An older version of this piece was written in December of 2020. Recent talk of high inflation and forecasts of recession make it seem things have only gotten worse since "stagnations" were predicted some years ago. My own views have not changed on any of this but I thought it useful to update the article in light of what many people have been saying about the extent to which younger generations can hope their future will be as bright as those of their parents and grandparents. They can have this hope - and one reason is that economic indicators are but one crude measure of how things were, how they are and how they might be in the future.
In the Western World it has recently been claimed that so-called economic stagnation has not seen the middle classes benefit from the great technological boom in terms of real wage growth. This, it is said, goes some way to explaining the rise of "populist" politicians and economic protectionism. I use a personal anecdote to illustrate a refutation of these ideas and conclude we are, all of us, more wealthy than the economists, politicians and pessimists want us to believe.
"Stagnation" is a term used in economics to denote a period of near zero economic growth. This is to be contrasted with inflation (more precisely "price increases" or better yet: a reduction in the purchasing power of money) and deflation (price decreases - an increase in the capacity of the same amount of money to purchase more). Sometimes high growth causes higher inflation, sometimes not. Things get complicated: https://www.economicshelp.org/blog/458/economics/conflict-between-economic-growth-and-inflation/) and while some are rightly interested in all this, I always find macroeconomic metrics (the numbers and rates and indicators of "positive" or "negative" signs - extremely crude when sometimes rather obvious real world physical stuff, rather than abstract measures reveal far more about what is, broadly, going on. Of course many things can be true at once: it can be there is high inflation and yet things are nonetheless getting better. All else being equal we should want everything to be getting better all at once: low inflation, low unemployment, high growth and increasing productivity - but when one or more or all of these seem to be pointing to "bad times ahead" let us keep in mind the things economists tend never to even consider. What is going on in the physical world of people and what they are creating? It will be my thesis here that when the news is "inflating" all the bad news and hammering to death the notion that various economic indicators portend something like a global catastrophe - turn off the television, pick up your smartphone (or turn on your television) and perhaps listen to a podcast or watch an interesting lecture and just reflect: when have things ever been better?
It has been argued that much of the Western World, but especially the United States is in an extended period of stagnation-and now, as 2022 rolls into 2023 inflation is high and a debate rages over whether we are in a technical period of recession or not. Emblematic of this idea is the work of Economist Tyler Cowen, whose 2011 pamphlet "The Great Stagnation" argues that the causes of growth in America are largely spent and we are now in a period where there has been little "real growth" in wages for some decades and will be for some decades to come. My aim here is not as a critique especially of the work of that economist or even that pamphlet (which is worth reading) but rather the broader idea that things are not much better now than they were a decade or more ago as measured against the index of "real wage growth" or the thesis that is contained in the article already linked to above by Amanda Novello where, writing about the economic "recovery" that is discussed post the 2008 financial crisis:
"Digging deeper exposes that middle and low-income workers and their families in the United States have not reaped their share of the benefits of the apparent recovery, benefits that such a recovery should produce for all, and not only the few. Data shows that, in fact, it’s only wealthier households and larger corporations that have gained noticeably since the recession ended a decade ago. This is because long-developing trends of inequality have proven impervious to the decade’s economic growth."
Is it true that "only wealthier households and larger corporations" have experienced benefits over the last decade? Economists will say numbers speak for themselves. Look at "real wage growth", for example. Real wage growth is a measure of how much wages have grown as compared to the rise in the cost of living (or broadly the average cost of other things in life). Real wage growth is supposed to be a proxy for a quantitative measure of one's standard of living. So if there has been no "real wage growth" is it true one's standard of living has not improved? This is all a very abstract way of talking about people's actual lived experience: their work, their lives, their day-to-day activities (including, in small part, their spending habits). In particular we must consider actual individuals - not groups of people. People seem to think that if those on minimum wage have, as a group, not seen "real wage growth" that this is a cause for concern. But which person on minimum wage 10 or 20 years ago is still there, in the same role? Don't people change jobs - and, in part, because they no longer wish to be on the wage they were? Don't people take on other responsibilities (like study) in order to improve their lot? Economists are quick to define into existence something like a "real wage growth" metric and claim this indicates some deep truth about the lives of individual people. Rather than bring to bear various other metrics that might stand in contrast to this, I want instead to simply consider a narrow aspect of my own life and ask the question: am I no better off? Obviously a single data point cannot refute a trend, but I am doing this for the pessimists who are complaining their lives are no better off. Those who, at 30, 40 or 50 complain things are not much better for them now than when they were 20. I hope that any reader who persists with this piece simply compares my life with theirs. I note that my story parallels that of all my family and friends - many of whom, I would suggest, are far worse off and less mobile than I will demonstrate I have been.
