2016 July 09 Saturday
Can The Center Hold? Can The Falcon Hear The Falconer?

Ross Douthat wants to know Are We Unraveling? He slices and dices the question. But before I get to that I'd like to discuss my reading style. I cycle around between a few hundred ebooks and read them in parallel. I highly recommend trying this. Causes all sorts of mental connections. It expands my awareness about a wide range of topics. Though some of these books will only get finished if I live a long time. One of my many partially read books in my tablets describes a previous period that seemed like it might lead to a societal unraveling.

Bryan Burroughs, in his Days Of Rage describes how back in the 1970s lots of groups were trying to spur a revolution. Also, starting in the 1960s crime surged. America was quite crazy in the 1970s in ways that younger generations seem oblivious to. From Burroughs:

Between 1964 and 1969, assaults on Los Angeles patrolmen quintupled. Between 1967 and 1969, attacks on officers in New Jersey leaped by 41 percent. In Detroit they rose 70 percent in 1969 alone. In congressional testimony and press interviews, police officials in cities across the country blamed the rise in violence squarely on the Panthers and their ultraviolent rhetoric.

So I think we've seen worse than what we are seeing lately. Granted, 5 police officeres were just gunned down by a black sniper in Dallas (and the press helped create the environment that'll cause the easily excitable to do this sort of thing). But I bet being a police officer today is much safer than being one in 1969. One of the reasons for this: The population is much older today. The young men with surging testosterone are a lot fewer in number. Plus, we lock up a much larger fraction of the violent population (though the Left is trying to reverse this). What's different today is that not only the revolutionaries but also even the mainstream liberal press see the general public as less morally legitimate.

Back in the 1970s our angry people thought they could bring the masses over to their point of view. We had lots of political bombings but few deaths. Unlike today, the revolutionaries identified with the American population and the revolutionaries were trying to inspire the masses to rise up (really). What they did was amazingly crazy:

The underground bombings of the 1970s were far more widespread and and far less lethal. During an eighteen-month period in 1971 and 1972, the FBI reported more than 2,500 bombings on U.S. soil, nearly 5 a day. Yet less than 1 percent of the 1970s-era bombings led to a fatality; the single deadliest radical-underground attack of the decade killed four people. Most bombings were followed by communiques denouncing some aspect of the American condition; bombs basically functioned as exploding press releases.

What has changed since the 1970s? Many things. An aging of the population makes revolution less likely. Old people are more set in their ways. Plus, they are heavily dependent on entitlements programs. But there been (and continues to be) a long term decline in trust in institutions. A widening gap of interests has risen between the transnational elite and the people who live in particular places (accompanied by a great deal of elite condescension and moral delegitimizing of their opponents). Conflicts of values between different civilizations, in particular between Islam and everyone else, as Samuel Huntington expected.

A big development has occurred within American society: A rise in identity politics. We have witnessed The Big Sort (see Bill Bishop's book by that title) where the Republicans and Democrats moved to separate neighborhoods, cities, states, regions and have less experience with each other and more distrust and dislike of each other. We also have a nation where the Democrats are trying to win a permanent electoral majority through immigration. Looks like they'll succeed too. What the Dems do with that majority will make the other side even more bitter even as the Dems cheer on development of resentments and Dems in the academy teach the politics of grievance in their own coalition.

So what happens next? What's noteworthy is that many of our trends that are creating the fracturing haven't run their full course yet. Universities are still moving left. Identity politics of many types (and a feeling of grievance of many of those types) is celebrated by our Left. We are way past the age of the world working class. Now its people of color as victims. Feminism as demonization of men. Trust is still declining.The population is still aging. The nationalist-transnationalist fight is escalating with the reaction taking such forms as Brexit and Trump.

The elites can't buy off unhappy factions because they've tied up so much spending in entitlements that all other forms of spending are shrinking.

Seemingly as an aside the elites have decided to push some (high crime) people out of urban areas so (upper class and educated) others can move in. This is driven by the preferences of upper class liberals who are playing their part in the Big Sort.

At some point the reactions to these battles have got to start taking new forms. Other trends will kick in. I'm not sure which ones they'll be but I think communications tech and smart machines will play big roles. I see a few possibilities. One is the use of information technology to opt out and make private cultures and private trading networks. Bitcoin might allow traders to escape dependence on government currencies. Some of the transnational workers might cluster outside of the big powers and create clusterings of different kinds of like minds (e.g. libertarians or conservatives or transhumanists). Robots might so break the connection between capital and large working classes that the capitalists will abandon the very Western nations they now seek to control. The lower classes left behind could be quite enraged as they take control of hollow husks of former greatness.

