Our Less Particpatory Times

It seems we’re on the news carousal, going up and down, seeing the same scenery over and over again as the carousal revolves. This is could be to a dearth of ideas, boredom, or the monotony of geopolitical events which have become as predictable as whether the sun will rise. But maybe another problem is that public intellectuals and other influencers may be calling it quits, too. Around 2008 to 2013, during the depths of the final crisis and after, we saw a public intellectual explosion, particularly in the social sciences. Daniel Kahneman, Taleb, Pinker…all had books which spurred considerable debate. Even the self-help market saw a boom (Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Workweek, for example). Then you had the rise of bloggers like Brad Delong, Robin Hanson and others, and while their blogs are still popular, it seems like their influence has diminished. Between 2007-2012, Ted talks were all the rave, but with all the marquee names having already given talks (some of them multiple times), TED has been scraping the bottom of the barrel as of late. The apex of blogging was probably around 2013, and it’s been gradually downhill since then, for a wide variety of niches. NRx blogging peaked in 2013, as did iSteve and most ‘alt right’ blogging. In 2012, a Ron Unz article published in The American Conservative about quotas against Asians in Harvard admissions became something of a mini-sensation, generating enormous coverage and debate, eventually culminating in Unz cashing in on his new found fame and parting ways with American Conservative to launch his own news site, unz.com. Nothing since then surpassed the grandiosity that article.

In 90’s and 2000’s everything was more ‘participatory’ or ‘hands-on’, unlike the un-participatory, autopilot nature of the post-2008 and post-2013 economy and society. In the 80’s and 90’s, when everything was smaller, slower, and less efficient, ordinary people could get rich with stocks, technology, entrepreneurship, and while people still can get rich with those things (especially with index funds), it’s become much harder. The future of America is one where we’re all just consumers, not creators or producers, and while the economy and stock market can keep growing in this condition – and even thrive – it won’t be fulfilling for many. Web 2.0 has much higher barriers to entry, but immensely bigger riches than the 90’s tech boom. The stock market has posted bigger gains between 2009 to 2015 than the late 90s, but too many people are fearful and pessimistic, sitting on the sidelines as the indexes keep making new highs. Every single technology metric has exploded since the late 90’s – from smaller, more powerful computers, to services and apps that can outsource your entire life. We have Amazon self-publishing, podcasting, YouTube, Vine, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook – giving anyone with a pulse a presence. But the problem is, again, that pesky barrier to entry: too much content and not enough eyeballs. The ability to readily create content creates the false illusion that we’re having an impact, being productive. The US population and internet adoption rate hasn’t grown much relative to the amount of new content being added, whereas in the 90’s you had a boom in content and an even bigger boom in adoption. Then going back further, to the 50’s all the way to the 80s, you had four decades of post-WW2 prosperity and a consumer spending spree – tens of millions of impressionable Americans that were willing to buy anything you put in front of them, on TV, in the newspaper, or radio. This was a ripe time for entrepreneurs who captured this growth spurt. While consumer spending has continued to boom, they have far more choices, with successful, large companies having already established their dominance. This is why consumer staples ETFs (XLP and RHS) have been such great investments and will continue to do well. In a winner-take-all economy, you want to be buying the biggest and best. For the technology sector, that means Amazon (AMZN), Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB) and Microsoft (MSFT). Each of these is worth at least $250 billion.

With entrepreneurship (with the exception of web 2.0) being too saturated and costumer staples ETfs the best way to make passive wealth, that leaves a void which is filled by the rise of ‘intellectualism culture’ in post-2008 America, with entrepreneurs being supplanted by intellectuals and wonks. Nowadays, we all aspire to be the ‘smartest guy in the room’, because that’s where the money and fame is. Blogs by academicians are immensely popular (Tyler Cowen of marginalrevolution.com, Robin Hanson of overcomingbias.com, and Brag Delong of delong.typepad.com); fivethirtyeight.com, a site started by a stat wonk Nate Silver, was an overnight success, although Nate’s earlier fame certainty helped. Same for vox.com, a very popular news site with a wonk-like appeal and methodology, launched in 2014. As discussed many times on this blog, ‘social awkwardness’, monomania and other ‘nerd/autistic/ INTJ&INTP mannerisms’ convey authenticity in or ‘new economy’, instead of agreeability and politeness, which is perceived as phony and superficial. People have gotten more judgmental, better at sniffing out ulterior motives, and the rise of Trump (against ‘mainstream conservatism’) and the rise of centrism (against SJW-liberalism) reflects this. Although social media is saturated, as with with most post-2008 successes, a high IQ is almost always a necessary condition for success.

But there is also the post-2008 rise of ‘hustle culture’ – which is related to individualism – of millennials trying to get rich with stocks, selling stuff online, and YouTube & Vine, as well as the online celebration and glamorization of wealth creation. The internet may have lowered the barriers to entry in terms of start-up costs, but there is a lot of competition in these domains. This form of individualism, while not always related to academia or academic subjects, is still tangentially related to ‘intellectualism culture’, in the Randian sense, part of the ‘wealth-intellectualism’ synthesis. A major aspect of this type of entrepreneurship (compared to pre-2008) is that it tends to involve few employees, is automated to a large degree, and involves intangibles (stock trading, coding, YouTube, websites) rather than building or making things – in other words, high-IQ type endeavors, which agrees with the last sentence of the prior paragraph.

Perhaps we need public intellectuals (even pseudo-intellectuals like Gladwell), who have major media platforms, to get people talkin. Or cataclysmic events to shake the slumber and monotony. Otherwise we just go in circles. In 2008, you had the financial problem and the election of Obama, both which generated a lot of discussion online, and, even earlier, the events of 911 and the invasion of Iraq. But now, especially since 2012 or so, not much is happening, although Trump’s ascent came as a surprise to many. Pinker’s ‘long peace‘ is underway, save for some terrorist attacks here and there. Politics and blogging needs ‘stuff’ to happen – either news or the injection of new ideas from intellectuals – in order to evolve; otherwise, nothing changes. The same also applies to science; the formulation and verification of relativity killed off the aether theories that previously dominated.