In recent times there has been an absolute obsession in the western world with whether, how and to what extent young people can enter the housing market: https://www.afr.com/property/residential/more-difficult-to-get-into-the-housing-market-than-it-s-ever-been-20210205-p5702q Of course the real headline is: it's more difficult to enter the housing market where people have already built houses which they now own and have upgraded over time increasing the value of. Previous generations have sunk their long earned wealth into a single thing: their physical home. So, no wonder it is now so expensive in the most desirable places. The most desirable places become increasingly more desirable as they are constructed to be more desirable by those older generations who have continued to "gentrify" the already gentrified. The 20, 30 and even 40 somethings who complain their parents had it easier than they do in finding some vacant block of land, or "fixer-upper" house close to the centre of the city with a large garden for a tenth the price a similar thing costs today is rather like their parents complaining their great grandparents were able to purchase a 1 bedroom wooden shack without electricity or plumbing right on the water but with a beautiful view of the "city". It is hardly comparing like with like. Technology means that those in the housing market today can indeed still buy cheap housing - just not where those of their parents generation already live. Sure, it seems unfair "I was born in 1990 and now there's only space far from the central business district where there is so little public transport and the restaurant scene is non-existent". Yes, how terribly unfair. But what of the argument "I was born in 1950, and though I live in a multi-million dollar home right in the city, walking distance from beaches, cafes and restaurants to my hearts content, my heart itself is nearing 80 years old and it seems terribly unfair I was not born decades later when, sometime during the next 50 years, there will be technology to allow me to live 50 more years and experience the joys of technology we could never have imagined when I bought this home."
The property market is the one thing young people reliably complain about as if they have been particularly hard done by - as if "the boomers" are especially out to get them and ungenerously guard the very thing they were brought up to value almost above everything else besides their own family. Even "conservative" thinkers on the topic sometimes even agree with this millennial angst about not being able to find a 5 bedroom mansion on the water (or even an apartment in some tiny high-rise crammed into the tiny footprint of one of the few megacities around the world). Douglas Murray, of all people, bemoans "capitalism" as perhaps deserving of the blame for a "housing crisis" https://unherd.com/2018/04/talking-housing-crisis-means-talking-immigration/ linking it, dubiously, to immigration. But are unskilled and illegal immigrants buying up the best properties in San Fransisco and London? Is that really the problem? It is true many more people these days are renting. There is some argument that maybe for some of them it would be better were they instead mortgaging. And they could: if they made different choices. Generations that grew up in the 40s near the coast anywhere in the United States or Australia might well reflect "It's so unfair I could not get a waterfront property. Instead, here I am 2 streets back with barely water glimpses." It is simply reality that the beachfront is finite in length and not everyone can live there. Then, those who grew up in the 60s complain "I'm an entire suburb away from the beach. It's so terribly unfair that property prices where I want to surf, swim and walk my dog along the promenade means I need to take my car all the way down to the seaside. How unfair! I'm locked out of beachside property". And those born in the 80s. "I'm barely even in the city anymore. I'm so far out in the suburbs - it's unfair. All those people born before are so very lucky and now they are locking me out of city living." And so it goes. This fixation on one metric - how close your house is to the most desirable location and how big it is, while ignoring how wonderful the rest of life and the world has become is no indication that you are worse off than any previous generation.
Before I go on, and because I am about to say what I am about to say less I get flamed for being "out of touch" or some such, I will reveal just a little of my private circumstance. I do not own property. I rent. I have always rented. I have not bought. Perhaps one day I will. I made different decisions. I decided to plough rather a lot of my (rather meagre!) income as a student (and soon after) into paying for my studies. Perhaps too much. And then? I was focussed on travel. Whilst others did what may have been the "mature" thing and saved and worked and invested in property I did not know what I wanted to do exactly but high on the list never was: I want a stable job so I can have property as close to the city as possible. Of course, that's just me. Now I happen to also know there existed members of the generation before me, on relatively low incomes who managed to: both get a loan and purchase a comfortable home not far from the city and travel the world. But what they did not do, because they could not even imagine doing, was travel the world and work or move from job to job, having different experiences and sampling from the most diverse range of experiences because they needed little more than a roof over their head anywhere, a device and a wifi connection.
