Threads of Chaos
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. — St. Paul — 1 Corinthians 13:12
On January 6th, 2021, a mob of insurrectionists laid siege to the US Capitol in Washington DC while both houses of Congress were in session to certify the electoral college results of the November 2020 general election. The sitting President, Donald J. Trump, lost the election. Sadly, President Trump is a deeply selfish man. Knowing full well that he may lose the general election in November 2020, he began a disinformation campaign to throw doubt on the results of the election. After it was clear that Donald Trump had in fact lost, the disinformation intensified and accelerated.
A key goal of disinformation is often to create confusion and dismantle trust in traditionally trustworthy organizations. One obvious example of disinformation today is the way COVID-19 has been called a “hoax,” which resulted in many people not viewing it as a real threat to their health or taking necessary precautions to prevent and contain its spread.
“Within the past few months, we’ve seen other large-scale disinformation about elections and the democratic process in terms of the validity, legality and security of mail-in ballots, fraudulent voting, rigged elections, dead people voting, supercomputers changing votes, etc.,” says co-author Joshua Garland, an Applied Complexity Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute. “And there are many other examples surrounding migrants, vaccines, and climate change.”
The events of January 6th made me angry. My blood boiled to see a mass of Trump-loving insurrectionists storm the capitol calling out for Mike Pence by name to force him to initiate a coup.
The blame lays 100% with Trump, his family, his inner circle, and the GOP members of the House and Senate who peddled the disinformation for the past year.
However, I don’t think we can pin all of the underlying forces that allowed people to act the way they did on Trump and the current GOP leadership. Instead, I propose larger trends preceded the poor leadership of the past 4 years. Once the current GOP leadership is gone and Trump (hopefully) totally removed from the national scene, enormous social unrest will remain. What are the threads of chaos that brought America to this moment?
Many threads make up our difficult moment. What I highlight today is not an exhaustive list. I hope to focus on a few trends that affect the whole world and are not often discussed.
Thread 1: Deterioration of the family
My bias shows here. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and we value family at a near fanatic level. Marriage is collapsing in the US and in modern western economies. Since 1970, the number of US adults in a marriage has been steadily declining and the rate of never married adults is steadily rising. Marriage is strongly connected to inequality in the US and in Europe (less marriage, more inequality). Children raised in not married homes struggle in school. Children growing up in committed marriages have lower crime rates. As the children grow, teenagers suffer from mental health issues connected to the breakdown of families. As families deteriorate OR never form in the first place, individuals in societies struggle to trust one another. The breakdown of family at the base of society causes a breakdown of trust between adults in society.
Around 2016, America became fixated upon the polarization between reds and blues. But before blues swore off reds as deplorables and reds condemned blues as godless, the upper middle class joked about trailer trash and stigmatized the working class; America struggled to overcome the original sin of racism; bosses treated their workers like disposable widgets; and men and women swore off marriage as “just a piece of paper.” Marriages ended in divorce, unions dissolved with the relocated factory, and neighborliness withered with class-and-race-segregated regions. Alienation became the norm in parts of America.
Politics took the brunt and bore the divisions, to be sure, but as is so often the case, politics is downstream from culture on this score. Political polarization is not solely responsible for the possible crisis we face.
To heal, we have to attend to the deep divisions that eviscerated trust and bonds — family bonds, neighborly bonds, economic bonds — and that drove us to seek refuge and too-much-meaning in our political identities. To heal, we will need to rebuild the families and communities that nurture trust, to re-learn the habits of neighborliness and solidarity — from the workplace to the neighborhood to the family.
To avoid civil war, we need to rebuild bonds of trust.
Important note here. If you come from a non-traditional family, this is not about you. The data shows that people of all kinds come from all kinds of family situations. This isn’t an attack on those in non-traditional families or relationships. It’s a simple observation that as society rejects marriage things are measurably worse for the adults and children in the households. Since the family has been deteriorating since the 1970s, new problems never seen before are popping up. The breakdown of the family makes all of society unstable.
