Tim posted two interesting entries in recent days, both touching on the recurrent question of whether or not we are entering an extended period of Dystopia. Given that it's been just over a year since I happily discounted the possibility of American Dystopia, I thought I might weigh in here. I won't keep you in suspense: I dramatically downgrade my optimism.
There are two related questions here, one pertaining to recent history, the other toward future projections. The first is whether or not the United States economy has really performed as well as we all like to think it has over the past two or three decades. This is a contentious issue among economists and I have nowhere near adequate space to address it, so I'll confine myself to Tim's point:
". . . the existence of the pernicious Dystopian Myth that middle class incomes are stagnant. The Dystopian Myth is social poison, a fiction shouted by the negative nabobs that convinces voters the American economic system is failing them."
Say it ain't so . . . but I will: it's sort of true. In June, Monthly Labor Review published this article, the abstract of which reads:
"OES [Occupational Employment Statistics] data from 2002–2007 reveal that an overall shift in employment towards occupations with lower mean wages hindered growth in the U.S. real average wage and that wage growth was concentrated in higher paying occupations; the data also show a shift in employment from the middle-paying occupations to the highest and lowest paying occupations."
The gist, as you can tell, is that real wage growth in this recent five-year period was basically stagnant overall because of the large growth in jobs paying the lowest wages--which actually appears to have come at the expense of better-paying jobs. The MLR article conveys the image, though not in so many words, of an emerging barbell-shaped wage distribution. Heartening. (I should just point out that Tim's characterization of the myth as a ploy to fool American voters is actually somewhat true--because voting participation follows income. Self-flattery as political vote-buying.)
Onto the larger point: is the United States now entering a Dystopian period of slow or stagnant growth, marred by class conflict, a dysfunctional national legislature (oh, wait, we already have that), and a "new normal" of diminished living standards? Again, this is a subject for a much longer disquisition, but for what it's worth, some recent reading I've been doing--and too many conversations with Paul Kedrosky--has me convinced that we are in for some very trying times ahead. We will see a short-term bounce in GDP growth here in the next quarter or two, but possibly 2010, and more likely 2011 and beyond, will bring discord, precipitated in large part by not only a higher "normal" of oil prices but also the realization that we are about to enter, prepared or not, a serious energy transition. Oh, and China's entire economy might be a bubble and we might be on the brink of having a failed state on our southern doorstep--because of plummeting oil production, not drug lords. (But they don't help; of course, if California legalizes marijuana to deal with its fiscal problems, this would be a boon for Mexico. Wouldn't it be ironic if the United States, irrespective of what party is in power, supported drug legalization because it would forestall the development of a basket case next door?)
OK, so I sound semi-apocalyptic. Don't get me wrong: I don't expect (at least, I don't think I expect) a Joseph Tainter-esque societal collapse. But there is a worrying disconnect between everyone who claims to see "green shoots" around every corner, even those who foresee a longer recession but eventual "normal" recovery, and the reality of long-term energy trends. Look, there is a reason why the Industrial Revolution has been more aptly named the Promethean Revolution (one of the best books on it is Landes' The Unbound Prometheus): humans harnessed inorganic energy. Our entire economic model is based on the premise of cheap coal and cheap oil: techno-utopians consistently ignore the inconvenient fact that much of that computing power they love to tout runs on such energy.
The obverse is that our economic model is not premised on permanently higher oil prices, whatever climate feedback loops we may be instigating, and the nontrivial risk of geopolitical instability. (The U.S. military, by the way, has little room for anything but a realistic appraisal of the future.)
Little of this will be new to readers: we all know we have energy issues to deal with. And, sometimes it's much easier to be pessimistic than optimistic about the future. To be sure, there are a few reasons for optimism. One is that humans are adaptive and we will likely find a way to adapt to the energy challenge. The profit motive will, or should, play a key role in this transition--this doesn't mean there is no role for government. Obviously, there is and should be: federal labs will be critically important going forward, but we need to unlock the innovations in those labs more efficiently. But government's role will be to do what it always does when it acts as facilitator, viz. frame incentives. In this case, it seems that a carbon tax would be an almost no-brainer. Then again, the fact that a carbon tax is treated like a shoot-the-moon option simply reinforces the pessimistic outlook.
A key piece to moving forward through the next energy transition--and to possibly suppress or at least mitigate whatever geopolitical unpleasantness arises therefrom--is the supply of entrepreneurs. I don't just mean clean tech. We're talking about wholesale economic and social changes here--let's hope in slow motion, rather than abruptly. Don't just take it from me. At the recent World Economic History conference, Robert Ayres presented this wonderful presentation on the relationship between energy and economic growth, concluding that only entrepreneurs can take us forward. How's that for framing a policy debate?
(This pessimistic outlook, of course, will bring some amusement, namely, the perpetual cognitive dissonance of so-called conservatives and liberals as they endlessly bloviate in endless legislative fights. Rightward-leaning folk don't really seem to have dealt with the inherent tension between their Edmund Burke impulse and their defense of free-market capitalism as a ceaseless source of creative destruction. You can't sanction one type of change and seek to prevent the other. And liberals--or in today's parlance, progressives--haven't reconciled the exact opposite dichotomy: their embrace of "social change" as an all-encompassing yet vacuous strategy, but their readiness to preserve nostalgic remnants of the mid-twentieth century economy.)
The most frustrating thing about such a discussion is that it's quite difficult to talk about an alternative future because all we have to structure our imagination of that future is the present state of affairs. When we're trying to imagine what the next economic model will be, and how it will differ from the one that has carried the world forward for the last century and a half, we have little to draw on by way of reference points. But this, oddly, might be the strongest case for optimism: human knowledge always advances in a desultory fashion. We adapt by trial and error and adoption. The potential for future innovation and new knowledge creation shouldn't be in doubt--it's the institutional response, the adoption and absorption, that should be of concern.
What's important is that we stop discounting the very real possibility that the future could be anything but bright: the fact that the last two hundred years have seen more or less upward progress in terms of human living standards, steadily spreading over the entire globe, is not a reason to believe that the future will simply be a continuation of this. Believing so is the mistake made by Taleb's "turkeys."