March 31, 2017
The Soviet Union had amazing mathematicians, scientists and engineers. Names like Andrey Kolmogorov and Lev Landau are still spoken of with reverence in technical circles. The Russians beat the U.S. into space twice, and for a time had the best missiles and fighter jets in the world. And yet in the 1980s, Russians were standing in lines for bread.
The moral of this story is that without good institutions, an economy can’t translate technology into wealth. Economists love to say that in the long run, productivity is determined by technology, but for the citizens of the USSR and many other dysfunctional countries, that long run never arrived. If you want to raise productivity, you need to focus some attention on the quality of your country’s institutions -- for example, how markets are set up and regulated or how contracts are made and enforced.
One problem with the quality of institutions is that it’s very hard to define them, much less quantify them. Various measures of business climate have been devised, but few if any have predictive power. Even just trying to measure a country’s regulatory burden is very hard, given how many different kinds of regulations there are.
So instead, we’re forced to rely on a combination of circumstantial evidence, observation and gut instinct. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was talk about “eurosclerosis,” and in the 1990s and early 2000s Japan was said to suffer from “dogs and demons.” There was just a general sense that things weren’t working -- a sinking feeling that national institutions had become ossified and weren't coping with the most pressing problems.
Now, in the 2010s, it’s the U.S.’s turn for a bout of sclerosis. Anomalously high costs for everything from construction to health care to education are eating people’s budgets with little increased productivity to show for it. Here are health expenditures per capita:
Americans spend far more on health care than their European and Asian counterparts, and receive about the same quality of care in return.
Many new regulations seem more intended to protect existing jobs than to make markets function more smoothly. Occupational licensing is rife, stifling competition. Employment agreements barring workers from jumping to rivals have proliferated. Industrial concentration has risen:
At the same time, entrepreneurial dynamism has fallen. U.S. companies are getting older, less competitive and more secure in their positions. The freewheeling spirit of creative destruction that once characterized U.S. business is rapidly becoming a memory.
American society and culture seem to be suffering as well. White Americans are dying in increasing numbers. Poor and working-class people are giving up on marriage. Civic engagement is down, and an epidemic of heroin abuse is sweeping the country. Some thinkers allege that younger Americans have fallen into a dangerous state of complacency. Meanwhile, trust in industry, government and institutions of all sorts has drifted down.
In this sort of climate, it will be very hard for the U.S. to innovate its way to faster productivity growth. Technological advances will do little to enrich the nation if high costs, industrial concentration, anemic dynamism, social dysfunction, protectionist regulation, low trust and polarized politics prevent new innovations from being translated into broad-based wealth.
The real danger, however, goes even beyond U.S. stagnation. Europe and Japan don’t seem to have entirely emerged from their earlier periods of sclerosis (though Japan, at least, has made progress, as has Germany). The danger is that if all of the developed countries in the world stagnate at the same time, the world itself will stall. Rich countries provide crucial demand for the products of developing nations, and investment that helps them grow. They are also responsible for making investments in innovation that push the boundaries of human knowledge. With a sclerotic U.S., Europe and developed East Asia, it will fall to a slowing, graying China to power the world economy.
What can be done about Amerisclerosis? There was hope in some circles that President Donald Trump would follow through on his campaign pledge to restore U.S. competitiveness and efficiency. It's still early in his presidency, but so far little movement in that direction has materialized.
There is no obvious solution on the horizon. But as with Europe and Japan in the 1990s, the crucial first step is to recognize the severity of the problem. A general awareness of sclerosis is helpful in generating the urgency to find solutions at all levels of society -- government, business and community. The U.S. has overcome its economic and social problems in past eras, displaying a relentless willingness to change. If it can do so again, it may be able to show Europe and other sclerotic societies a path out of their own doldrums. That would go a long way toward restoring global productivity growth.
56% of younger millennials identify as Christian. 2% as Jewish or Muslim. 1% as Buddhist. And 36% as nothing. That's double the number that made up the "nones" among baby boomers. Being a "none" often means having no sense of purpose, except to seek personal happiness and make the world a better place by recycling, opposing Trump and calling out racism. It also means a moral code based on academic analysis of power relationships between races, genders and sexual orientations.
