I understand why folks do retrospective blog posts and best-of lists in early December, and I certainly benefit from it as I’m thinking about Christmas gifts, but it seems to violate the spirit of the list or retrospective itself to start before the year or decade is done. If this is the *only* lesson that we learn from Mutallab’s attempted attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, I’ll be happy: just because you’re going on vacation for the last few weeks of the year doesn’t mean the year is over. Having safely escaped 2009 and the whole ‘Naughty Aughts’ decade, here are my reflections, predictions, and lists:
Trend for the past decade: The Blog
Domestically, this was the decade of the blog. Like many Americans, I started the decade accessing the internet through AOL via a phone line and a modem: today I don’t even have a landline and my cell phone gets e-mail. Whether it was terrorism, the Fuehrer principle, sorry, theory of the unitary executive in the White House, the dual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s first black president, or the almost zero economic growth we experienced this decade, the place where most of us went for more information was the internet, and specifically to that mix of news and opinion that was pioneered on cable news networks but found its home here in the blogosphere.
Of course, that’s a pretty narrow-minded view of what’s been going on: the blog has primarily been revolutionary for, well, bloggers, and the journalists who’ve been losing their jobs to folks who’re willing to do the work for free. The biggest trends are largely not domestic American trends at all:
Internationally, I think the big economic story was China, which succeeded in achieving tremendous economic gains for the least advantaged through trade liberalization. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, China has lifted HALF A BILLION people out of absolute poverty. In this decade, it managed to befriend its biggest competitor through the simple expedient of loaning us 3/4 of a trillion dollars. As a consequence, it’s true, relative inequality has exploded. For my part, I spent the decade deciding that trading absolute poverty for relative poverty was actually a good deal.
On the international political scene, I think Iran steals the cake, though this presumes, falsely, that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not international political stories closely tied to the troubles of the nation stuck between them. The Green Revolution in Iran will overturn the government there, whether it happens this year or in five years. Watching the Twitter feeds of Iranian dissidents made me feel like Immanuel Kant listening to reports of the French Revolution: “a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm.” Details aside, it’s an unbeatable lesson in what Arendt called “the elementary grammar of political action.”
Trend for the coming decade: Lowered Expectations
I predict that Americans will lower their expectations in the Teens. Basically, a bastardized version of the ‘Small is Beautiful‘ movement will finally gain mainstream status. The new normal will be a lower trend line for growth, higher taxes, higher savings, and risk aversion. I expect some counter-cyclical grandiosity, but I think in general we’ll learn to live with less, and even the rich will come to disdain conspicuous consumption or else meet with the derision of their fellows. Simplicity will be in style. The fads that remain will continue to surround expensive and compact electronics like the iPhone or Kindle.
I think these lowered expectations will have cultural implications as well: just as we had a bit of a letdown when the world didn’t end as the millennium came to a close, we’re going to be busy realizing that a black president won’t save us from ourselves or eliminate racism, and that there’s no easy solution to the messes we’ve made. Hopefully we’ll buckle down and work at paying back our parents’ debts. More Americans will ‘settle’ for second-tier cities rather than flocking to New York or Los Angeles or Chicago. I predict we’ll have more kids (which is consumption of a different sort) and that there will be another demographic bulge to rival the Baby Boomers from the children born over the next decade.
What’s the 21st Century going to be like? Slower and Hotter
As the Financial Times has recently pointed out, we rarely realize the themes of a century during its first decade: whether it’s World War I starting in 1914, or Napoleon’s downfall in 1814, the events that end up defining a century’s character for historians tend to occur in the century’s ‘adolescence.’ So I don’t think this will be a terror century just because the US finally realized how devastating domestic attacks on civilians by foreign nationals can be in 2001. Terrorism is a thoroughly 20th century problem, but like knives and forks, some things don’t go away when their time is past.
If anything, I think this century is most likely to be defined by two factors: the environment and peak oil. The fact that we still don’t have a functioning international carbon regulation regime suggests that there’s plenty of time to make that the crowning achievement of the next decade, and fighting the fraud that’s likely to emerge from a carbon cap trading system is going to take us a bunch more decades still. Then we’ll have to deal with the hangover from the last fifty years of carbon emissions.
Peak oil itself would just spell the loss of the standards of growth and development that characterized the post-war Anglo-American experience, and the post-Cultural Revolution experience in China. Combined with the growth of communications technologies, however, I think we might see a set of competing trends around geographic decentralization and information centralization, a la Google. Why send people to interact by expensive & polluting aeroplane when you can video teleconference or communicate via wiki? On the other hand, the physical goods that still satisfy our biggest needs will be in increasingly short supply: we’ll compete with our cars and trucks for calories, we’ll find that we’ll make do with less space in order to live close to city centers, and we’ll make do with less medicine and health care.
At the same time, I don’t think peak oil will significantly effect international trade: the really inefficient transportation is the one-person gas guzzling car. A container ship is still the best way to get goods from low labor cost countries to high labor cost countries, so I don’t expect a re-industrialization of the first world or a major sectoral shift towards manual labor. The benefits of education (and greater and greater specialization) will only increase, with the attendant inequalities and impoverishment of those who aren’t the recipients of educational largesses by the state or rich families. So China, Brazil, Russia, and India will continue to decouple their economies from the growth of the first world, even as they continue to supply many of our needs.
I’m well aware of the poor track record of futurists, so if this turns out to be the century that we perfect immortality and the Alpha Centauris finally show up to say, “Hi,” I’ll be embarrassed, but those sorts of mistakes are par for the course.
Best Political Philosophy:
The folks at Crooked Timber gave me much to chew on a few weeks ago, but here’s my (unordered) list:
- Thomas Pogge World Poverty and Human Rights
- Martha Nussbaum Frontiers of Justice
- Amartya Sen The Idea of Justice
- Iris Marion Young Inclusion and Democracy
- Sheldon Wolin Democracy Incorporated
- Claude Lefort Complications
- Stephen Breyer Active Liberty
- Phillip Petit A Theory of Freedom
- Diana Mutz Hearing the Other Side
- David Estlund Democratic Authority
- Charles Taylor A Secular Age
Best Films and Television
A person could do worse than just read through the Slate Interactive List or the Metacritic list and add things to their Netflix queue, but here’s my personal short list for true greatness:
- Pan’s Labyrinth
- Up (really, everything by Pixar, but especially Up)
- 25th Hour
- The Road (absolutely destroys the post-apocalyptic genre: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose“)
Jon Stewart ruled late night, but this was a decade of serial narratives on television. This is a highly contested space, and most peoples preferences are closely tied to their class and background, so I’ll just say that, for my part, I think the best of these were:
- The Wire
- The West Wing
- Six Feet Under
Some other best-of lists: io9’s 20 Best Science Fiction Novels, The Onion AV Club’s Best Books of the 00’s. I’d say that Freakonomics was the most influential book of the decade, that Zadie Smith was the best new novelist, and that Harry Potter was the best fantasy/science fiction.