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‘Stuck in a rut’: Andrew Potter catalogues our ongoing decline

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Today’s Hub Dialogue is with Andrew Potter, associate professor at McGill University and graduate program director at the Max Bell School of Public Policy.

He has recently published a fascinating, new book, On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, and Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever, which documents how Western countries have been marked by a mix of cultural, economic, and political stagnation in recent decades. 

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

Decline and its causes

SEAN SPEER: Congratulations on the book. Thanks for joining us.

ANDREW POTTER: Thanks for having me.

SEAN SPEER: Andrew, your book outlines various ways in which advanced societies, including Canada, seem flat, stagnant, and in decline. Why do you think we fell into this rut? What do you think caused it?

ANDREW POTTER: Well that’s kinda the whole book. What I’m looking at is a combination of a number of things coming together, and in many ways, serving as mutually reinforcing factors that have got us stuck in a rut. It’s not one thing.

There were a few threads that I was independently following intellectually while thinking about a possible book, and someone said, “This is a good idea for a book, but this is like a decline story.” And then it clicked. I put them all together to understand how they reflected an overall sense of stagnation and decline across Western societies.

Here are the factors. One is what Tyler Cowen, the economist, calls the “great stagnation” to convey the three- or four-decade-long stagnation in technological development, innovation, and economic growth that has been going on since the 1970s.

Second, I think Benjamin Friedman, the economist, doesn’t get enough credit for connecting the dots between economic stagnation and its socio-political effects. He wrote a really interesting book about 15 years ago called The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, where he says, “Look, growth is great not just because it gives you stuff and raises your standards of living, but it also makes you better people.” That is, it makes you more open to immigration, more tolerant and open to diversity, less risk-averse, and generally less fearful about the future. In effect, it makes you more cosmopolitan and less Hobbesian about the world.

This points to the other key factor in what is going on, in addition to the “great stagnation”, which is almost a downstream effect, which is the rise of conservative populist politics. Right-wing populist politics is, in many ways, a consequence of economic stagnation, including in household incomes. 

A third element is the rise of the internet and social media, which a lot of people thought was going to amplify productivity and democracy, but which has had the opposite effect. I used to be pretty optimistic and even cavalier about the effect of the internet on our civil discourse, but now I’m very, very pessimistic. 

So, together with a stagnating economy, the rise of populist politics, and the toxic effects of social media, you get this toxic brew of lack of trust: lack of trust in institutions, a lack of trust in experts, and a lack of trust in one another.

Finally, there is another element in all of this, which J. Storrs Hall, an engineering sort of tech guy, reflected in his book, Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past, where he argues, “The great stagnation actually became the great strangulation.” That is, what’s standing in the way of growth is not the fact that we just plucked off the low hanging fruit and we can’t figure out new sources of economic growth, but it’s because we’ve buried our economy in a big mass of regulations and risk-averse bureaucracies. So even if we could resolve the political problems that have arisen in the last few years, there’s a more longstanding issue about whether we’re even capable anymore, as a society, of getting anything done. 

That’s all to say that there are a whole bunch of mutually reinforcing vectors here, all of which have a seat of spinning our wheels in some very deep social, cultural, political, and economic ruts.

A modern Cold War

SEAN SPEER: Francis Fukuyama lamented in The End of History and the Last Man that “the struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for purely abstract cool, the worldwide ideological struggle that called for daring courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.”

If he’s right, what are the implications? Are conflicts and wars actually good for societies? And, if so, is it a good thing that the U.S.-China rivalry seems to be evolving into something approximating a modern Cold War?

ANDREW POTTER: That’s a really good question. When I arrived at that possibility at the end of writing the book, I didn’t go back and insert too much of it into the argument. That’s because while there’s something right about the idea, there’s also something that is quite dangerous. You don’t want to be full-on reactionary about this and say, “We need a return to martial values! We must fight!” 

I also think Fukuyama is kind of wrong, and he ended up being wrong in that people turned out not to be satisfied with voting in the political sphere and Xboxes in the private sphere. I think as he eventually recognized—and that’s why he’s since written all that stuff on identity—is that identity politics and what the Greeks called thumos, the need for pride or transcendence or a sense of honour or personal accomplishment, matters more than he understood. 

Now the question is, why is that the case? And what might you do about it? I think what has happened is that because we got so rich (and even the relatively poor today have comforts that would have been unavailable to kings a century ago) as a society, we’re insulated from the consequences of our beliefs. The biggest threat to us is no longer nature or the world, but more so the competition between people. 