The very generations doing the complaining about not being in the property market (well to be fair the very media doing the complaining ostensibly on behalf of these apparently "hard done by" generations) simultaneously are those also wanting and able to do almost everything remotely. "Why do we need offices?" they ask - and rightly so. So much of what they do can be done behind a desk anywhere - without the boss over their shoulder either leering, scolding or monitoring their every moment "on the clock". Their parents and grandparents were required day after day, month after month, year upon year, decade upon decade to go to the same repetitive, uncreative job, with far worse conditions and no expectation of doing anything other than that same job for all or almost all their entire life. Perhaps their "big dream" was to one day be elevated to the position where it was they who would be able to leer at the new generation of subordinate workers in their factory or office? This is the generation who had it easy? Their reward? They got to go home to a house of 2 or 3 bedrooms on a quarter-acre block of land with...a television that had a choice of 5 different stations where one watched whatever was playing at the time because not only was nothing on demand - nothing could even be recorded. Where the kitchen was the most comfortable room in the house during winter because that's where the oven was on. Where the car literally needed to be started on those cold winter mornings a few minutes before you wanted to go anywhere because you needed to "warm up the engine so as the carburetor would function". Economic metrics suggest high inflation - and I agree it's bad. Recessions are always and everywhere bad things. They are caused almost entirely by bad policies of governments - state intervention into the economy where the state has no business intervening in the first place. Simply "printing money" is a recipe for price increases and affects the worst off most of all. It is a form of taxation. It is an evil - literally - because it is due to a lack of knowledge by some about basic economics. And yet for all of this we should remind ourselves: people are fallible and so in matters political and economic - problems are inevitable. But what I want to say is that if we only focus on certain crude economic metrics it may seem that everything is getting worse when that is far from the truth. There are other ways of measuring progress and how things get better. So here's my story.
(What follows is a true story, and you may be able to predict where it’s going. So, if you want, skip straight to the final two paragraphs.)
My father was (and remains) what has become known as an “audiophile”. These days the suffix “phile” is added to just about anything one likes to indicate a passion for: numberphile (i.e: a mathematician), retrophile (one who loves cultures of the past), bibliophile (you get the picture). Anyways, before the term existed, my father was an audiophile of the kind that today is rarer than one might think. Or at least I might think. He used to obsess - during the early stages of CD audio - about whether the CD was recorded in DDD or some lower quality like AAD. The "A" was for "Acoustic" and the "D" for "Digital" and the three letters in a row told you something about each stage of the recording process. DDD was clearly "Digital recording" at all stages - so of the highest quality. I knew of no one else who cared about this. But today - I get it. So often I walk along a street to hear a person blaring music for themselves from an iPhone or some other smartphone. I mean - public music played from an iPhone speaker! Now don’t get me wrong - the latest iPhones have reasonable speakers given their size. But outdoors on noisy streets? Putting aside what I consider the discourtesy to fellow pedestrians and others to have their senses assailed by music they may not like following them to the train station, there are very very cheap alternatives that solve all the problems of: faster battery drain, annoyance to fellow travellers and chief among them to my mind: the quality of the sound. Any half decent (and cheaper by the week) set of ear buds or phones completely outclasses inbuilt phone speakers. If one can afford a smart phone, one can afford a reasonably cheap, reasonably high quality pair of earbuds. Whatever the case, I have inherited (ok, learned) this preference from my father. People who listen to the sound from the television’s inbuilt speakers rather than always ensuring it runs through their separate amplifier and high quality speaker system instead - a mystery to me. People content to remain using the included white wired headphones with their iPhone - I just do not understand. I also do not understand Apple's AirPods, period. Given the price - why is their sound quality so low? Why aren't they noise cancelling or at least noise isolating? Earbuds half the price do a far better job. But I digress.
When I was a child - under 10 - I really wanted some good, private set of speakers I could tune into a radio or - even better - play cassettes. I wanted to emulate my dad, of course, and be something like a connoisseur of sound. The first bit of tech I got in this regard was a little mono radio - and I was very proud of it. But within a year - I guess for a Christmas present - I was bought a portable stereo cassette player with radio. And that, to me, was simply amazing. Stereo I could carry around…and play cassettes on. I’m not sure I ever carried it far. It ran on something like 6 D-size batteries. It looked something very much like this.
Next I found, I guess in a catalogue, a pair of over-the-head headphones that had an aerial and could be used to tune into the radio. Well now that was really it! I could walk around listening to the latest hits and not annoy anyone else. These didn’t predate the Sony Walkman - that had been out for almost a decade already - but the Walkman was well over $100 - and in our family - back in the 80s - $100 may as well have been $1000.