An editor at The Atlanticwrites of girls educated by the mores of the fifties being "strong in a way that so many modern girls are weak". They were taught "over and over again that if a man tried to push you into anything you didn’t want, even just a kiss, you told him flat out you weren’t doing it. If he kept going, you got away from him... They told you to do whatever it took to stop him from using your body in any way you didn’t want, and under no circumstances to go down without a fight."
The conclusion appends the modern metric of consent to another era. But the girls of that era weren't taught to fight hard over consent. It's not that they didn't believe in consent. The great consent controversies of today were taken for granted then. But they also believed in something higher than mere consent. They weren't just fighting because of consent, but because of a moral purpose.
Resisting was more than a defense of their bodies. It was a defense of the meaning in their lives. They fought because they had something more to fight for than the exact definition of consent.
Consent is a legal formality, not a moral purpose. We consent to things we don't want to do all the time. Often it's because we make bad decisions. Consent is not a permanent state of being. It's a quantum state. The decision I made yesterday looks much worse when I see its consequences today. I'm not a finished being today. And I won't be one tomorrow. Legal agreements can bind me to the car I bought on a whim yesterday, and agonize over today, but no legal agreement binds sexual consent.
The retroactive withdrawal of consent is one of the more ambiguous topics of the consent debate. Can consent be withdrawn retroactively? What if new information emerges? Is consent formalized over an extended period or is it a momentary event? How do power relationships negate consent? That's not how the law works, but it is often how the human mind operates. And we hold people accountable to the law, not to psychological complexities.
Consent is legally significant, but psychologically meaningless. I know that I will regret tomorrow the beers that I drink today. I did buy 300 lottery tickets, but that was only because I thought I would win. Modern secular ethics treats consent as a defining moment, but the true opposite of consent isn't refusal, it's apathy. We don't make that many conscious decisions. Mostly we go with the flow.
That too is another aspect of the modern ambiguity of consent. The recent Aziz Ansari case, like so many others, didn't emerge from a crucial refusal, but instead featured a protagonist who was somewhat unwilling, but not truly conscious of her unwillingness. This general unconsciousness is how we often go through our days. We stumble into decisions without thinking about them. And only later do we realize that the decisions we made without really thinking about them mattered.
Previous generations understood that our decisions, our whims and consents, had to be ordered by a larger purpose. But the millenial "nones" are the least likely to understand that. As individuals, they have no higher purpose. The lefty ethics that govern their lives tell them what to do and how to feel, but don't meaningfully order their daily decisions into something resembling a whole person.
And without that purpose, there are only states of consent. Each state is governed by the emotions of the moment, hope, desire, disappointment, betrayal, loneliness, and is incomprehensible to any other state. Pain, joy, hunger, love and anger exist in the moment. They can be recollected, but the way that they drive us when we feel them cannot be duplicated in another moment. The decision we make under the impetus of one emotion can be swiftly negated by the conclusion of another emotion.
These are not new ideas. The history of human civilization is built on societies ordering the various states of human emotions to a higher purpose. That is one of the fundamental purposes of religion. Philosophers across thousands of years sought answers and offered solutions. And then in the last few generations, we tossed them all on the rubbish heap and exchanged them for Marxist pottage. Macroscopic analyses of class, gender and race have replaced individual meaning. Millennial nones know that they should never vote Republican, but they have no idea how to make personal choices in a way that reflects who they want to be, rather than what they are feeling right this second.
The moral ethos of the left has told them that people don't really make decisions. The mixture of Marxist macro-analysis and Freudian psychobabble that shaped the new age has left them with the conclusion that their gender, class and racial categories have shaped them at a subconscious level. They don't make choices, instead they have power relationships that reflect their privilege.
It's an ethos that produces the retroactive victimhood and preemptive guilt of people who don't really make their decisions, but are ready to apologize or rage for the inevitable outcome of the power relationships that define their lives. That's the striking difference between the ambiguous apologies of millennial celebrities like James Franco and Aziz Ansari, and the older and earlier boomer stars who clearly deny or admit their guilt. Millennial male nones live in a world where their gendered guilt exists as a permanent assumption apart from their behavior based on their original sin of privilege. That permanently indicts them even as it frees them to misbehave. Their admissions reference the ambiguous quantum states in which individuals exist, the challenge of bridging them through communication and the guilt assigned to them by their relative power relationships.