There’s this line from Bertrand Russell, that I quote in the book, where he says something like, “We’ve gone from a world where our chief opponent is nature to one where our chief opponent is other people. And the richer you get, the less you have to worry about nature, and the more you have to worry about other people.” I think there’s something really profound about that. That is to say, a feature of a lot of our beliefs today is that they no longer need to hook on to the world in a meaningful sense anymore. What matters is how our beliefs situate us with respect to other people, and their identities, politics, and so on. I think that’s the core of a lot of the “woke” versus the alt-right that’s going on right now, which is that you can believe all kinds of crazy things on the left; you have all kinds of crazy views on the right, but what matters is how it positions you with respect to the identity politics and cultural warfare that’s going on right now. 

So let me come back to the issue of China and the potential for an emerging cold war. I wouldn’t want to go so far as to argue that somehow war and a return to martial values will cleanse the decadence. That’s a dangerous path to go down. But I do think we need to get us back into a situation where truth matters and not everything is a matter of politics—not everything can be about status-seeking or identity politics. 

So, if there’s a virtue, then, in a re-emerging cold war, it’s that the beliefs you have as a society, the collective vision that you have, might actually start to matter a bit more in the way they haven’t had to for a long time. 

How would that play out? I don’t exactly know, but it’s definitely hard because as a Canadian, you’re already in a position where a lot of things just simply don’t matter. Canada can and has afforded itself a foreign policy that’s largely for show and that’s it. That’s been Canada’s approach to foreign affairs and military for a very long time. It’s not anything that the Trudeau government invented. So, is there a possibility of us getting back to a world where our beliefs and values matter? That is, that it’s important that they hook on to the world? Yes. Will a cold war with China accomplish that? I don’t know. It might bring some seriousness to the conversation that’s absent right now and that certainly can’t hurt. 

Are boomers to blame?

SEAN SPEER: How much is the decline that your book describes represented by a collective choice, on the part of baby boomers, to substitute the activism, aspiration, and dynamism of their youth for the conspicuous consumption and financial security of their twilight years? To the extent that’s a factor here, how can we break free from the cultural, economic, and political influence of the boomers?

ANDREW POTTER: Dumping on boomers is obviously something that I’ve got lots of time for. But I don’t think that that’s the full story here. 

About 15 years ago, I co-wrote a book with the University of Toronto philosopher Joe Heath called The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed, which is a book about the relationship between consumerism and countercultural values. Central to our argument was the claim that boomers never actually sold out, that the consumer culture of the early 2000s was itself just simply the migration of the values of counterculture into a world where the people who had those values had money. 

The basic argument was that consumer culture was just simply a form of the “cool hunting” that was buried in the original countercultural impetus in the first place. The idea is that you demonstrate your status—that is, your coolness—through the bands you listen to, what you wear, where you go on vacation, and so on. So, there’s really no difference between marketing an SUV to someone or marketing a cool band. It was, for the boomers, fundamentally about an expression of the countercultural—an expression of cool. I think that now a lot of that cool hunting disappeared. Kids today don’t seem at all interested in cool as a concept or as a lifestyle. 

But it’s certainly true that what boomers did was that they imported into society, politics, and the economy a fundamental conviction that politics was about status-seeking, and that status could be obtained through consumerism. I think that basic alliance between politics, status-seeking, and consumerism is at the core of identity politics, which is itself at the heart of the rot that’s in our politics right now. 

The role of secularization

SEAN SPEER: Is there a role for secularization in your narrative? How has the decline of religiosity contributed to these broader trends? And to the extent that it has, is there any reason to think that we can anticipate something of a religious revival in the near future? 

ANDREW POTTER: That’s a really good question. In the book, I have a line that I stole from Philippe Lagassé, who you might know as a foreign and defence policy professor at Carleton University, where he once tweeted something to the effect that, “What people don’t realize is that we’re as religious as we ever were. Only the gods have changed.” I think he’s absolutely right about that. 

When I saw him tweet that, it really encapsulated something I’d been sort of struggling with. I’ve actually written about this in various ways, but never really grabbed it in the sense that a lot of the problems with our society, frankly, are that people on both sides of the political spectrum at the extremes have profoundly magical views about how the world works and about what’s going on, whether it’s the almost crazy approaches in the far-right towards vaccines and 5G computer chips and the deep, abiding conviction that there are effective conspiracies at work in the world; and the left with everything from Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop, to the magical approaches towards language that goes on in the intense policy of language. This is all just religiosity by another means. 