But the problem was, it only played whatever the radio stations were playing. I wanted to be able to play my own cassettes. Back in those days, the technique was to wait by the radio station until your favourite song came on, and hit record. This way you could make your own "mixed tape". I wished I could play my various "mixed tapes" on some portable audio device. Alongside my love of portable audio, I had begun to develop a love of hiking. I lived in a part of Sydney surrounded by bushland (forest, in other words) - and in other parts quiet suburban streets. I could imagine few greater pleasures than walking, jogging or running and listening to music. The problem was, of course, the batteries never lasted long with these things. A few hours at most. And, back in the day, you really did stand out as odd wearing such a contraption as pictured above on your head. They simply were not that popular. Especially among people my age. Nevertheless I do recall dreaming of the possibility that I might be able to actually record my own favourite music rather than have to listen only to what the radio was playing at any particular time. This was something a walkman - with in built cassette - would allow me to do. But, again, they were for rich people…not children from the suburbs until, I guess, sometime towards the end of the 80s. By then, there were cheaper (Chinese, I guess) knockoffs. And so finally I was able to get a portable cassette radio. Now I was really cooking because I could record my own music, from the radio on my stereo system (no doubt in violation of copyright law at the time), onto a cassette and then carry it with me. This was the height of technology and personal agency. I think it was in 1993 I was able to ask for my first “digital” actual Sony branded Walkman. I say digital, because it had an LCD read out. It looked exactly like this:
The absolutely remarkable thing about this walkman was that it could store in memory your favourite radio stations. So by hitting the 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 position one could quickly switch from station to station at will rather than, prior to this, having to manually find the station by tuning using an analogue dial. I was able to record from CD onto cassette all my favourite music - and some comedy radio shows I enjoyed. The first CD player had arrived in our home in 1988 and so I was building a library of cassettes to carry about with me. The only problem with this procedure was that I would often hear a song on the radio and have no way to record it on the fly. I would either have to wait until it came on the radio when I got home - or (increasingly) buy the CD and then transfer it to cassette. I dreamed of the capacity for a walkman to record onto cassette whatever was playing.
When I left school I went to university - full time. By which I mean, 5 days a week, for 7 or 8 hours a day. Lectures commenced at 9am and finished at 4pm, except on Wednesdays when it was 5pm. Uni was located a considerable 90 minute journey away using public transport (which I did) and after university on some days of the week (especially Thursday) I was a security guard at the largest shopping mall in Sydney - and also on weekends. This left very little “free” time except travel time (which was around 3 or more hours a day), but a part time job did make me more wealthy than most of my friends - at least in those early years - because while they went to university as well, they did not tend to work jobs as I did to pay their own way and save a little. Or where they did work part time jobs, they chose to work in fast food or at a grocery store and so on. A security guard required a little training, and there were hazards, so there was a monetary reward for making that choice over some other kind of minimum wage position. Nevertheless it was never paid well (for example, in the late 90s, a weekday shift would be around $13 Australian dollars per hour. McDonalds paid something closer to $10 per hour. In both cases the evening and weekend rates were more (on Sunday, I got "double time"!).
So it was, then, in the late-90s I was able to upgrade my older “play only” Sony Walkman for one that could indeed record. Not only did it have a record function it had so many other features (like a digital equaliser and “bass boost”). The great advantage now was that my journeys too and from work and to and from university could be accompanied by my favourite radio shows even if they were on whilst I was at work or in lectures…because I was recording them for my travel time. I absolutely loved train/bus journeys with music of my choice, or radio show of my choice while reading/studying my university notes...or rather more often some popular science book I had bought. I seemed to have reached the absolute zenith of what I wanted from portable audio. Although I did imagine the possibility of having a recordable CD. Whatever the case this walkman also accompanied me on long patrols of the shopping centre late at night (always at low volume, sometimes with one earpiece out so I could still hear if there was ever any broken glass. Only ever once did this happen - and the alarm system was loud enough that no set of earbuds at whatever volume would ever drown those out)
But, as the 90s rolled into the 2000s and I was merely a security guard on minimum wage in an unskilled job - I was nevertheless able to afford almost as much technology and creature comforts as my imagination allowed me. I was able to build my own PC from buying the best motherboard, CPU, RAM, Hardrive and so on I could find…and I could afford among the best portable audio. Somewhere in the 80s the Sony “Discman” came out - it was a portable CD player…but it was never popular because it wasn’t really very portable. The slightest bump and the machine skipped making listening and walking (for example) an intolerable experience. In around 1999/2000 I did buy one of the first CD-walkmans which came standard with a RAM buffer which meant if it did get bumped, it was able to store about 30 seconds worth of audio on solid state memory rather than skip. But actually my top of the line Sony Walkman then had sound quality that easily matched the discman - because the earbud headphones had really increased in quality. One of my friends, who was also in a low-wage job, bought this for me for my birthday:
That walkman was set apart by the quality of its earbuds as well as its excellent record feature and pseudo-digital fast forward and rewind (it could tell where songs stopped and started again, making your favourites on the cassette easier to find). All of this made my life absolutely wonderful because…as I said, I loved walking. And the more I loved walking and hiking, the more I wanted to listen to music and other audio (like my favourite radio shows I had recorded). But the problem was, one had to carry additional casettes and each cassette was usually only 90 minutes or so. For long hikes that just really did not do. And during this time I went to Africa (Zimbabwe) on Safari which included lengthy hikes...and lengthy travel times and also South America for some months, even hiking the Inca Trail in Peru…a three night long trial at high altitude through the Andes. I think I carried 6 cassettes with me for that journey. There are only so many times you can hear your favourite hits over and again. If only cassettes were smaller…or could store more songs?
