These are the dark days, the dead end of the year when the sun sets early and comes up late, when Christmas is over and it will be days before the big ball drops in Times Square and everyone pretends the next year will be better, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. The year that is ending was dark, perhaps darker than usual, or perhaps as dark as usual – but it ended with the massacre of fourteen civilians in San Bernardino by two unaffiliated jihadi terrorists – even ISIS didn’t know what they were up to – and with all of American politics dominated by Donald Trump, a nasty fellow that even his fellow Republicans call a bit of a fascist, but who is loved by millions, mainly Republicans who hate their own party now. The others who love him are angry at everything. It was that kind of year.
Perhaps humor can help. Dave Barry always offers his year-in-review column. Many of the jokes are lame, but some are always cool, but much of his humor is strained this year, because, as he admits, it wasn’t a good year:
Are we saying that 2015 was the worst year ever? Are we saying it was worse than, for example, 1347, the year when the bubonic plague killed a large part of humanity?
Yes, we are saying that. Because at least the remainder of humanity was not exposed to a solid week in which the news media focused intensively on the question of whether a leading candidate for president of the United States had, or had not, made an explicit reference to a prominent female TV journalist’s biological lady cycle.
That actually happened in 2015, and it was not the only bad thing. This was the year when American sports fans became more excited about their fantasy sports teams - which, for the record, are imaginary - than about sports teams that actually exist. This was the year when the “selfie” epidemic, which was already horrendous, somehow got even worse. Of the 105 billion photographs taken by Americans this year, 104.9 billion consist of a grinning face looming, blimp-like, in the foreground, with a tiny image of something - the Grand Canyon, the pope, a 747 crashing - peeking out in the distance behind the person’s left ear.
This was the year of the “man bun.”
Yes, he tries to keep it light, but he knows better:
At this point you are saying: “Wait a minute! Surely there were some positive developments in 2015! How about the fact that, after so many years of sneering judgmentalism and divisive, overheated rhetoric, we were able to have rational, open-minded conversations about such issues as gun ownership, gay marriage, race relations, and abortion, so that, as a nation, we finally began to come together and… Whoa! Sorry! Evidently I am high on narcotics.”
Yes, you are.
Still, he tries for lightness, considering January:
In Paris, millions of people march in a solidarity rally following the horrific terrorist attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Eyebrows are raised when not a single top US official attends, but several days later, Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in France with James Taylor, who - this really happened - performs the song “You’ve Got a Friend.” This bold action strikes fear into the hearts of terrorists, who realize that Secretary Kerry is fully capable, if necessary, of unleashing Barry Manilow.
Meanwhile in Washington, a drone crashes on the White House lawn and immediately becomes a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination.
Over the strong objections of the Obama administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress. He immediately becomes a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, 4 points ahead of the drone.
Hillary Clinton declares her candidacy for president and sets out to demonstrate that she is a regular human by riding to Iowa in a custom van driven by Secret Service agents. In Maumee, Ohio, she stops at a Chipotle for takeout, a news event that produces a spasm of political journalism. The New York Times (we are not making this journalism up) breaks the story, reporting that Clinton wore sunglasses and ordered a chicken burrito bowl. Bloomberg gets a follow-up scoop, reporting that the Clinton party’s bill was “$20 and some change” but Clinton “did not leave a tip.” Politico runs a story headlined (we are still not making this up) “The ‘everyday people’ who made Hillary Clinton’s burrito bowl.” Incredibly, nobody thinks to do a profile of the chicken.
In Garland, Texas, two armed men are gunned down by police after they open fire outside an exhibit of Mohammed cartoons, highlighting the need for a national conversation on the problem of cartoonists drawing things that leave religious fanatics with no choice but to try to kill them. James Taylor is unavailable, so federal authorities dispatch The Captain and Tennille to the scene, where they perform a powerful version of “Muskrat Love.”
