What exactly is the problem these days?

In my latest Bloomberg column I tried to express the “model” in as few dimensions as possible.  Here is an excerpt:

I am increasingly worried that human success and failure are ruled by taste — the demand side, in economic terms. If there are fewer beautiful and charming residential post-World War II neighborhoods, it is because most people do not want to live in them. If there are fewer movies today with the dramatic impact and compositional rigor of “Citizen Kane,” it is because people do not very much want to see them. It is not that it is too difficult or expensive to make another “Citizen Kane.”

Again, this is not an argument for pessimism. Hollywood movies may be worse, but television programs are much better. Neighborhoods may look less interesting, but the insides of homes are more comfortable. For every potential lost Baroque concerto, there are gains in other areas of life.

Still, it is striking how much the quality of taste can decline — and stay there for long periods.

Social contagion plays a significant role in this process. That is, when some people become interested in a particular genre, many others may follow: Think of the rise of Beatlemania. The process also works the other way: Think of the decline of disco.

The question is why some particular tastes decline, and others rise. There are probably deep structural explanations, but for the most part those reasons are not transparent to our understanding. For all practical purposes, many shifts in cultural tastes are random.

It’s also important to realize that a lot of politics is about aesthetic tastes for a particular set of values, a particular set of people, a particular set of processes and outcomes. There was a series of democratic revolutions starting in the late 18th century, just as there were numerous fascist revolutions starting in the early 20th century and neoliberal revolutions in the 1990s. Social contagion can help explain those as well.

My fear, quite simply, is that we have entered an age in which the popular taste for good political outcomes, and fair political processes, is much weaker than it used to be. You might think that people would always want at least decent political outcomes, but that hypothesis has gotten increasingly hard to defend in the last 10 years, both in the US and globally. Attachment to democracy, for instance, seems significantly weaker, as does love for capitalism. People’s tastes are being pulled in different directions, whether it be the Proud Boys or the extremely woke.

All of which is to say, a rather simple and unglorified possibility is becoming more likely: People have stopped wanting good things to happen.

I realize this explanation is banal and does not hold much emotional appeal. Many people prefer conspiracy theories, or tightly structured theoretical hypotheses, or to pin the blame on some particular political faction, usually one they oppose. Or they focus on some very specific issue, such as climate change.

I view all of those problems, real though they may be, as downstream from the more fundamental issue: Why haven’t our systems of government responded better to whatever particular dilemmas concern us most?

Happy 4th!


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