Now in truth the Sony Minidisc player had been out since 1992. But it was well outside my budget. So it was not until 2002 I bought one - and what an astonishing device it was. I still have it. It looks like this:
This was merely incremental progress in some ways, but seemingly revolutionary for my life. Casettes had improved in quality markedly over the decade, but now the option of a small optical disc - much smaller than a cassette - could store many hours of audio. Indeed one could choose the sampling rate - the highest selection meant your minidisc could store about 70 minutes of audio, while the lowest quality meant 4 times that amount. There were science, philosophy and other radio shows I could download/record straight from the radio in low quality and keep, while I could transfer my CD audio music collection to minidisc - all stored on generic branded discs which were very cheap, and getting cheaper all the time as competition entered the market. And of course, at this time, this was one of the first devices one could actually hook up to a computer and download songs and other audio directly to via USB. Now that, I guess, deserves the term "revolutionary".
Throughout this time I changed jobs - going from being a security guard, to a “science communicator” with the university (which actually was paid quite a bit less - but this was an exchange I was happy to make as the “confrontation” - physical and otherwise - which is the life of a security officer - had become something I felt I had outgrown).
In the early 2000s, parts of the education system in Australia permitted graduates with just a Bachelor’s Degree to work as casual teachers in schools - so I took on this while I completed a Bachelor of Teaching (which would entitle me to work in schools on a permanent basis, for substantially more money). This brought with it a real increase in my financial position - money like I had never had before and didn't even know what to do with (I should probably have invested - but no, I was having too much fun travelling). But, once more, during this period I was working, then studying, working, then studying. Nevertheless I was able to save more. I paid my way through and completed two more degrees and then used these as tickets to travel for even longer periods. I had been to Africa, and South America and to numerous places within Australia (Tasmania was and remains my favourite. I agree with Edmund Hillary who described it as "the greatest hiking country on Earth".) After saving up from all those jobs, I moved to London and my minidisc player went with me - as I could download music from NAPSTER (which ages you, if you remember it) and radio shows from Australia to salve the homesickness as early versions of podcasts began to become popular. But, of course, the minidisc player still had the problem that the finiteness of the discs meant carrying quite a number of them, if one did not want to get repetitive with their audio. Solid state MP3 devices early on never had much memory - but were better for jogging (minidiscs were still liable to skipping). But the move to solid state seemed inevitable.
As I have continued to work, I migrated fully to an Apple device. At first it was the iPod nano - which was amazing - great for the gym and for jogging because it could store thousands of songs and podcasts in a device one barely noticed they were even carrying. But the first iPhone was for me also truly revolutionary because now, here was a device effectively with unlimited storage: the cloud meant that radio shows were there for download so long as you could find a WIFI or 3G signal. Especially for exercising and jogging this was a true game changer. Suddenly everything on the internet was accessible from my pocket for the first time - and streaming became a thing. The finiteness of the memory was barely a factor anymore.
And now we come to today -and on my wrist is an Apple Watch, as small as an iPod nano with so many of the features of an iPhone - and in my ears are wireless bud earphones. This is the stuff of dreams for my 10 year old self. Or my 20 year old self. Or my 30 year old self.
If I had remained a security guard at that shopping mall all these years - I guess I would not be paid much more now in "real wages" than I was then. Indeed I know, because I can look up, what that job pays here in Australia. And given the rise in living costs - indeed, it’s not like “Security Guard” is a more attractive job now than it was then. Why should it be? Jobs like those, in the main, are not meant to be kept for life - unless one really wants to get into the security industry say and own their own security company. That certainly could be a reasonable ambition. But had I stayed there, in that shopping mall, wearing that uniform, I expect I would have been promoted to supervisor, then manager and so forth up into the corporate section of the centre (interestingly the rank-system in a large shopping centre like that was quite a complex affair!). So no one stays in an entry level job like that forever, that’s common sense. Unless they really try hard not to try to get promoted or find some other job more attractive. People do get promoted, they do gain experience and so are moved into “higher” positions of greater responsibility, or sideways into a position where the ladder is easier to climb. Or they do a course for some hours a week and retrain to take on a different, by their lights better, role that pays more (or is more interesting, more fun, less hazardous and so on).
