faces; the broad leaves and white blooms of a catalpa on our street, Grace Street, and under the tree a seethe [constant agitation] of something that was just barely still a bird, quick with life beyond its own.” This was “a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even demanded, God. Love did not deliver me from the earth, but into it.” (These experiences also constituted a thorough rejection of his childhood religious belief that one had “to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God.”)

By “some miracle I do not find this experience is crushed or even lessened by the knowledge that, in all likelihood, I will be leaving the earth sooner than I had thought. Quite the contrary, I find life thriving in me, . . . for what extreme grief has given me is the very thing it seemed at first to obliterate: a sense of life beyond the moment, a sense of hope.” This is a hope for “a ghost of wholeness that our inborn sense of brokenness creates and sustains, some ultimate love that our truest temporal ones goad us toward. This I do believe in, and by this I live, in what the apostle Paul called “hope toward God.” [4]

“To find life authentic only in the apprehension of death, is to pitch your tent at the edge of an abyss,” and according to Friedrich Nietzsche, “when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

“I was not wrong all those years to believe that suffering is at the very center of our existence, and that there can be no untranquilized life that does not fully confront this fact. The mistake lay in thinking grief the means of confrontation, rather than love.” Our “intuitions” of grace, eternity and a love that does not end “come only through the earth, and the earth we know only in passing, and only by passing.” Faith, therefore, “is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world.”

Here Wiman draws upon a favorite metaphor of Simone Weil: two prisoners are in adjacent solitary confinement cells and communicate using taps and scratches on the wall between them. Weil says, and Wiman concurs, this is like the wall that separates us from God. Wiman concludes his essay, “the wall on which I make my taps and scratches is . . . this whole prodigal and all too perishable world in which I find myself, very much alive, and not at all alone.” Now he constantly is “trying to get as close to this wall as possible . . . [and] listening with all I am.”

Subsequent Writing

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In the “Preface” to his latest book– My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (2013) [5]—Wiman referred to readers’ reaction to the “Abyss” essay.[6] He said this reaction made him realize there was “an enormous contingent of thoughtful people . . . who are frustrated with the language and forms of contemporary American religion . . . [but] feel the burn of being that drives us out of ourselves, that insistent, persistent gravity of the ghost called God.”

This realization prompted him to write essays or meditations “to figure out my own mind. I knew that I believed, but I was not at all clear on what I believed. So I set out to answer that question, though I have come to realize that the real question—the real difficulty– is how, not what. How do you answer that burn of being? What might it mean for your life—and for your death—to acknowledge that insistent, persistent ghost?”

Kathleen Norris, another contemporary author of religious/spirituality books, says that My Bright Abyss “reveals what it can mean to experience St. Benedict’s admonition to keep death daily before your eyes.” She adds, “With both honesty and humility, Wiman looks deep into his doubts, his suspicion of religious claims and his inadequacy at prayer. He seeks ‘a poetics of belief, a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but as communal need.’”

My Bright Abyss is now on my iPad to be read.

Conclusion

Wiman’s essay reminds us all of the importance of periodically examining your own life. For him this task is assisted by the discipline of writing. I share this belief, and some of my blog posts attempt to do this although without the felicitous vocabulary and style of Wiman.

Like Wiman, I grew up in a religious home although not as fundamentalist as his. Like him, I abandoned religious belief and practice during my college years, and my time in the spiritual desert, like his, lasted for about 20 years. During this period, my “central purpose” was lawyering, which in some ways was similar to his focus on poetry. My reclamation of a religious and spiritual life, however, was not precipitated by “shattering” events like Wiman, but rather by an inner emptiness and a sense that the secular world did not have all the answers to life’s problems.

I share Wiman’s belief that the language and forms of much of contemporary American religion leave much to be desired, but I have found a church–Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church–that, in my opinion, speaks to the world as it is and has become my spiritual home as I have shared in posts to this blog.

Moreover, Westminster recently was host to a national conference of the “NEXT Church” movement that seeks “to foster relationships among God’s people:sparking imaginations;connecting congregations; offering a distinctively Presbyterian witness to Jesus Christ.” To that end,“Trusting in God’s sovereignty and grace, NEXT Church will engage the church that is becoming by cultivating vital connections, celebrating emerging leadership and innovation, and working with congregations and leaders to form and reform faith communities.”

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[1] I first learned about Wiman and the “Abyss” essay at the June 8, 2014, “Virtues and Values” adult education class at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.

[2] My review of Wiman’s essay also draws upon the following: Wikipedia, Christian Wiman; Yale Univ. Institute of Sacred Music, Christian Wiman; Bill Moyers, Poet Christian Wiman on Faith , Love, and Cancer (Feb. 23, 2012); Jeter, Exclusive: Christian Wiman Discusses Faith as He Leaves World’s Top Poetry Magazine, Christianity Today (Jan.-Feb. 2013);  Yezzi, Cries and Whispers, W.S.J. (April 19, 2013), ; Krista Tippett, Christian Wiman—A Call to Doubt and Faith, and remembering God (May 23, 2013) (includes audio of Wiman reading some of his poems); Kathleen Norris, Faith Healing, N.Y. Times (May 24, 2013); PBS, Christian Wiman Interview (Oct. 25, 2013), ; Stimpson, Review of Christian Wiman’s ‘My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Huff. Post (Mar. 24, 2014); Domestico, Being Prepared for Joy: An Interview with Christian Wiman, Commonweal (April16, 2014).

[3] Wiman has been a Visiting Professor of English at Northwestern University, which I suspect is the teaching position he references in the essay; the Jones Lecturer at Stanford University; and Visiting Scholar at Lynchburg College, all before assuming his current position at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music.

[4] Presumably this a reference to 1 Timothy 4:10: “For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”

[5] His other recent books are Hard Night (2005); Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007); and “Every Riven Thing” (2010). This Fall “Once in the West,” a poetry collection, will be published.

[6] The “Abyss” essay was retitled as “Love Bade Me Welcome” and published in his book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.