In “This Century Is Broken” Bobo says the decline of economic growth is at the bottom of ethnic nationalism’s rise, faith in democracy’s fall and world order’s dissipation. And “gemli” from Boston will have won or too wurds to say to Bobo. Mr. Cohen, in “The Russification of America,” says when it’s unclear whether America or Russia is more credible, the world is heading for trouble. Here’s Bobo:
Most of us came of age in the last half of the 20th century and had our perceptions of “normal” formed in that era. It was, all things considered, an unusually happy period. No world wars, no Great Depressions, fewer civil wars, fewer plagues.
It’s looking like we’re not going to get to enjoy one of those times again. The 21st century is looking much nastier and bumpier: rising ethnic nationalism, falling faith in democracy, a dissolving world order.
At the bottom of all this, perhaps, is declining economic growth. As Nicholas Eberstadt points out in his powerful essay “Our Miserable 21st Century,” in the current issue of Commentary, between 1948 and 2000 the U.S. economy grew at a per-capita rate of about 2.3 percent a year.
But then around 2000, something shifted. In this century, per-capita growth has been less than 1 percent a year on average, and even since 2009 it’s been only 1.1 percent a year. If the U.S. had been able to maintain postwar 20th-century growth rates into this century, U.S. per-capita G.D.P. would be over 20 percent higher than it is today.
Slow growth strains everything else — meaning less opportunity, less optimism and more of the sort of zero-sum, grab-what-you-can thinking that Donald Trump specializes in. The slowdown has devastated American workers. Between 1985 and 2000, the total hours of paid work in America increased by 35 percent. Over the next 15 years, they increased by only 4 percent.
For every one American man aged 25 to 55 looking for work, there are three who have dropped out of the labor force. If Americans were working at the same rates they were when this century started, over 10 million more people would have jobs. As Eberstadt puts it, “The plain fact is that 21st-century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work.”
That means there’s an army of Americans semi-attached to their communities, who struggle to contribute, to realize their capacities and find their dignity. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics time-use studies, these labor force dropouts spend on average 2,000 hours a year watching some screen. That’s about the number of hours that usually go to a full-time job.
Fifty-seven percent of white males who have dropped out get by on some form of government disability check. About half of the men who have dropped out take pain medication on a daily basis. A survey in Ohio found that over one three-month period, 11 percent of Ohioans were prescribed opiates. One in eight American men now has a felony conviction on his record.
This is no way for our fellow citizens to live. The Eberstadt piece confirms one thought: The central task for many of us now is not to resist Donald Trump. He’ll seal his own fate. It’s to figure out how to replace him — how to respond to the slow growth and social disaffection that gave rise to him with some radically different policy mix.
The hard part is that America has to become more dynamic and more protective — both at the same time. In the past, American reformers could at least count on the fact that they were working with a dynamic society that was always generating the energy required to solve the nation’s woes. But as Tyler Cowen demonstrates in his compelling new book, “The Complacent Class,” contemporary Americans have lost their mojo.
Cowen shows that in sphere after sphere, Americans have become less adventurous and more static. For example, Americans used to move a lot to seize opportunities and transform their lives. But the rate of Americans who are migrating across state lines has plummeted by 51 percent from the levels of the 1950s and 1960s.
Americans used to be entrepreneurial, but there has been a decline in start-ups as a share of all business activity over the last generation. Millennials may be the least entrepreneurial generation in American history. The share of Americans under 30 who own a business has fallen 65 percent since the 1980s.
Americans tell themselves the old job-for-life model is over. But in fact Americans are switching jobs less than a generation ago, not more. The job reallocation rate — which measures employment turnover — is down by more than a quarter since 1990.
There are signs that America is less innovative. Accounting for population growth, Americans create 25 percent fewer major international patents than in 1999. There’s even less hunger to hit the open road. In 1983, 69 percent of 17-year-olds had driver’s licenses. Now only half of Americans get a license by age 18.
In different ways Eberstadt and Cowen are describing a country that is decelerating, detaching, losing hope, getting sadder. Economic slowdown, social disaffection and risk aversion reinforce one another.
Of course nothing is foreordained. But where is the social movement that is thinking about the fundamentals of this century’s bad start and envisions an alternate path? Who has a compelling plan to boost economic growth? If Trump is not the answer, what is?
Now here’s “gemli”:
“Underlying all of our problems is the fact that we is become more stupider in the last few years. We spends our time looking at stupid little screens, tweetin fake news, believin fake news and actin on fake news. Car recks are up because we would rather text that look at the rode.
As we become more stupider we also elected Republicans. In 2001 we did not have a space odyssey. We elected a spaced out oddity which was George doubleyou Bush. We gave our govamint over to people with money instead of people with ideas. Then we had a black president who was a muslin who was not a citizen of this country. For eight years govamint did nothing but fill a buster against a black president. You cant govurn by fill a buster.