But say, for argument's sake, I never did any of that and remained a security guard in precisely the same position. Is the lack of increase of income of “security guards” relative to the cost of living - some sign of “stagnation” as it is often suggested to be? People say things like “real wages have not increased” as if people are stuck in the same job, forced to make the same choice day after day? Whatever the case - say I did make the choice to stay in that job and not made the choice to spend the rest of my time studying whenever I had the chance (when I wasn’t listening to recorded radio shows) - would it be fair to say I would have been “no better off” now compared to then? That because my "real wage growth" had been near zero that I was someone being "left behind"?
No. No way! Not by a long shot. Because today, even on that same wage, I could have afforded an Apple Watch and wireless earbuds. Which is exactly what I have now and the pinnacle of portable audio technology for me, so far as I am concerned. The Apple Watch I have comes to me on a “plan” via my mobile provider. It costs me $20 a month to pay off. I could afford that, even as a security guard. Easily! And yes, my data on top of that costs a little more (which I can share across multiple devices) - but the point is - the very best technology and access to the world’s information and music library - almost unimaginable technology to me 20 years ago - is available even to some of the least wealthy people in modern western societies - and soon to everyone else too!
Wealth is not about how much money you have, or cash you can pull out of your bank account. It includes that - but it also includes all the many things that money can buy and which you already have. My Apple Watch - if I could travel back 20 years - I imagine would have been regarded as one of the most astonishing devices in existence making me one of the most wealthy people on the planet. By this measure: the technology on my wrist would have been bought by Bill Gates or some other billionaire - for many billions of dollars if I could have convinced them what it truly was. If you have seen the movies: it would have been like the chip from the first Terminator which, if you recall - was not destroyed when Arnold’s evil character was killed. That last remaining chip was used by a technology company to “go in directions they never could have imagined”. It was basically alien technology. So too my Apple Watch placed in 2000, or let’s say 1990
The Apple Watch really does confer wealth onto you far beyond what its price would suggest. If you own one, you are more wealthy than anyone living in 1990. In 1990 there was no way to get any book in the world fed wirelessly into your ears - read to you by a machine. To thus learn the knowledge that could, potentially, improve your lot so easily. There was no way to call overseas…all from your wrist. People are rather pessimistic about the idea there has been such astonishing progress and an increase in wealth over time. They point to statistics like: wages have not increased while the cost of homes has. Some use this to explain the appeal of particular political movements. The same house today in some town costs 10 times what it did some years ago while the wage for the same job has only increased by a factor of 2. Doesn't this mean society is "going backwards" in some way? Now there may be some legitimate concerns here: there may be government regulations making the cost of housing greater in some places and more or less appealing in others. But none of this is really about how "wealthy" one is. Or if it is, that is merely one metric: how big is the house that a particular income earner can purchase now?
The security guard that I was from 1996 to 2000 no doubt was right to think he was near the bottom of the “Australian” wealth pecking order. But today - were I in the same job, being paid the minimum wage today - I would nevertheless be far far more wealthy. Not because my income relative to other jobs would have been greater - it isn’t. And shouldn’t be expected to be. But rather that the “purchasing power” of that same amount of money is unimaginably greater than what it was in 2000. Namely it can purchase technology absolutely unthought of in that time and which makes any security guard today in Australia on minimum wage the equal of the most wealthy on the planet by the metric that they can buy the best of certain things. I don't know what Elon Musk wears on his wrist in terms of smart-tech - but I know it's not much better than what I do, if at all. And the quality of his earbuds and audio he experiences each day I can bet is not much better than mine. In many ways I am just as wealthy as Musk on a number of metrics even though I have but a fraction of his income. Yes: he can build rockets. But I don't want to build rockets. I quite like doing with my time...precisely what I do with my time, much of the time.