This goes on and on, and it seems less and less funny each month:
In a historic decision on gay rights, the nation’s highest legal authority - Kim Davis, clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky - overturns the US Supreme Court’s ruling that state laws banning same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. …
The nation reacts with horror to the news that a Minnesota dentist has killed Cecil the World’s Suddenly Most Beloved Lion. The dentist instantly becomes a less-popular version of Hitler and goes into hiding to escape animal-rights activists threatening to give him a root canal with a chain saw. This story totally dominates the news for the better part of a week, which we will eventually look back upon as an innocent time. …
In political news, the crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls is joined by a person named “John Kasich,” who claims to have at one time been governor of Ohio, although nobody can verify this. On the Democratic side, enthusiasm builds for the candidacy of 147-year-old socialist Bernie Sanders and his populist plan for reining in Wall Street via a combination of stricter financial controls and strategic beheadings. …
In other finance news, the International Monetary Fund sends a collection agent to Athens, only to discover that the Greek government has moved out of Greece without leaving a forwarding address. Also, the Acropolis is missing. …
The big international news comes from Vienna, where Iran signs a deal with the United States and five other nations under which Iran, in exchange for a lot of money, promises to stop trying to build a nuclear bomb. President Obama says the deal “makes our country, and the world, safer and more secure.” For his part, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says, quote, “Death to America,” but he says it in what US negotiators describe as “a softer tone.” …
The popular Pope Francis becomes the first pope ever to address a joint meeting of Congress, issuing a powerful challenge to the lawmakers to work together toward solving pressing world problems, including hatred, poverty, and pollution. Congress, inspired to take rare bipartisan action but apparently confused by Francis’s thick accent, votes unanimously to declare war on Greenland. …
On the Republican side, Rick Perry and Scott Walker drop out of the presidential race after polls show them both trailing the late Warren G. Harding. Meanwhile Donald Trump continues to present his vision for America’s future in the form of a steady stream of hastily composed tweets insulting people who have offended him. …
Hillary Clinton testifies for 127 straight hours before the House Committee on Investigating Benghazi until the Earth Crashes into the Sun. There are many testy exchanges between Clinton and Republican congressmen, but in the end the American public has a much clearer picture of the extremely high level of mutual loathing that makes our government work the way it does. …
The world reels in shock after horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali. With rumors of new threats coming daily, the US State Department briefly considers unleashing Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand (code name “Doomsday Duet”) to sing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” but elects instead to issue a Worldwide Travel Alert, warning American citizens to avoid potentially dangerous areas, “especially the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.”
Those are a few snippets from the much longer piece, and no, humor doesn’t help. Dave Barry isn’t off his game. The world was just too dark for this sort of humor this time. In fact, the world as we knew it may be falling apart. That’s what the New York Times’ Ross Douthat seems to be arguing:
In the twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the architecture of liberal modernity has looked relatively stable. Not flawless or wonderful or ideal, to be sure; not free of discontents and decadence. But it’s been hard to imagine the basic liberal democratic capitalist order cracking up, let alone envision what might take its place.
Through the dot-com bust, 9/11, the Iraq war, and the financial crisis, it was striking how consensus held, how elites kept circulating, how quickly populist movements collapsed or were co-opted, how Washington and Brussels consolidated power even when their projects failed. No new ideological movement, whether radical or reactionary, emerged to offer the alternative to liberalism that fascism and Marxism and throne-and-altar traditionalism once supplied. And no external adversary whether Putinist or Islamist or Chinese, seemed to offer a better way than ours.
Here in the dying days of 2015, though, something seems to have shifted.
That would be this:
Here in the dying days of 2015, though, something seems to have shifted. For the first time in a generation, the theme of this year was the liberal order’s vulnerability, not its resilience. 2015 was a memento mori moment for our institutions – a year of cracks in the system, of crumbling firewalls, of reminders that all orders pass away.
In Europe, where for generations the parties of the center have maintained a successful quarantine against movements that threatened their dream of continental integration – be they far-right or far-left, nationalist or separatist.
On the Eurozone’s periphery, in Greece and Hungary and now in Poland, that quarantine is dead. But in 2015 it began to weaken in the European core. Elections in Great Britain empowered Scottish Nationalists, handed the Labour Party back to crypto-Marxists, and raised the odds that the United Kingdom could depart the European Union or dissolve. Elections in France kept Marine Le Pen’s National Front out of power – but by a narrower margin than ever before. Elections in Spain empowered both the populist left and Catalan separatists. And in Sweden, that blessed end-of-history paradise, the most popular political party was suddenly the Sweden Democrats, whose roots are in homegrown fascism.
Meanwhile, in the American heart of that neoliberal imperium, were it not for Donald Trump, the big political story of the year would be the emergence of a new New Left – visible in the continued potency of Black Lives Matter, the turmoil on college campuses, and the appeal of an avowed socialism on the Democratic Party’s campaign trail.
