To be crystal clear: I am not making any judgement on whether this reversal is itself good or bad. I am just wondering why. I believe that the debt problem – which caused the crisis of the world economy – is the cause of a much deeper societal transformation. Our solution to the financial crisis was to take a drug called “Quantitative Easing” and it launched, or accelerated, a trip into a place where civic values have completely reversed.
The debt haunts us all as surely as the ticking clock in the crocodile haunted Captain Hook. Though, today’s debt does not come and go like Cook’s crocodile. It’s more like Edgar Allen Poe’s Tell Tale Heart which beats the drum of consequences ever more loudly over time. This unbearable truth makes us drink even more of the potion called Denial.
That is how we fell through the rabbit hole and landed up in a world where everything that was good is now bad and vice versa. This is important because the problem is not simply that the curtains don’t fit or the windows of opportunity seem smaller now. It is that we are in a very different world than we were before.
It Was Bad, Now It’s Good
Savings was good. Now Spending is “good”: The Financial Crisis (and its inflation invoking solutions) punished savers and encouraged us to borrow given low interest rates. Debt is so good that governments tell us you can fix the debt problem by adding more debt and by endlessly postponing its repayment.
Education was good. Now education leaves many jobless and with debt and no income. We admire entrepreneurs and lottery winners and make TV shows about people because they’ve become rich, not because they are smart.
Experts were good. Idiots were bad. Now Nassim Taleb calls experts “Intellectual Yet Idiots”. We now like to watch reckless idiocy from comics to reality TV to other arenas. Restraint was good and excess was bad. Now excess inspires – witness the Kardashians and the gold fixtures throughout Trump Tower.
Careers were good. Job hopping was bad. Loyalty to firms is considered crazy now because they are not loyal to you (because the debt means they have to cut costs). Now job hopping is good because you get to spread the risk that you’ll be hurt by any one of your employers.
Communities, groups and organizations were good. Now communities and groups are suspect and membership indicates you can’t think for yourself.
We the People Has Become “Me the People”
Thoughtful, measured responses used to be good (think Bertrand Russell). Now, no one has time to listen and they cannot understand or agree on the meaning of the words. Twitter beats Editorials. Soundbites beat nuanced explanations.
Truth was good. Lying was bad. Now we live in a “post truth” world where we admire crafty wordsmithing, weaponization of words, clever messaging. We know the names of the previously anonymous spin crafters these days.
Traditional religion was good and alternative religions were suspect. Now alternative religions gain followers and adherence to any one established local religion is considered a mark of small mindedness. People search for truth in the self-help section of the bookstore.
The occult was bad. Now, the occult is good. We have revived interest in occultism. Witches (or Wicca) cast hexes on the President. Summer festivals revive pagan traditions like Beltane in Britain. Burning Man, which has been around forever, suddenly becomes iconic.
Torture was bad. Now torture is good (necessary). The Red Cross has found that more and more people now support torture under certain conditions.
Purchasing things was good and sharing things was bad (associated with a black economy). Now the sharing economy has priority over the buying economy.
Drugs were Bad. Now drugs are good. We read that drugs were created to generate profits and not to cure people. Breaking Bad popularises drugs. Now we legalize drugs (marijuana, mushrooms and MDMA) and create drugs that will cure each of us individually (personalized medicine). Painkillers we thought were good, turned out to be bad (think OxyContin and the opioid crisis).
Debate was good. Now debate is bad. Opposing views must be silenced, not entertained. Free Speech was good. Now, Free Speech is bad. The view that “Speech should only be free if we agree with it” gains prevalence.
Marriage was Good. Promiscuity was Bad. We are shocked by marriages that last and admire those who succeed in the promiscuous life and who have multiple marriages. We treat people as disposable items that you simply swipe right for and counsel people to try and have sex without attachment.
Western Civic Values in a Nutshell: Oh My God, You’re So Cool !
The media not only condones this but provides detailed explanations to under-age children (witness the outcry over the Teen Vogue Guide to Anal Sex). Being an individual with self-confidence was good and admirable. Now, being an individual is only good and admirable if enough others confirm it through social soring. Self-confidence is suspect. We admire those who are “liked” and who have many “followers”.
Learning was Good. Now Learning is bad. Instead, we admire clever “hacks” and shortcuts that don’t waste time because knowledge is easy/ not hard
Scoring people was bad. Now scoring people is good. Scoring a person on attractiveness or “hotness” was bad. Now we like high scoring people and entities – the Facebook effect. China’s new Social Credit Scoring system (an Uber for people) is announced almost without comment.
Reading was good. TV was bad. Reading is now seen as a rare, time consuming, seemingly not necessary pastime. Instead, TV now (Netflix) has the best writing and pay scale in the entertainment industry and we admire free YouTubers and Instagrammers
Spying was Bad. Now, spying is good. After 911, spying was transformed. Instead of aiming at bad individuals, state intelligence aims their efforts at everybody (good or bad) in the hope of catching somebody bad (Prism, Echelon).
Science was good. Now, science is bad. Are scientists willfully trying to make holes in the universe with quantum efforts (thinks of CERN and DWave) or in DNA with the genome? With the advent of AI and robotics, everyone worries about whether robots and AI science will help or hurt us. Note the many warnings from prominent scientists like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk about unleashing uncontrollable forces.
Technology was Good. Now, technology can be bad.Your IPhone was supposed to make life easier. Now it is your life, which is good and bad.
Multilateral was good and bilateralism was bad. Now, this has reversed.
Price stability was good and inflation was bad. Now we hope for moving prices and desire more inflation.
The list could go on. I wonder if my hypothesis is right. Is it the debt that has reversed our view of reality, or accelerated the transition? Of course, removing the debt won’t bring us back to the old world, nor should it. But, I wonder whether this transformation would have happened without the debt problem? I’d welcome any thoughts.
Dr. Philippa Malmgren is an economist and an internationally recognized thought leader on the world economy and geopolitical dynamics of international affairs. She is a bestselling author, public speaker and founder of the global consulting firm DPRM Group, a consulting agency that helps companies, investors and policymakers better understand how risk and prices move across the policy landscape.Dr. Malmgren’s insights about markets and geopolitics inform her audience about important signals and investable trends. She is the author, of Geopolitics for Investors and, most recently, of Signals: How Everyday Signs Can Help Us Navigate the World’s Turbulent Economy. Dr. Malmgren is also Co-Founder of H-Robotics, a manufacturing firm that makes aerial robotics.