If I had been told in 2000 all the features of an Apple Watch and then asked to guess what it cost, I do not know exactly what I might have said. But given that the cost of the best Walkmans at the time were well over $1000, and the best earbuds (wired of course) some hundreds, I guess I would have thought $5000 would have been a steal. And back then I could not have afforded the best quality walkman with all the best features. But now - the Apple Watch I has does precisely what the best smart wearable tech can do for the wealthiest. Everyone now is far far more wealthy according to that standard: they can afford personal technology that is not super outclassed by people who have much more income. Wages have all gone up in the sense we can all buy more than we ever could because there is more stuff to be purchased - more innovation and creation and technology to make our lives easier, more interesting and more mobile. And by more mobile I mean both more portable and more able to move into other jobs or other interests. Because we can put on our wrists (you don’t even need an Apple watch - there's lots of "wearable tech" far less expensive with almost all the same features) devices that can feed into our ears lessons that can lead us down lanes that in decades gone by would have required us to enrol into university courses at great expense. Now, it’s so much easier. So much more fun, and all so liberating. So is there stagnation? Stagflation? Recession? Cause for pessimism? Whatever the technical definitions from economics behind these terms, it should not cause one to think it has any direct bearing on their own individual life (unless they lose their job, let’s say). Those terms are never about individuals - but groups. Individuals are mobile and move between jobs and thus income bands and, meanwhile, as they do - the innovation continues despite what the naysayers say. Because whatever the gross metrics happen to be, they tend never to account for all the other ways life has improved, individual wealth increased and our personal purchasing power so much greater. Those who claim you’re worse off or that things have not improved are trying to sell you something. Something political rather much of the time. The truth is rather different: wealth continues to increase - you can do far more for far less cost. David Deutsch says in "The Beginning of Infinity" that wealth is “the repertoire of physical transformations that one is capable of causing.” Now just consider all the ways in which your own life has been transformed by technology and ideas, regardless of your income having increased or not and all the ways in which you can, now, if you choose make choices to transform your own life through - for example - education at near zero cost by downloading anything you like - the knowledge - so you can make things better for yourself. By any measure, almost all of us are far more wealthy now than we have ever been before.
There is no perfect policy; there is no solution that will once and for all solve a problem unproblematically. This is to say: no solution, however good, will not open up more problems. And oftentimes our circumstance is worse than that, for while moving from worse to better problems is a virtue and indeed one of the joys of life - a beginning of infinite progress - there can be occasions where purported solutions turn out to be anything other than genuine. Some (so-called!) "solutions" exacerbate our circumstance: they actively make things worse. We cannot know ahead of time how things might fail or succeed. All we can rely upon at any moment are our best explanations and those can always be improved.
It is for this reason, that in the area of politics, our system cannot be designed to install the optimal solution or the best solution or the solution that will once and for all solve our problem(s). The world simply does not bend to the hopes of some that once the best policies are enacted that finally then, there will be relief from needing to continue to strive for something ever better or, in many cases, to undo an attempt to improve things that turned out only to make things all the worse. But people can and do become ideologically wedded to particular policies even in the face of failure and so this is why we need a system for removing those failed policies and people in power so wedded to them.
This is why democracy is about not installing the ideal or best leader who will do the thing that solves the crisis because they can no more foresee the future than any of us. They are guessing their way to a better future - but they, like we, are fallible. Their policies and plans imperfect and the world changes around them anyways in ways they could not have foreseen with political culture such that “changing ones mind” when new evidence is found is a virtue and no vice. We should expect our politicians and their policies to fail just as we should expect our scientific theories to eventually fail. Politics, to a large degree, is still mired in a philosophy of being deeply committed to one’s beliefs and for this reason punishes those who might try to adapt and change when the circumstances do. This is unreasonable. It is irrational. The eventual failure of any solution is the normal state of things and so being wedded to any particular solution is a recipe for disaster. We must always be willing to adapt, change our minds and perhaps on a dime turn around and go completely in the other direction. Or simply change tac so our progress can be far more rapid.
Our political system is not for answering the question “Who should rule?” so the answer cannot be “the most erudite; the most qualified, the educated and the experts” - for they are just as fallible as the rest of us. Plato’s mistake was not necessarily in thinking that philosopher kings were preferable to rule by the demos (the citizens) because the demos was a mob. It may very well be that the demos is a mob and should not rule over other minorities. It may very well be that philosopher kings would be preferable to rule by a rabble. Or it may be the opposite. It does not matter in either case because what Plato imagined was not democracy. And democracy is the only rational system for governing a group of people. So what is democracy?
Democracy is not rule by the demos. That is not what it is. Democracy is a system for removing the rulers without violence when those rulers fail. Whether those rulers are “the mob” or “philosopher kings” does not matter. It does not matter if one of them claims to be “a man of the people” or “the smartest person on Earth” - they are part of a democratic system if they can be removed from office without the use of force. Votes are cast and they leave with the traditional peaceful transfer of power.
In any modern democracy, the mob does not rule anyway, though their representatives may. And once in power they might try to implement the policies of the mob. And those policies may succeed to solve the problems that caused them to run for election in the first place - in which case one presumes they will be re-elected. Or, of they fail, they will lose the election and be removed from office. And the self-designated “best and brightest” can try their hand at fixing things. And when they succeed or fail, the cycle continues.
