Wealth, Intellectualism, and Individualism, Part 16

From Paul Graham: Economic Inequality and The Refragmentation:

Economics is a social science, which means, to some extent, it affects everyone, allowing anyone to participate in the debate. Wealth inequality touches everyone, including the rich, who are often blamed for wealth inequality.

People have observed how much things have changed in this ‘new era’ we find ourselves in, and they want explanations as well as solutions: like how to find work without much job experience, how to not get fired, how to make money without a traditional job, how to find meaning in life, and so on. The explanations for why or how the economy has changed are easy to elucidate, but solutions are harder to come by. Such solutions, if they exist, may not be what people want to hear.

To get an idea of how fervent this ‘great economics debate’ has become, the article Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation, by David H. Auto, although only published in 2015, has already received over 50 citations, which in unprecedented for such a new article, and indicating not just significant debate but a huge demand for intellectualism, in general.

Furthermore, as example of intellectual style of ‘naval gazing’ and introspection that has become especially popular as of 2013, the article A Nihilist’s Guide to Meaning, by the widely-cited site Melting Asphalt, went hugely viral on Hacker News and was shared many times on Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook, and in the process further boosting the social status of the author and webmaster of Melting Asphalt, Kevin Simler.

The lengthy article contains allusions to STEM and philosophy (again, evidence of how the two are becoming linked), with a lot of name-dropping of smart, introspective people, further boosting the article’s popularity among its intended audience of other like-minded smart people. It’a also an example of ‘intellectualism signaling’ – although Kevin derives no direct monetary benefit in terms of ad revenue from writing the article, it going viral elevates his social status. ‘Social currency’, in our era of social media and intellectualism, is as valuable as tangible currency.

But, as mentioned before, the viralness article is evidence of the huge, unmet demand for complicated stuff, a niche that for much of the 90’s and 2000’s – long before 2013 – was neglected. And maybe this also descended from, or perhaps is a symptom of, the post-2008 ‘competence bubble’, as an example of cultural (‘intellectualism culture’) and economic forces (Social Darwinism, productivity, efficiency) converging.

Also, nihilism is very trendy these days, perhaps as a way of coming to terms with the futility of resistance against economic and social forces outside of our control. A post from Hacker News, When you feel stuck in life, went hugely viral and describes the ennui that is all too common with millennials who find themselves all educated-up and nowhere to go:

I’d just like to give my two cents where I know no one gives a shit ever. I’m 29 years old. I finished with my Business Administration degree(major) and now I just feel completely LOST! Has anyone ever felt that way? You have the drive and motivation to get to your destination but once you are there — you’re left wondering — “what else could I have done? What else is there to life? Because if this is all there is then I’m not happy.” And, truth be told, I am not happy. I’d like to be something — more than just an office person. More than just someone who works that 8-5 shift. I feel like a complete wreck. Has anyone ever felt this way?

I feel like I should go back to school but do I really want to rack up all that loan? I am already struggling right now. I just wish I knew where to start as a push and motivation.

What would you guys do if ya were in my shoes?

It’s easy to dismiss or generalize millennials as lazy or entitled, and maybe some are, but we’re on the same boat together – liberal and conservative, ‘alt right’ and ‘rationalist-left’. To the girl with the Tumblr page and Instagram pictures, to the Trump supporter that reads Roosh V, it’s authenticity and ‘shared narratives’ – whether it’s about social isolation and awkwardness, anxieties about growing up in a difficult economy, or how society neglects its smartest – that forge common ground among differing ideological tribes and people that otherwise would have nothing to do with each other. Before 2013, these tribes were completely balkanized (OWS vs. Tea Party, for example), but now, online, we’re at least seeing the empathy gap close to some degree, or at least between those of similar IQ who find themselves in similar social and economic predicaments. Consider, for example, Davis Aurini, who identifies as being affiliated with ‘neomasculinity and the dark enlightenment’, in a recent article empathizing with children on the autism-spectrum disorder who are drugged and forced into conformity by society.

Possibly there is the anomie that arises from a society that prizes, above all, individualism and ‘value creation’, where individuals are ranked by the economic value they produce or by their social or intellectual clout, not character; and the emptiness that arises from a deterministic world and economy, where the vast majority of individuals have no control over the process and are spectators and consumers rather than participants and contributors. Maybe there is too much ‘virtue signalling’ and not enough actual virtue. The stock market keeps going up, but what’s in it for the rest of us? To wrap this up, in the words of Ross Douthat, perhaps the most perceptive cultural commentator alive, in a recent column Are We Unraveling?, describes how the American republic has become ‘fragmented’:

…a society where elites are widely loathed, where the political parties are polarized and one of them is so hollow that a rank demagogue could seize it, where diversity and distrust have risen together, where wage growth has been disappointing, where families are fragmented and churches and civic organizations are in eclipse, where the metaphysical common ground provided by the old Mainline-Protestant consensus has all but disappeared.

I think that sums it up.