Update: I think the current form of national/transnational split such as the London-vs-England split over Brexit is a more dilute form of some of the splits to expect in the future. Technological advances will change the nature of the divisions by reducing the number of lower class workers needed in the knowledge worker cities. Back in the 1940s and 1950s the engineers and factory workers lived in proximity by necessity. The engineers and managers needed large staffs of workers to build what they designed. But the factory workers are gradually getting replaced by robots.

Blue collar workers still repair cars, stock grocery store shelves, collect the trash, and provide other services to knowledge workers. But the blue collar service workforce is going to get automated out of most of their jobs just as the blue collar factory workforce has been. The dependence of office knowledge workers on blue collar workers will therefore plummet and their need for geographic proximity will plummet as well.

It seems to me the knowledge workers could become a lot more mobile, fleeing the blue collar workers to go live in places the blue collar workers can't go. The nature of that flight will depend on whether existing political entities can secede from their nation states (e.g. independent London) or whether an industry could take over a small country and help its lower classes to move somewhere else. Panama? French Guyana? Or settle for Iceland with a native population that isn't poor and has very low crime? High housing prices are another way to separate groups. It falls short of political secession and short of a formal border but very definitely separates out people. San Francisco is very popular for this purpose and the liberal upper classes love it. But it comes with very high taxes.

Will robots make the welfare state sufficiently affordable that the upper classes will remain in the same countries as the lower classes? Or will the upper classes use either secession or immigration to separate themselves into their own states and city-states?

Note: I do not ask any of these questions in order to advocate for a particular future. I am trying to guess how various factions and groups will view their options and interests 10-20-30 years from now. What seem like not legitimate choices today could become very legitimate choices in the future. For example, I see groups that today do not see themselves as candidates for international migrations going thru a big shift in perspective in the future. A lot of alignments and loyalties will be broken and new ones will form. So I'm thinking we could witness the birth of new polities and new and novel alliances. Some of the rare political situations of today (e.g. Singapore) could become a lot more common in the future.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2016 July 09 07:04 PM 

ARL said at July 9, 2016 9:04 PM:

Dallas. The police were shot in Dallas, not Houston.

Jonathan said at July 9, 2016 11:29 PM:

"Distrust is still declining"

you meant trust declining / distrust climbing

JerseyGuy said at July 10, 2016 5:49 AM:

What is your opinion of certain "elite" cities such as NYC, London, DC, Boston, Silicon Valley, etc breaking off and becoming independent city-states? Seems like it could be an amicable split.

Brett Bellmore said at July 10, 2016 12:34 PM:

"One is the use of information technology to opt out and make private cultures and private trading networks."

Not going to work. The problem with the left in America is that they're fundamentally totalitarian. They can't accept the legitimacy of people opting out of their plans. They know how we're ALL supposed to live, and anybody who doesn't want to live that way just demonstrates that they're morally unfit to make their own choices.

And their plans to "elect a new people" have some very scary implications. The new people they're electing aren't a nice people, as we're seeing with the violence at Trump rallies, violence directed at Trump supporters, not perpetrated by them. A new generation of leftists are gestating in the universities, trained to regard violence as an appropriate response to dissent.

This does look like victory for the left, but the left have a fundamental problem here: They're culturally hostile to both gun ownership and participation in the military. Which means that their imported hordes might end up with a slight edge in numbers, but are horribly outgunned. The're starting a knife fight with people who own guns.

I could see the political violence they've started deploying reaching the point where you can't safely attend a conservative gathering, where places like churches and VFW halls are being bombed. But if they take it to the point where the right sees no peaceful option for survival, they have far more potential to deploy violence. We could see anything from low level warfare like was seen in Northern Ireland, to an outright civil war and breakup of the country. And then the laugh is on the left, when they lose California to Mexico, and find that their coastal power centers aren't self-sufficient without the food, energy, and minerals extracted from "flyover country".

The one thing I don't see is a peaceful resolution. The left are culturally incapable of accepting long term compromise, and the right aren't going to go peacefully extinct.

Randall Parker said at July 10, 2016 3:45 PM:

Thanks for the typo corrections. I fixed.


I am guessing Boston is too small to do this. NYC is obviously very large and so is London. Curiously, one venture capitalist is pushing to get California split into 6 states so that Silicon Valley doesn't have to carry the rest of the state's population via taxes (which is what Silicon Valley does now btw).