Thread 2: Debt Super-cycle
The United States economy has accumulated far too much debt since 1980. Important to note, I am not talking about the US Federal Government debt. I am talking about TOTAL debt. Every citizen, school district, business, monopoly, state government, and Federal government debt combined. The private sector has more debt than the Federal Government.
The concept of the debt trap is consistent with scholarly research, from the 19th century to present, which indicates that high debt levels undermine economic growth. This causality is supported by the law of diminishing returns, derived from the universally applicable production function. Historical declines in economic growth rates have coincided with record levels of public and private debt. Total public and private debt jumped from 167.2% of GDP in 1980 to 364.0% in 2019, with an estimated record 405% at the end of this year (2020). Gross government debt as a percent of GDP accelerated from 32.6% in 1980 to 106.9% in 2019 to an estimated 127% by the end of this calendar year (2020).
As proof of this connection, each additional dollar of debt in 1980 generated a rise in GDP of 60 cents, up from 54 cents in 1940. The 1980’s was the last decade for the productivity of debt to rise. Since then this ratio has dropped sharply, from 42 cents in 1989 to 27 cents in 2019.
Said in layman's terms, we have so much debt that we can’t get the economy growing right now. If the economy can’t grow, income inequality explodes, social mobility collapses, and people lose confidence in the “social contract.”
Thread 3: Monopoly Power
Market power is crowding out wages, opportunities, and innovation throughout the US economy. The situation is dire. Low wages, social mobility, and community connectedness are all suffering under the “too big to fail” economy of 2021.
Today, the concentration of private economic power has reached extreme proportions. This power is evident in major sectors of our economy, such as technology platforms, telecommunications, banks, health care, and retail. It also exists systemically in niche markets, with powerful corporations governing commerce in sectors from contact lenses to cat food to mattresses to meat.
This concentration means that the underlying structure of most markets produces unequal and abusive outcomes. Dominant corporations, often organized by extractive financiers, direct more and more wealth to themselves, while undermining the economic liberties of consumers, working people, independent businesses, ordinary investors, and communities.
Powerful corporations are also political institutions that capture and wield power over government and politics, spending billions to influence public discourse and policy. In doing so, they entrench and exacerbate economic and political marginalization among historically excluded communities. They also contribute to deep injustices in the application of the law; for the most powerful corporations, laws are often mere suggestions, in stark contrast to the abusive ways our legal system treats the poor and communities of color.
Thread 4: Demographics
The Boomers (born 1946–1964) are retiring in mass. Each year, more and more Boomers enter retirement. There are not enough Gen Xers to replace the Boomers in the workforce. Boomers have begun to suck money out of the normal economy and are parking it in the stock market, bonds, and real-estate. Plus the boomers are going to run Medicare and Social Security costs WAY up. To put this in perspective, Peter Zeihan:
People act differently depending on their age. There’s aren’t a lot of retirees at spin class, nor do college students frequent buffets that specialize in creamed vegetable products. In a “normal” economy there’s a set balance of roughly four children to three young adults to two mature adults to one revered elder. So long as that proportion holds the economic system has some somewhat straightforward characteristics: young workers spend and borrow, mature workers invest, while retirees shift their financial holdings into decidedly less interesting and volatile holdings. Fewer stocks — more t-bills and cash.
The problem (and this time “problem” is certainly the correct word) is that the demographic shift has altered the structure of capital. From roughly 1970 to 2010 the decline in birth rates steadily increased the proportion of mature workers in the population relative to everyone else. It is this block that saves the most both in relative terms and in aggregate. Those savings are the bulk of the world’s working capital. Left unchecked, the growth of the mature worker cohort will eventually oversupply the world with capital.
Well, “eventually” is here. Right now, the population of mature workers as a proportion of global population is at its peak. As this cohort inexorably edges toward retirement, they are shifting their portfolios into less risky assets. Less venture capital, more bonds. The veritable tsunami of capital into the bond space has pushed the safest of those bonds — government debt — firmly into the negative.
These generational changes often lead to decades-long periods of turmoil.
The big trends are fueling people with worry, uncertainty, and anger.
Buckle up. Even if the GOP is held to account for January 6th, the American people are under LOTS of pressure. That pressure isn’t going to be relieved by a switch in leadership.