But what no one can expect is an unproblematic state. Because even if the very best happens: even if your favoured candidate succeeds and your party wins an overwhelming majority and all of their policy platform enacted with very little delay - those solutions reveal new problems not able to be seen before. Obscured, as it were, by the detritus of problems right in front of your face and only once removed is your view now clear and you are able to see so much more. And besides, our universe is in flux and at any moment the unexpected and inherently unpredictable happens to undo all of your grand plans for finally setting up society in a way that is better. And the existing policies will fail to make things better - to solve the new problem at hand. And creativity will be needed, and thus new policies. And if the existing people in power lack new ideas then the purpose of democracy is to remove them. Guessing a new answer and checking it against reality. Iterating by error correcting. Because problems are inevitable. There is no way of installing the best candidate because "best" is always relative to a problem situation and different people have different problem situations.
Civilization could well be regarded as the state of removing the initiation of force - of violence - from a society. It may well begin with knowledge - take no one’s word for it. The removal of “authorities” when it comes to “what one should endorse as true”. We rightly recognise now that religious zealots beating children into submission until they can recite pages out of some holy book is the sign of an uncivilised society. Learning through violence does not work. We rightly recognise now that commissars and barons who would by decree divide up the labor of the peasant farmers by sending soldier backed tax collectors to take all of the grain and the cattle - is the sign of an uncivilised society that has no learned how free trade can benefit both the baron and the peasant. And democracy is where not the will of a tyrant is imposed once and for all upon the citizens not even the will of the people imposed once and for all upon the citizens. But rather leaders and policies are tried and tested and when they fail, just as in science, they are discarded as not actually solving the problem after all.
We are part of an ever improving civilisation. Our institutions are a recognition of the fact there can be no unproblematic state.
Our education system, ideally, does not use violence or coercion of any kind to inculturate and teach those who come new into it, the lessons those who went before us learned over millennia. Violence is anathema to learning.
Our methods of research - in science, technology, art, the humanities, academia and industry do not use violence to insist that their way is the best way. We try, we fail, we try again and improve. We know this enables the most rapid progress. Violence is anathema to discovery.
Our business and commerce is predicated on the assumption that providing a service is the way to provide value to the rest of society. No one is compelled to purchase your good or service. They can walk right out of the store or not renew the contract. Violence is anathema to trade.
Our democracy is predicated on the assumption that no one has all the answers and no policy can provide all the solutions. Any actual solution will reveal more problems and any ruler will, eventually, fail to offer up something as good as some alternative. So we have elections - the purpose of which is to remove peacefully, without force, bad policies and bad rulers. Violence is anathema to democracy.
Becoming civilised is the state of gradually eliminating violence wherever it still lurks in our society. It is the incremental removal of authorities who can make and enforce rules or the adherence to ideas at every level in every place, where possible, and where we know how in such a way as to not make things catastrophically worse. (For example: eliminating police tomorrow in any major city would fail to make things better - the exact opposite). People are fallible and will not always be reasonable (including most especially people we are yet to encounter) and so a civilised society must also have at its disposal the option to use force where necessary and so it will need individuals especially highly trained in its use because a civilised society will not be civilised for long if it outsources all expertise in violence to the uncivilised - especially to vast uncivilised mobs.
But, as a rule, civilisation is where peace reigns. Swords and guns exist but they are almost all of the time sheathed and holstered because the business of civilisation is to peacefully keep on trying to solve problems that have nothing to do with violence as rapidly as possible. Because problems are inevitable. Happily they are also soluble. As people that is our very purpose of life: to solve our problems today so that new and better and more fun problems can be solved tomorrow. Civilization is what allows us to continue to do that peacefully.
(Postscript: By the way so called “direct democracy” is not democracy either. It seeks to install, as a tyrant of a kind, the demos. Direct democracy is this idea that for any problem a particular set of policies are put forth (exactly by who and how, is another matter altogether) and then these are voted on by everyone. It has recently become popular with the advent of the internet and the real possibility of being ruled by some sort of technocratic voting system on…well anything people can think of presumably. But this is just to say: we can imagine a system where the majority can never be removed from power, by definition - because their votes on any given issue will always win the day and if you tend to disagree with their underlying philosophy the only thing for it is to leave that society or tolerate living subdued beneath it - for you cannot ever vote out those who rule over you and try out something different. Again: democracy, properly conceived, is the ability not to install any particular policy but to remove it. Minorities, outsiders and iconoclastic rebels need protection and representation too. A "direct democracy" is a direct path to their removal from a society and that would be the undoing of any such society because it is often those people who push genuine democracies forward.)
The most valuable thing you can offer to an idea