I also sometimes wonder whether there’s a bit of spiritual homeostasis in the human brain. That is, that as one form of religiosity declines, it simply gets squeezed like a balloon into another part. That we’re never going to secularize; we’re not going to become a civilization of Mr. Spocks. It’s just not going to happen. 

So, the question is, are those religious values getting pushed into something productive or something unproductive? I say this as someone who was staunchly secular and anti-religious for a long time, I believe that organized religions have had a much more productive and positive influence on society than the increasingly baroque and bespoke forms of religiosity that are at work right now.

SEAN SPEER: That’s interesting, Andrew. David Foster Wallace famously said, “Everybody worships,” which speaks to your point about how these metaphysical demands may manifest themselves in a secular world. 

Much of modern politics seems increasingly consumed by distributional questions rather than ones of growth, dynamism, and progress. How can we re-orient our politics away from zero-sum debates, and towards greater ambition and abundance?

ANDREW POTTER: I’d be making a lot more money if I had answers to those questions. That’s the big question. I can give two parts of what I think an answer would look like

One, we have to start believing the growth is a good thing. I think it’s become a bad word, because growth is attributed to and is considered a part of resource exploitation, and resource exploitation is considered bad because of environmental effects, climate change, and so on. It’s a very short hop then from advocating growth to destroying the planet. 

The pro-growth crowd has done a bad job of showing that it doesn’t have to be the case; that growth and environmental preservation are actually allies. That case has to be made, but it has to come from the very top. You would need a government in place that actually believes that. With the Liberal government here in Canada, former Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said for a long time that the economy and the environment go hand-in-hand. But that was a line; it was not an argument. That was a line they used and they never did anything with it. They never tried to convince Canadians of it, because I think they ultimately didn’t believe it themselves. That should have been the opening of a conversation, not the end of one, and it never went anywhere. 

The second aspect of it is growth and innovation. I’m actually quite persuaded by a lot of the arguments in Hall’s book, Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past. I think that one of the big lessons that I worry about coming out of the pandemic is whether we have simply strangled our capacities for innovation in layers of bureaucracy, regulations, and forms of risk aversion. 

I used to laugh when someone like Tony Clement would come on and say, “Oh, we’re going to introduce a red tape bill, where every new regulation has to go along with the elimination of one or two existing regulations,” because it seems like a very simplistic approach. But I’m increasingly sympathetic toward the general view that we stumbled onto a buffet, about 150 years ago, of innovation and productivity, and that we gorged ourselves. But you can’t then tie the kitchen up in regulations and red tape and expect yourself to continue to be fed. So, I think we need to find a way of cutting through a lot of this that’s going on right now. Those are two pieces of it. People have to figure it out but that’s my little contribution.


SEAN SPEER: Just a final question: It comes back to the first point you made as a crucial factor in the malaise that your book outlines. There’s this common narrative, including in so much mainstream journalism, that we’re living in this time of tremendous technological change and progress, even though, as Peter Thiel, you, and others have argued, the reality is closer to the opposite. That is to say, outside of the world of bits, we’ve seen minimal progress in recent decades. What do you think explains the gap between the popular discourse about innovation and technology and the empirical realities of the great stagnation?

ANDREW POTTER: Oh, that’s a really good question. So, I think part of it is just that the accomplishments in digitization and how it has affected day-to-day experiences, have been so profound and so fast that it seems miraculous. I remember when I first bought CDs and at the time seemed like the future. You go back and look at old analog things, and it seems like ancient history, but this wasn’t that long ago. Every single part of our culture now seems fast-paced. I don’t know if you’ve got kids or nieces or nephews, but you can’t buy them anything anymore. I go to buy my sister’s kids stuff for Christmas, and you used to buy someone a tape, a record, or books, and I can’t do that anymore. So, part of it just simply the relentless translation of everything from atoms into bits that are delivered from increasingly tiny computers you stuff into your pocket. 

Yet people also don’t really realize the extent to which nothing much else outside of the digital world has changed. The house or the kitchen hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. In fact, in a lot of ways they have gotten worse. Refrigerators aren’t as good as they used to be. Dishwashers aren’t as good as they used to be, largely because of regulations and so on. People tend to just focus so much on the cultural aspect of it. The stagnation of the era doesn’t even strike them as something. It’s a weird cultural gap between our appreciation for technological culture, digital culture, and the lack of progress in other areas.

SEAN SPEER: Well, thank you so much for the conversation, Andrew. The book is On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, and Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever. I’m sure our readers, after today’s conversation, will want to get out and dig deeper into your arguments and analysis. Thank you for joining us.

ANDREW POTTER: Thanks, Sean.