The Man and His Pyrrhonian Skepticism
Some things in the world are certain – one thing is that one day you’ll die; another is that nobody visits The Hebrew Conservative for happy news.
And yet what is life if not a local equilibrium between warring contradictions? And so within the boundaries of such an equilibrium, we shall diverge from our regular practice of the vituperative arts to make an attempt at some very measured optimism. Or optimistic pessimism, let’s not get too excited.
Peter Thiel is likely already familiar to our readers. He’s one of the few “good” billionaires. Having founded PayPal with Elon Musk, he continued on to making clever investments in Facebook and other companies, cultivating a fortune of about $7B. Apparently, he still has a Roth IRA account, perhaps from the days prior to his apotheosis, only it has about $5B. Stars! They’re just like Us!
In any case, Thiel is an extremely cerebral person, both deeply and broadly educated. He had me at Pyrrhonian skepticism. Politically, he famously supported Donald Trump through both money and speeches, and most recently he contributed to the senatorial campaigns of MAGA-supporters J.D. Vance of Ohio and Blake Masters of Arizona (Oh, Blake, we were all rooting for you so badly. Resurgeas!).
And yet Thiel is not EXACTLY a conservative. He’s a kind of techno-futurist reactionary, if anything.
Among the many interesting points he makes, the most salient one is his theory of stagnation. Despite his technology-based fortune, Thiel believes we are stagnating across most meaningful parameters: economically, technologically, and scientifically. THEREFORE, Thiel believes, we are also facing cultural, political, and societal pathologies.
Our Low Growth Economy
Let me explain. We’ve already been making a few attempts at analyzing the state of our high-buzz-low-growth economy – for instance, here. Let me repeat some of the arguments as they overlap with Thiel’s thinking: even when our economy does grow (“Yay, I got a raise!”), and even when adjusted for inflation, we now average paltry figures of growth such as 1%. Sometimes 2%. Very rarely do we come close to 4% and when we do it’s a single-year exception. This is absolutely nothing by comparison to the economic growth of America, England, and most Western European nations in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. A breakneck growth of 8%, even 10% was not at all unusual for single years, and a healthy average of 4% year-over-year was close to the norm.
Let’s add only a few more dry details. GDP numbers hardly capture the economic growth of the Victorian era – due to both difficulties in historical measurement and the fact that so much growth would be transferred from the mainland to the colonies (Britain may invest in education that ends up benefiting New Zealand, etc.). So it makes sense to look at things like industrial output which would multiply quickly, but I’m not going to document it here. You get my drift. They grew quickly.
Our Low Growth Science
Thiel points out, perhaps counter-intuitively to some, that we are in a period of sad stagnation in the sciences and their technological application. With a new iPhone coming out every year this may sound stange, but as Thiel likes to quote – we were promised “flying cars and instead got 140 characters.” Indeed, it is difficult to assess ourselves from within, but we can attempt to assess ourselves through the visions of the future that had been common 60-70 years ago. It was stuff like this:
Or at least like this:
Now, those were the futuristic visions of people with direct memory of the breathtaking progress of the century before them. An old man in the 1950s could still remember a world moved by horses and wind turning into coal and steam, then steel, then cars, then airplanes, and in between a speed of information changing from days on horseback to the immediacy of the telegraph and the wireless radio.
By comparison, our own civilizational strides are puny and highly introverted. Yes, we talk about the “computer revolution” and how “tech-savvy” our children are, but we sense it is not so. We fly the same planes and drive the same cars, but as atrophied zombies, we regress into ourselves through dazzling “progress” by ever-advancing means of diversion and passive entertainment. Reading is hardly required, not to mention the focus of contending with a difficult text – talking gadgets, through voiced words or idiotic visual hieroglyphics, are there to cut through the effort of focus and analysis and make our cognitive lives easy.
So how is that optimistic? Well, I’m getting there.
The Pathologies of a Zero-Sum Game
Thiel, rather originally, also believes that our various societal woes, freak shows, and manifestations of weirdness and viciousness are the result of this stagnation. We are simply not built to live in a low-growth society. We don’t know how. Our ideas regarding mobility, equal opportunity, career paths, generational progress, etc., are all based on the assumption that splendid growth shall continue. When growth does not happen, we are thrown into a zero-sum game.
When Britain’s colonies needed legions of mining and hydraulic engineers, there appeared a great channel (no pun intended) of mobility – your last name and origins had perhaps still meant something, but way less than your expertise. And so a young lad could move up the ranks of domestic and colonial society in a trickle-down pyramid of energy and virtue.
By contrast, when America’s growth is a zero-equivalent measure of 1%, your various origins and credentials DO matter, quite a bit. It’s important to get that PMP certification (LOL!), that MBA (LOL!!), that degree from a very specific school, to have the right referrals, and even to have the right ideology. People are seeking to kick you out. We are even selecting and limiting personnel based on race and gender.
You see, it is natural for people in a zero-sum game to lay barriers of entry in front of others. It is not for nothing that prestige, even if empty, has come to mean so much in our economy. There just isn’t enough for everybody. Like crabs on the inflated carcass of a beached shark, we are all after the same limited morsels of rotting flesh.
Well – how is THAT optimistic?
Where There’s Growth, There’s Hope
It is optimistic in the sense that if we adopt Thiel’s view, the problem is simpler and more surface-level than the various theories of civilizational decline now so common on the Right. Instead of being children of winter caught in a Spenglerian cycle of decline and death, all we need to do is get some thorium reactors. There is hope!
Now, the problem of molting the dead skin of our financialized economy is tied in a way to our civilizational decline. I wrote about it before. Pedaling back is not simple. Also, growing an industrial and scientific economy is not an easy thing, and perhaps who knows – maybe we did reach a dead end where physics has very little to teach us beyond weird notions of string theory.
But it is still a simpler problem, a more earthly and mundane one, than that of the cold light setting over a dead civilization. Hence the optimism.
To paraphrase Cicero and the common translation of his idiom – dum cresco spero, where there’s growth – there’s hope.
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