Except that Trump is the big story, and deservedly. His mix of reality-TV shamelessness, European-style nationalism and boastful authoritarianism might be a genuinely new thing in U.S. politics. And the fact that so many disaffected voters find it attractive is a revelation, an objective correlative to polls showing declining faith in democracy, and a window, perhaps, into a more illiberal politics to come.
Things won’t be getting better, and the economist J. Bradford DeLong argues this is a matter of structural economics:
The French economist Thomas Piketty, of the Paris School of Economics, looked at the major democracies with North Atlantic coastlines over the past couple of centuries. He saw five striking facts: First, ownership of private wealth – with its power to command resources, dictate where and how people would work, and shape politics – was always highly concentrated. Second, 150 years – six generations – ago, the ratio of a country’s total private wealth to its total annual income was about six. Third, 50 years – two generations – ago, that capital-income ratio was about three. Fourth, over the past two generations that capital-income ratio has been rising rapidly. Fifth, the flow of income to the owner of the dollar capital did not rise when capital was relatively scarce, but plodded along at a typical net rate of profit of about 5% per year generation after generation. He wondered what these facts predicted for the shape of the major North Atlantic economies in the 21st century.
They predicted doom:
Two generations ago the major North Atlantic economies were all four stable social democracies – relatively egalitarian places when viewed in historical perspective (for native-born white guys, at least), with political voice widely distributed throughout the population, the claims of wealth to drive political directions and shape economic structures not neutralized but kept within bounds. That was the North Atlantic economy that we lived in and had grown used to as recently as one generation ago. That, Piketty argues, was an unstable historical anomaly. It is now passing away.
Piketty believes that the rising inequality trends we have seen over the past generation and see now are simply returning us to what is the pattern of unequal income distribution and dominant plutocracy that is normal for an industrialized market economy in which productivity growth is not unusually fast.
We were wrong about how the world works and now we’re finding out how wrong we were:
We are, he believes, on a long-run historical trajectory to return us to a situation more like the nineteenth century, in which ownership of capital is more important relative to labor as a source of income; inheritance dominates enterprise and savings as a source of wealth; opportunity is tightly constrained by class of birth; economic growth is slow (both because of declining technological invention and birth rates on the one hand, and because established wealth, which is hostile to the creative destruction that drives economic growth, possesses a bigger voice in shaping the political economy); and politics is dominated by plutocrats.
And this raises some interesting questions:
The first question is: Do we care?
Some – perhaps many – say that we do not care. There is one often-made thread of argument that we simply should not care about inequality, which is good as an engine of faster economic growth and not a problem for an economy, a society, or a country at all. What is a problem, this thread maintains, is poverty. And because we are now much richer than our predecessors of six generations ago, the amount of inequality that back then caused poverty and so was a problem does not cause poverty and so is not a problem today.
That’s the Republican position – all is well – but perhaps we do care:
First, anyone who has looked at the distribution of medical care in the United States and our abysmal health outcome statistics relative to other rich countries cannot help but see that inequality is a factor that leads enormous investments of resources to deliver little of ultimate value in the sense of human well-being and human satisfaction. The point generalizes beyond the health sector: an unequal economy is one that is lousy at turning productive potential into societal well-being. We could be doing better – and with a more equal income and wealth distribution would be.
Second, as noted above, established wealth, especially inherited wealth, is by its nature hostile to the creative destruction that accompanies rapid economic growth, for it is established wealth that is creatively destroyed. Plutocrats and their ideologues like to claim that too equal an income distribution destroys incentives to work and turns us into a “nation of takers.” But a return to the inequality levels of the 1960s would not turn us into Maoist China. In the relevant range of levels of inequality, it is much more likely that higher inequality will slow growth by depriving the non-rich of the resources to invest in themselves, their children, and their enterprises; It will further slow growth by focusing effort on helping the rich keep what they have at the cost of squelching the development of the new.
Third, a society in which plutocrats deploy their resources to have not just a loud but an overwhelming voice will be a society in which government sets about to solve problems of concern the plutocrats and not the people. And that is unlikely to be a good society.
