Friday links! Golden age of declinism

Carter Page and LL Cool J’s hat

A few years ago, when frankly things looked better than they do now, we started using the word “declinism” to describe the feeling that society was getting worse. There’s already a word for that: pejorism, but it sucks. In addition to sounding like a Victorian disorder, it does not do the important job of implying some recent peak. Anyone can think things are getting worse. A person who believes society is in decline must also believe it had a golden age. To embrace declinism, then, is to endorse the past. It is a patriot’s complaint, which probably explains why it’s so popular among old people. Today is Friday, and if any condition of society can be said to be better or worse than any other, it follows that society is at any moment on an upward- or downward-tending line. Won’t you experience confusion and fear at the new rap names with me?

First, the good news: American corporations recently had their most profitable quarter in 13 years, the Dow is at an all-time high, and worker productivity has doubled since 1973. The bad news is Republicans want to unleash the power of business. The House GOP has a bold new plan to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent. In order to pay for it, they want to cut Medicare and start making college students pay taxes on the value of their scholarships. Dacen Waters, a 26 year-old doctoral student in physics at Carnegie Mellon, would wind up owing the IRS $42,000 on his six years of tuition waivers and stipends. I’m sure he’d be willing to make that sacrifice, though, for the corporations. It’s weird that policy wonk Paul Ryan looked at all-time high student debt and near-term high corporate profits and decided this was the adjustment the country needed to make. I’m not saying business interests dominate US federal government. I’m asking what would look different if they did.

Funny how all these people are making so much money, when it also seems like a lot of stores are closing down. Nineteen retailers filed for bankruptcy in 2017. You could blame Amazon, but e-commerce only accounted for about 9 percent of retail sales. The real culprit, says David Dayen in the New Republic, is private equity overburdening retailers with debt. Eddie Lampert’s hedge fund, for example, arranged the merger of Sears and Kmart in 2005 and then loaned the new company billions, even as it paid out $6 billion in stock buybacks to investors. Now Sears is closing hundreds of stores to service its debt. The country lost 100,000 retail jobs between October 2016 and April 2017. That’s a lot, but only about $100 million in retail debt came due this year. An average of $5 billion will come due every year between 2019 and 2025.

How would our public discourse look different if we were talking about millions of lost retail jobs instead of thousands of lost coal jobs? In 2017, it’s hard to imagine an electorate that could even grasp the chain linking debt-financed stock buybacks to store closures. Thanks to the internet, we can’t even agree on simple claims of fact. Depending on how you ask, Google will tell you Barack Obama and Rep. Peter King (R-NY) are Muslim. That’s just one of the many unintended consequences of dividing 21st century discourse into an island chain of algorithm-driven platforms. But what about this robocall that circulated in Alabama Tuesday, claiming to be from a Washington Post reporter named Bernie Bernstein and offering a cash reward in exchange for testimony against Roy Moore? “We will not be fully investigating these claims,” the recording said. “However, we will make a written report.” No one named Bernie Bernstein actually works at the Post, according to the newspaper’s chief PR representative, Herschel Jewman. This isn’t an instance of epistemic fragmentation making it harder for people to get all the facts. It’s someone deliberately spreading false information to benefit one candidate in an election. You know what would be awesome? If someone involved in American politics refrained from doing something because they thought it was morally wrong.

I can’t stay mad at the internet, though. Sure, we’ve shattered the foundation of democratic government by leaving the public unable to agree on what current events even are, but on the plus side, we got this oral history of “I’m Too Sexy.” What I take from it is that I like Right Said Fred much better than I thought I did. I might say the same thing about their song, which I understood to be part of the problem in 1992 but now seems to have everything I want in a dance jam: ironic tone, sincere back beat, exactly three minutes long. It also reminds us that tambourines were the hi-hats of 25 years ago. How young we were.

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