There is no moral awareness within these apologies, only the empathy and guilt of public relations. Human beings don't have a purpose, they have feelings. Some feelings are more valid than others. Feelings of oppression are the most valid of all. But none of them are truly true.
The lack of purpose makes all human relationships casual. Even the very serious moments are ultimately meaningless. But the casual ethics of two people passing on the street or a transaction at the grocery store are insufficient for those more important moments. The more serious the relationship, the worse the secular lefty ethics of the "nones" hold up in the face of it.
Religious people or those with a conscious philosophy of life are quite capable of wrongdoing. But they also have an awareness of what they are doing wrong. The "nones" often don't become aware of a moral component to their actions until they experience pain. Robbed of a meaningful philosophy, they experience only the breaches of it, the way that children raised badly only learn through pain.
Without a moral purpose, their realizations take place retroactively or in the moment. They don't understand a problem until they come face to face with it. And when they do, they don't see the bigger picture, only the painfully small one of the uncertain ebb and flow of their feelings.
Consent tells them that they have they absolute power to decide. But they have no basis for making their decisions. The abstract idea of consent has little to do with why people actually consent.
Reducing sexuality to the transactional ethics of consent satisfies legal, but not human requirements. It's a recipe for retrospective anger and pain. The ethics of consent don't make us better people. They reduce us to the barest and most exploitative ethics. And then they negotiate whether wrongdoing occurred within the narrow legal parameters of consent or the wider ones of intersectional privilege.
But morality goes beyond consent. Its ethics go beyond legality. It asks that we do more than just get the customer's signature on the dotted line for the overpriced junkheap we're selling him. Consent as the core of modern sexual ethics is Crowley's Do What Thou Wilt modified with, As Long As Maybe They Wilt It Too. But truly moral and ethical people don't ask or offer certain things. They don't condition the rightness of their actions on momentary reciprocal feelings, but on their own values.
Consent sets feelings against law. Then it asks the law to encompass the mutability and ambiguity of emotions. And the only way to do that is to remove any possible defense of legal consent. The law superseding morality, only to then be superseded by emotion, summarizes the entire history of the secular left which begins with fixed codes and then replaces them with the violent whims of outrage.
The debate over consent is only one of the many ways that this pattern is upending our societies.
The left doesn't believe that consent is absolute. It bases the degree of consent on the extent to which an individual has been educated about his privilege and the level of his oppression. It follows then that lefties and the oppressed should have the lowest rates of sexual assault. But the opposite is true.
The #MeToo movement has mostly entangled lefties who pursued consent in predatory fashion. And they did so by creating an environment in which consent could be obtained with sufficient pressure. But what can be obtained with sufficient pressure can also be withdrawn with sufficient pressure. And in the absence of meaningful relationships, all that remains is the power struggle of pressure.
This is the abusive way that people treat others when their actions are ordered by their emotions.
A moral society is a place of purpose where those particle states of emotion are ordered by higher moral laws. It asks us to treat people, not based on what we want them to consent to, what we want or even what they want, but as the principles of a higher being would want us to.
"We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion," John Adams warned. There is only one such government. Tyranny.
"Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom," Benjamin Franklin cautioned more simply.
These aren't abstractions. Nor are they measured on some vast scale of civilizations. They define how we live our ordinary lives. They are why this debate is taking place.
Free people consent. But freedom comes from virtue. Freedom without virtue is anarchy. And anarchy ends in brutality and tyranny. That outcome isn't only expressed in riots in the streets. It emerges in smaller and more intimate matters, like the debate over consent.
Freedom of consent is failing. The left wants to replace it with brutality and tyranny. The brutality of online smear campaigns and the tyranny of campus kangaroo courts. But a secular right has no replacement for it either except the more libertarian brutality and tyranny of the individual.
What we forgot is that we don't truly have freedom of consent, until we have purpose.