Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Cartoon Channel

In my quest to understand absolutely everything, I’m afraid I’ve made the freshman error of over researching the topic. After all, even if you could get it right, a complete explanation would be as useless as a map as large as the territory. The whole point is to leave things out; and by whole point, I really mean the whole point since the general action of time is subtractive right from the collapse of quantum indeterminacy into classical observables to the reduction of our national discourse to a series of commentaries on the Peterson trial. The trick is to leave a beautiful corpse when you murder the possibilities. To that end, the poet Rimbaud insisted that it is necessary to be drunk. For some of us, glue’s more like it. So here’s what’s happening in world history.

We’re at the end of the exponential increase in the human population. The birth rate has stabilized or begun to fall in most countries, and the inflection of the curve is the great fact of the age. With one of the great motors of economic growth turned off, political elites are faced with a new situation. As long as the rising tide was lifting all boats, they could afford to be generous without losing ground to the plebs. Indeed, practical egalitarianism paid. That easy liberalism is increasingly obsolete, and new options have to be explored. I see four responses taking shape:

1. The modern liberals bet that technological progress will be able to maintain economic growth and underwrite a society that remains relatively rational and democratic provided its members are willing to live in the responsible, sober, and rather boring fashion that goes along with the information economy.

2. The thoughtful conservatives accept the likelihood that the economy will stagnate and plan to maintain or improve their privileged position by getting more of the pie. They recognize that this can only be accomplished by force or fraud. To take care of your family, you do what you have to do.

3. The thoughtless conservatives live in denial, proposing to maintain an expanding standard of living by deficit financing and the accelerating exploitation of finite resources like oil. Some of them rationalize their unsustainable policies by taking apocalyptic fantasies literally or by dreaming of magic technological fixes—nanotechnology as the Great Pig, Star Wars as the bulletproof shirt.

4. The utopian radicals propose to deal with the end of material progress by embracing a virtuous egalitarian poverty. One may be allowed a certain skepticism about the prospects of ahimsa in a tide pool.

Mix and match.

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