I think there are a number of interests at work. What makes sense to each interest depends very much on when a split would happen. For example, Silicon Valley no longer needs manufacturing plant workers. That reduces its need for a lower class. Robots and autonomous vehicles will further slash its need for less skilled workers. So I am going to guess that high housing prices in Silicon Valley could gradually drive out the lower classes and more brain work will concentrate in Silicon Valley. So then a movement to secede could have as its goals something quite different than what the Democratic Party elite wants. The Silicon Valley elite could want something much closer to what Peter Thiel wants:

- Low taxes.
- Low social services (there won't be much of a local population that needs them).
- Easy visas for very bright workers.
- No welcome for anyone else.

That was the hope for the offshore floating city. But I think it would cost far too much for the floating city. So the other way to get it is to first eliminate the need for any blue collar workers living within 30 miles of the mind workers. I think that's gradually coming.

The later a split happens the more likely the split is going to have the aim of separating the highly paid knowledge workers from everyone else. That's quite different from what we see today: the high tech industries make an alliance with the Democrats to let them bring in brain workers in exchange for the Democrats bringing in a large lower class that will reliably vote for the Democratic Party.

Since I think the forces against break-up are far too large it probably makes more sense to carve out the knowledge worker city somewhere outside the developed West. Take over an existing small country by bribing its elite. Help its lower classes go elsewhere. Build up a city state with imported knowledge workers.

Where? Panama? Got to be somewhere that can support skyscrapers. Gilbraltar seems too small. Could Sardinia secede from Italy and serve as the base of an elite concentration?

map said at July 11, 2016 2:11 AM:

It's amazing how people think "Silicon Valley" is some kind of knowledge-worker economy that produces anything of value. It's an entertainment and advertising complex running largely on fiat money and debt-expansion. have these brain workers figured out how to solve all the problems of meat space? You know...food, water, shelter, power, etc? How do they plan on feeding the residents' of these ciy-states?

Look at how closely SV hews to government. They know they cannot survive without it.

albatross said at July 11, 2016 2:52 PM:

There's a long history in the US of this pattern:

First, some political unit (typically a city) accumulates a bunch of obligations. Some of them are financial, like expensive pensions for the local civil service. Some are population--a large urban underclass that makes some part of the city basically unusable. Some are material, like a rotted-out industrial core with toxic waste and nobody around to bill for the cleanup. Some are political, like an existing set of zoning and environmental protection rules (and associated people willing to sue to keep them in place) that make development expensive and slow. Some are infrastructure--expensive bridges and roads and rail lines which are a lot slower to change than population or jobs.

Next, because companies and industries and individuals are mobile in the US, people with resources and jobs decide to move away from the problems of the city. Instead of locating inside the city limits, I put my factory in a suburb 15 miles away. The schools have gone to hell because of the urban underclass and the teachers' unions making it impossible to get rid of the deadwood, so everyone with any choices moves out to the suburbs. There's a lot of open land a few miles out of town, and new infrastructure can be built more cheaply than the old infrastructure can be changed against political forces and such. There's a nice life there for a couple decades.

Over time, many of the problems recur. The industries in the suburb start dying off. The suburb's civil service pensions start coming due. The housing stock deteriorates and becomes affordable for poorer people, whose kids bring down the test scores in the school and get into more trouble. All the existing arrangements get frozen into place by the same forces as in the city.

And so, the next iteration of businesses moves further out. Or across the country. Places with a high tax burden to support their old infrastructure and pensions and underclass have a hard time competing for new companies and young people against places where they either have a low tax burden, or a high tax burden that supports really good schools and infrastructure and such.

You see this all over the place. Big cities that have rotted out, and now only the people with no choices stick around (think Baltimore or Detroit). Small towns that have lost whatever industry they used to have, where you hardly see anyone under 30 on the streets. We're very accustomed to leaving behind whatever problems there are, including the dependent classes (the underclass, retirees, the poor, the handicapped, etc.).

I expect this will continue. This is one thing that I think drives increasing centralization of government power--it's harder to move away from the tax demands of the feds than from the tax demands of the city or state government. It's part of our culture to kind-of abandon the people on the bottom. And it gives us enormous freedom to innovate and build new things. But it's very rough on the people and places left behind.

James Bowery said at July 13, 2016 7:13 PM:

I thought about moving to Iceland or New Zealand while I was in high school because of "The Population Bomb", being a member of ZPG, figuring something nasty was going to come of all this: Geothermal power and isolation.

Nowadays, I just hope people leave Iceland alone.

Seth W. said at July 14, 2016 1:01 PM:

Impossible to predict even 10 years, much less 30. An infinite number of variables and random processes happen.

For all we know in 10 years we could have a World government or authority that rules over every country's leader. Who knows.

What's with all the Nani advertising. I'm getting tired of it. I see it in every post.

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