A list of ten ways we are decadent and a (speculative) theory about why it

Decadence here means sameness, complacency or boredom, as recently discussed by Ross Douthat and Peter Thiel.

  1. Technological stagnation. “Go into a room and subtract off all the screens. How do you then know you’re not in 1973?”

  2. Falling birth rates. “Across almost all of the OECD, current fertility rates are well below those needed for population replacement… by 1995 most had rates well below replacement level.”

  3. More movie remakes. “The 2000s saw the most remakes of any decade, with an average of 19 a year. In 2005, a record-breaking 33 remakes made it to the big screen.” Also this: “In 2014, there were more hugely successful movies based on young adult books than ever before.”

  4. Reverse Flynn effect. “Studies in Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom have shown that the Flynn effect has not only ended, but that there is actually a decrease in the average IQ scores.”

  5. Productivity has stalled. “Since 2010, annual growth in labour productivity has slowed to 0.9%, about half the rate recorded in the 2000-2005 pre-crisis period.”

  6. Economic growth underperformance since 2008. “Per capita consumption in the US is still 10% lower than it would have been under the trend growth over the last 50 years.” And, “Eurozone per capita consumption is still just 1.6% above its pre-GFC level.”

  7. Politics. “the number of populist leaders has more than doubled since the early 2000s.”

  8. Safe middle-class jobs. “In 2007, more than half of Harvard graduates went to work in investment banking or management consulting.” And, “the national rate of company formation in America has fallen.”

  9. Housing is too expensive. “In 2018 the average price of a house increased by 4.4% across Europe, with Portugal and Ireland rising by 10.3% and 10.2%”

  10. Literary malaise. “By any other measure, the authors honored by the National Book Foundation over the past decade are a surprisingly homogenous group. Almost all of them are products of what has come to be known, among supporters and critics alike, as America’s “MFA Industrial Complex.” They all tend to matriculate at the same elite colleges, acquire advanced degrees in English or Creative Writing, and then go on to teach in the same circle of elite schools.”

I would also add some other, perhaps more observational evidence, such as newspapers’ inability to adapt to the internet, innovation in health and education is nowhere, the corporate cash pile, the inability to get Brexit done, the falling rate of IPO, the decline in poetry’s reading public, and the fact that advertising has become entirely stale. How often do you see an ad that actually earns its place in a prominent public space?

There is also the huge trend for retro and pre-loved items. Furniture from the 1970s, music from the 1980s, clothes from the 1990s. And let’s not forget the current interest in horoscopes.

It’s almost like we just can’t face up to the hard reality of a post-9/11, post-2008, post-internet world and aren’t going to accept the hard work that continuing to improve civilisation involves. We’ll be fine and keep chugging along for a while, but it’s no coincidence that politics has become so awful at the same time as the rest of these trends have emerged.

This is a deliberately pessimistic list, and it would be an interesting challenge to do one going the other way, but it isn’t easily ignored that we are producing less that is new and interesting. Why is it, for example, that despite persistent political problems we are still nowhere on solving the housing problem? Wouldn’t populism at least deliver more affordable housing? Are the property owners just not scared enough of Corbyn and Warren yet? Or are they simply decadent?

Most alarming is that I got this list using fairly ordinary things. We’re not even talking about space travel or theoretical physics.

Perhaps much of this is explained by the Alchian-Allen Theorem. There is so much to be gained by simply sitting at your screen and surfing, exploring the cultural niches of YouTube or learning Game Theory online or simply playing videos games. We haven’t yet realised that our minds are the new frontier. And therefore the returns to any sort of physical world accomplishments are much diminished.

As Tyler Cowen says, the benefit of things like YouTube comes from ‘high upfront “investment in context” costs’: we are fragmenting into more individualistic pleasures, which are less readily understood by the rest of us. Collective societal value, which used to be placed on the space race or whatever, is therefore displaced by smaller clusters of value. And all of this requires only a small flat, an internet connection and a device. It comes a lot cheaper than a space programme.

This may also explain why infrastructure seems to be less of a priority, and why housing is not as angry a political issue as it ought to be. People work from home more, they require transport less for their pleasures and when you have the world on a screen your home doesn’t need to be so big.

Maybe it isn’t decadence, maybe we’re all infovores now.

If that’s true there are two immediate possibilities for how we might end the decadence. First, we’ll start measuring value differently and realise we’re fine. Something will have to adjust in spending policy as we have an ageing population, but we will no longer see decadence as a threat to our future. Or, the equilibrium will shift once people realise that infrastructure and housing and productivity can only carry on like this for so long. Right now, the problem isn’t that bad, eventually something will snap and we’ll change our priorities.

In that second scenario, is it so unlikely that the introduction of AI and associated tech advances might actually start to bring us closer to a Jestsons-like future and that right now is a lull? It could be that culturally we have made the leap ahead to the next stage, but that our social and economic structures are yet to catch up. It’s going to be a sluggish decade or two until we get there, but after that we’ll be fine. Depending on the effect of robots on productivity, maybe the population decline will be less bad than expected.

After all, the Alchian-Allen Theorem relies on higher-priced goods as well as lower-priced ones. Eventually we’ll start measuring or producing the higher-priced goods properly again.