Rich people got way richer, cause they was smart. They figured the minimum wage weren’t the minimum you could live on. It was the minimum you could git away with paying. Some folks sat down on wall street to protest but David Brooks said they was stupid hippies.
Opiods made people even supider. But all the opioids in Ohio was perscribed by doctors who was told to by drug companies. There was a downside when people got hooked but the upside was drug companies got rich, so call it even.
The good thing is, stupid don’t last forever. They elected one of there own to run the country and he got a secretary with no experience to run the schools. So it will all be over soon.”
And now we get to Mr. Cohen, writing from Munich:
This Munich Security Conference was different. A Frenchman defended NATO against the American president. The Russian foreign minister was here but the phantom American secretary of state was not. An ex-Swedish prime minister had to respond to the “last-night-in-Sweden affair” — an ominous incident in a placid Scandinavian state dreamed up in his refugee delirium by Donald Trump.
Surreal hardly begins to describe the proceedings at this annual gathering, the Davos of foreign policy. This is what happens when the United States is all over the place. Allies get nervous; they don’t know what to believe. “Trump’s uncontrolled communication is unsettling the world,” John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio, told me. That is an understatement. The Trump doctrine is chaos.
Vice President Mike Pence came, communicated and exited without taking questions. He said the United States would be “unwavering” in its commitment to NATO, whose glories he extolled. (He never mentioned the European Union, whose fragmentation Trump encourages.)
If a question had been allowed, it might have been: “Mr. Pence, you defend NATO but your boss says it’s obsolete. So which is it?”
To which the answer could well have been: “This is an administration that says everything and the contrary of everything. I advise you to get used to it — and pay up.”
But getting used to an American president who responds through Twitter to the last guy in the room or what he’s just seen on TV, has no notion of or interest in European history, and has turned America’s word into junk, is not easy. Europeans are reeling.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French foreign minister, insisted that, “We certainly cannot say that NATO is obsolete.” (For a long time the French kind of wished it was.) Wolfgang Ischinger, the chairman of the Munich conference, told Deutsche Welle that if Trump continues to advocate against the European Union it would amount to a “nonmilitary declaration of war.” Those are extraordinary words from a distinguished former German ambassador about the American president.
For me, the most troubling thing was finding myself unsure who was more credible — Pence or Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. The Russification of America under Trump has proceeded apace. Vladimir Putin’s macho authoritarianism, disdain for the press, and mockery of the truth has installed itself on the Potomac.
Putin is only the latest exponent of what John le Carré called “the classic, timeless, all-Russian, barefaced, whopping lie” and what Joseph Conrad before him called Russian officialdom’s “almost sublime disdain for the truth.”
The Russian system under Putin is a false democracy based on a Potemkin village of props — political parties, media, judiciary — that are the fig leaf covering repression or elimination of opponents. Russia runs on lies. It’s alternative-fact central (you know, there are no Russian troops in Ukraine). But what happens when the United States begins to be infected with Russian disease?
Pence’s speech may not have been precisely a barefaced whopping lie, but it certainly showed barefaced whopping disdain for the intelligence of the audience (you know, nothing has changed with Trump, ha-ha.) By comparison, Lavrov was blunt. He announced the dawn of the “post-West world order.” That became a theme. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, announced the “post-Western global order.”
I wonder what that means — perhaps a world of lies, repression, unreason and violence. It advances as America offers only incoherence. To counter the drift, what is needed? A functioning American State Department would be a start.
Right now, Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, cuts a lonely figure, his reasonable choice of deputy nixed by Trump, his authority (if any) unclear. America today has no foreign policy. It’s veering between empty reaffirmations of old bonds (Pence) and the scattershot anti-Muslim, Sweden-syndrome, anti-trade, bellicose, what’s-in-it-for-me mercantilism of Trump.
Month two of this presidency needs to produce a capacity to speak with one voice. It was interesting to see John Kelly, the secretary of Homeland Security, talk about a coming revised travel ban order for seven mainly Muslim countries and say that “this time” he’d be able to work on the rollout plan. Rough translation: last time he was cut out of the process and it was a real mess. Almost everything has been.
I’m skeptical of Trump ever running a disciplined administration. His feelings about Europe are already clear and won’t change. The European Union needs to step into the moral void by standing unequivocally for the values that must define the West: truth, facts, reason, science, tolerance, freedom, democracy and the rule of law. For now it’s unclear if the Trump administration is friend or foe in that fight.
Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, joked to me that the most terrifying aspect of Trump’s “incident” in Sweden was “the suppression of it by all the major Swedish newspapers, and even Swedish citizens.” We laughed. The unfunny moment will come when Trump lashes out based on nothing but fervid imaginings and the “post-West” order stumbles from confusion into conflagration.