Disturbing literature, disturbing elections, and the tyranny of leverage / by Mike Hudack

Western culture is becoming pessimistic. Our literature is tilting towards near-future disaster. Classics like 1984 and It Can’t Happen Here are newly popularThe Mandibles and American War feature on bookstore tables around the United States. 

These books are popular because they explore a linear extrapolation of the current moment into the future: they plum the depths of our current politics, our economics, our sociology. 

The FT on The Mandibles

Known for tackling big contemporary issues head-on, Shriver deals skilfully here with the implications of economic meltdown. The novel, set in a near-ish future, tells of the plight of the once wealthy Mandible family and the decline of four generations into penury, thieving and prostitution.

It Can’t Happen Here and American War even feature the same barbed wire on their covers. I’ve had to put away my copy of The Mandibles because it’s just too painful at the moment.

Trump sits in the White House. Brexit and Theresa May rule Britain. More than one in five French voters voted for Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front.

When my daughter reads history she will read that the populist moment of the teenage years of the 21st century was an inevitable and natural reaction to free trade, globalism, technological advance, the disappearance of low- and medium-skilled jobs and the 2008 crisis. Tribalism is the natural reaction to economic and social dislocation. But we still have a problem: the opposition is intellectually bankrupt.

Macron might triumph in France, but he won’t do so because people are particularly excited about his message. Macron is a former Goldman Sachs banker. He served as economy minister to the least popular president in the history of Western democracy. Macron is the candidate of the status quo running against a dangerous, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Europe, anti-Euro populist. The only thing Marine Le Pen is not against is Vladimir Putin. This she has in common with Trump.

If Macron wins it won’t be because people like or appreciate him or his policies. It will be to save the Republic:

In order to save the Republic we must vote for the status quo cosmopolitan globalist who will continue to destroy it! https://t.co/01kDoMvrhk

-- Mark Sleboda (@MarkSleboda1) April 23, 2017

This is the problem. The world has changed in profound ways and no politicians anywhere are acknowledging the changes and offering a path forward. Low and semi-skilled manufacturing jobs are not coming back. Machine learning is fundamentally changing the nature not only of factory work, but of office work. Most college degrees aren’t worth anything. The sheer leverage enjoyed by the most talented amongst us drives staggering amounts of income inequality, and this secular trend is unlikely to reverse any time soon.

Dwell on this last point for just one second.

Think about the amount of technology that exists today to leverage the intelligence of a single person. One person can write brilliant code that out-performs a million people trading in the open markets. One person can design a factory that churns out new cars with one hundredth of the human involvement necessary only generation ago. One person can have an idea that changes an algorithm which changes the news people see which changes an election. 

Compensation naturally follows. We are now capable of having our impact so leveraged that we have dramatically different replacement values in professional settings, which in turn leads to dramatically different compensation. Historically the difference in performance between the best accountant in the world and an average accountant was relatively small because the leverage with which they could operate was limited. These days the best accountant writes software that scales her brilliance and obviates the need for the average accountant. This is the impact of Information Technology on our world. It is more fundamental even than the impact of the shipping container

My daughter will study the populist movement as a natural outbirth of globalism and 2008. She will also study the emergence of new political philosophy that helps us deal with the social and economic consequences of massive personal leverage. But no politician — or author, or philosopher, or economist — is yet offering us this political philosophy. So we are left with a choice between Macron and Le Pen while we read stories like The Mandibles which explore the world we’ll live in if we don’t figure this shit out. 

Spoiler alert: it’s fucking depressing.