An ‘Industrialized Affluence Trap?’  

Perhaps there is a Thanksgiving thought in this post.  Yes, the world is in chaos.  But if we look, Americans, on this American holiday, might see a particularly American thing to be thankful for.  

Followers of international affairs know the term “middle income trap,” a challenge faced by economies that successfully attracted manufacturing investment because of their low wage environments.  Having developed from agrarian poverty into less poor, more modern economies, their people’s expectations now require higher wages and rewards, which will require new pathways to growth.

Looking at the turmoil that confronts many wealthy democratic nations today, could it be that there is also an “industrialized affluence trap?”  These countries have developed to the point where most of their citizens expect food, shelter, healthcare, entertainment, traveling vacations – and electoral government and legal rights – as a norm.  We are enabled by affluence, free in politics and law, unbound from ancient dogma, and unconstrained in any choice or gratification we want to pursue.  With all this in hand, we still have rising addictions and suicides; bitterness over identities political or racial; and strains on the social and institutional fabric.  Economic relief doled out in response to the Covid pandemic has triggered “quiet quitting;” people no longer feel their work connected to sustenance on the one hand, or satisfaction on the other.  The denizens of these countries need something that current post-industrial life cannot furnish.

Middle income countries can ponder, and some like South Korea have taken up, “next stages of development” that affluent societies had already navigated.  But for the latter, any ‘next need’ is hard even to name.  One line of thinking says we have to go back – whether to restore a pre-modern relationship with nature, or to recover traditional ethics and values.  But it is hard to “un-know” the ideas of Darwin, Adam Smith, Einstein, and so many others.  And it is hard to “re-know” ordained truths that pre-date modern ideas, discoveries, and expectations.  The wealthy democracies, it seems, need to devise another “next stage of development.” 

One way that we have learned to approach the future is by statistical inference, drawing on the past in sophisticated analysis to guide us.  But the past, we realize in the turmoil of these times, no longer applies.  The assumptions that underpin our inferences are either disproven – we can now manipulate genes – or disbelieved – “meme stocks” like GameStop ruin “rational actor” models.  The “advanced” economies and societies have advanced beyond their comfort zones. 

So we now see in the naked light of day that stepping into the future is always a leap in the dark.  It always has been, but now the management tools, from tradition to analysis to protest, no longer mask it.  And waking up and brushing your teeth is a step into the future – which may account for depression and nihilism, and some number of addictions and suicides.

What can we do?  In one sense, nothing.  Humanity has always faced unlit futures and has found pathways forward for half a million years.  In another sense, we are equipped to form an approach, and have the advantage of explicit understanding of our predicament.  We can choose by our own lights.

We start by naming a starting point.  Americans are lucky in that this nation’s basic tenets are written and abstract.  We hold certain “self-evident” truths, which is to say we hold those tenets as an article of faith, and a durable article of faith is the first need to step into any future, including from bed to bathroom sink.  Our founding creed, of unalienable rights equally endowed in people and government existing to serve them, is rational and free of assumptions of eugenics or traditions or dogmas that modern discoveries and post-modern deconstruction can de-sanctify and pull out from under our feet.  

Building on this bedrock, while America has done so since 1776, shows itself today as a new kind of challenge, for each and all. But Americans have this solid common ground from which to devise next steps, personally and nationally.  And each, if we all see that common ground, has the comfort that all share the same problem – and purpose.  

The myriad tasks of assembling a full approach, devising norms and institutions to carry it, convincing each other to agree on those measures, getting along together amid our 330 million sets of priorities, amount to more than nation-building.  And yet they amount to much less, as the nation has its foundations well defined.  Americans may well give thanks for that.


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