Then DeLong gets specific:
Piketty’s view is that our current trajectory has five elements: For one thing, we now have a demographic pattern determined by literate women’s preference to have two or fewer children. Thus we have slow – or zero – population growth. For another, the pace of technological progress may well be slowing from its 20th-century white-heat intensity. Thus slower population and slower productivity growth combine to produce slower overall growth, and so wealth accumulated in the past when the economy was smaller looms larger in the present than it would were the economy expanding more rapidly.
In addition, ever since – even before – the start of the Industrial Revolution, we have seen the system of property rights continually tweaked, via a politics in which money talks loudly, in order to keep the rate of profit on wealth roughly at 5% per year. The British economist John Maynard Keynes was one of many who thought that a world of more wealth accumulation would also be one of a more equal income distribution. As capital accumulated, he thought, that capital would have to bid for the services of workers to operate it. It would do that by offering to accept a lower rate of profit in order to pay higher wages and salaries. The profit rate would, he thought, fall more rapidly than the stock of capital would grow, and we would have what he called the “euthanasia of the rentier”: even though the rich might be very rich indeed in terms of assets, their relative share of income would, over time, fall. But, Piketty documents, this seems to be wrong: The overall profit rate did not rise when economies went from the wealth-to-annual income ratio of six that it was six generations ago to the one of three that it was two generations ago. The overall profit rate has not fallen as wealth-to-annual-income ratios have risen.
John Maynard Keynes was dead wrong, and then there’s this:
Yet another factor is the concentration of savings among the rich, for – contrary to economists’ standard life-cycle theories – the proportion of income saved does not decline with increasing wealth. And so a higher stock of wealth does not induce forces that tend to spread it around, but rather induces forces that concentrate it. And, last, Piketty sees money as talking even louder in politics than it used to and thus preventing, with increasing strength over time, the implementation of policies that might redistribute wealth and so keep the social-democratic political-economic order alive.
In Piketty’s view, we are now more than a full generation into this process of the passing away of North Atlantic social democracy.
And this is the year people noticed this. This was the year of Bernie Sanders:
Bernie Sanders would beat Donald Trump 51-38 in a general-election match-up, according to the latest poll from Quinnipiac University. Or – to put it in the course vernacular that Trump introduced to America this week – the billionaire would get “schlonged” by the democratic socialist.
“Sen. Bernie Sanders hammers him,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll. Hillary Clinton, the poll suggests, would also put Trump in his place – “Hillary Clinton tops him,” added Malloy – though by a more modest 47-40.
That wasn’t the only bad news for Trump, and by extension the GOP, to come out of the national poll: 61 percent of Americans say the Republican frontrunner “does not share their values,” 58 percent believe he “is not honest and trustworthy,” and 57 percent say he “does not care about their needs and problems.”
And Sanders is running with that:
Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders said Sunday that he believes he can boost his own standing in the race by swaying supporters of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump to back his campaign. Sanders told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that many of Trump’s supporters have legitimate fears stemming from income inequality that Sanders is best positioned to address.
“What Trump has done with some success is taken that anger, taken those fears, which are legitimate, and converted them into anger against Mexicans, anger against Muslims,” Sanders said.
“In my view, that is the not the way we are going to address the problems facing this country,” he said.
Instead, Sanders supports a platform of bringing citizens together to push Congress to pass laws that address income inequality. He said that many of Trump supporters are “working class people and they are angry” because they are losing their jobs to overseas firms, cannot afford to send their children to college and are working longer hours for lower ages.
Sanders also sent out a release on Sunday saying that Trump is “getting nervous” about working families getting a better understanding of his policies.
Trump did say the wrong thing:
“Trump insisted on Thursday that the US must keep wages low in order to compete with other countries, one day after he dug in on his assertion that ‘wages are too high’ in America,” Sanders said.
He cited comments Trump made about wages being “too high” in America on Fox News last week and at the Republican debate earlier this month.
“It appears that Mr Trump is getting nervous that working families are catching on that his policies represent the interests of the billionaire class against almost everyone else,” Sanders said.
Okay, maybe there is hope that the coming year won’t be quite as dark as this one, not that Bernie Sanders will be our next president or even the Democratic nominee. Delong is pretty clear about the structural reasons we’re screwed – the good times were an anomaly. Douthat shows how anger has overwhelmed our better impulses – the western world’s long experiment in liberal democracy is now shutting down. Dave Barry makes lame jokes about the year now coming to a close, but can’t quite pull that off. No one could. These are dark days – or not. There will be another year. No one knows what that will bring. That’s a blessing, or a curse.