Mid-Life Crisis: Am I a Malthusian?

Salisbury Statue

[The writings of the Reverend Thomas Malthus in the 19th century sparked widespread concerns about rising working class populations. Adherents to this school of thought, dubbed Malthusians, predicted all manner of catastrophes that would inevitably result from an increase in the teeming mass of humanity. One of the central fallacies of this dogma is to assume that each new person is simply another mouth to feed, rather than an individual able to react to and shape their environment. Malthus condoned the actions of war and disease as active population controls, and as a result to label someone as a Malthusian usually implies they are a pessimist with a tendency towards inhumanity. It is often applied to a person predicting any future man-made catastrophe.]

I’m having a mid-life crisis. It took me a while to recognise the fact, as this one doesn’t involve open top sports cars, attempts to dress like a teenager or affairs with women young enough to be my daughter. It only occurred to me during one of my frequent and interminable inner monologues on the evils of what is currently the most popular Malthusian topic, the notion that human-induced global warming will cause catastrophic changes in the global climate.

While raging to myself about the vast sums of public money utterly wasted on absurd Eco-projects (such as the $500 million wasted on Solyndra) and how such sums were only serving to inflate the already frightening levels of global debt, I had a sudden moment of clarity. Although the alarmist acolytes of the global warming movement are undoubtedly Malthusian, does not my own concern about rising levels of debt perhaps also win the same moniker for me? I stumbled mid-rant, fracturing a particularly florid but effective phrase describing the hypocrisy of Greenpeace that I am unfortunately now unable to recall. It was necessary to consider this new train of thought.

I am now into my forties, the decade in which political and social conservatism is supposed to overwhelm the majority of us, to the point that we are convinced that the world is going downhill fast, that the younger generation are wastrels and it is all because they now let ridiculously young people join the police. Such middle-aged pessimism is obviously a tendency to be guarded against to avoid the danger of becoming a miserable old git not much further down the road. I therefore started to consider all of the things that concern me about the future, and as objectively as possible decide whether they could lead to the Malthusian label being applied to myself.

Starting with the topic that kicked off my moment of self-doubt, I am increasingly worried about where the global (and particularly the UK) economy is going in the short and medium terms, say the next twenty years or so. In the longer term, I am optimistic enough about the continuation of progress in technology and productivity to ensure that living standards will increase as least as much as it has over the last hundred years. However, the current levels of debt in Western economies terrifies me, for example since 2001 US government debt has increased from $6 trillion to over $16 trillion (now standing at the equivalent of an entire years total economic output of that country) and in the UK has gone from £0.3 trillion to £1 trillion in the same period. Not only are these levels of debt huge, but they are increasing all the time, and even politicians that attain power on the back of promises to reduce the debt (such as David Cameron) have proved powerless to do so, even if that is their real intention (which with DC I doubt). Politicians will obviously say pretty much anything to get elected, but once in power don’t want to become the heartless bastard that cuts public spending and alienates the interest groups and lobbyists that finance them.

There are not many possible ways to deal with such high levels of debt. One is to pay it back directly through increased tax revenue and reduced spending (the debts are so large that both are probably required in tandem), but government receipts can only rise either through increasing tax rates or having a larger base to tax at existing rates. The former will increase political unpopularity and risk provoking an economic slump, while the latter requires overall economic growth. Given the parlous state of the global economy it is hard to see where any sustained growth can come from in the foreseeable future. A few percentage points of economic growth here or there are entirely trivial compared to the scale of the debt already accrued. It is also almost impossible to envisage how the necessary increase in tax revenue and reduction in spending could be squared politically. I think that the odds of direct repayment are therefore vanishingly small.

Another possible way to deal with the debt is to inflate it away: to eat away at the real value of each pound or dollar owed until the real value of the debt becomes manageable. Though they strongly deny it, this appears to be approach currently taken by most Western governments. The electronic printing of currencies directly weakens them, and at the moment inflation in most developed countries is ticking along at a painful but not catastrophic rate. It would need to do so for a number of years in order to meaningfully erode the debt, and there is always the danger that inflation could at some point spiral out of control. Used in this way inflation is an underhand way of stealing from the innocent (those that have built up savings) and giving the money to the profligate idiots of the sort that got us into the mess in the first place. While inflation does its dirty work the politicians would also have to keep spending under control, otherwise the total debt increases just as fast as it is inflated away and there is no overall gain.

The third possibility regarding repaying the debt is that it won’t be. This requires debt defaults that would create economic havoc, with results that no one can predict. The vast number of individual liabilities within the global financial system are so entangled that it is not possible to foresee where the losses would ultimately end up. I suspect the most realistic answer is ‘everywhere’. The short-term pain would be terrible, with huge spikes in unemployment and inflation, the wiping out of pensions and savings, and an immediate sharp drop in living standards for the vast majority of people. As the whole situation is riddled with unknowns, and inflation is notoriously difficult to manage, the inflationary approach could well end in a default anyway.

Even if a premeditated default was the preferred solution, it would be political suicide for the government of the day and so as I see it we are almost certainly condemned to grinding through one or more decades of inflationary stagnation with the possibility of a collapse into default along the way. Given that my daughters will be leaving education during this time frame, I am quite pessimistic about their career chances and the standard of living they will come to enjoy as adults. It is quite possible theirs will turn out to be a generation that will see little or no real improvement over the lifestyles of their parents. This is almost unique in modern history.

So having run through my concerns about our economic future, can they be classed as Malthusian? I believe there is a possibility of a genuine catastrophe, global in extent and certainly man-made. However I do not claim there is any sort of mathematical certainty to any of this, as the global economy is nowhere near as easily predicted as the global climate (/sarc for those who need it). I am also not proposing any solutions that require the deliberate harming or restricting of any individuals, although an immediate default before the debt gets any bigger (which may be the least worst option) would lead to terrible hardship for many. So for this topic I don’t think I get the badge.

Now, worrying about decades of stagnation in the global economy, with the possibility of outright collapse along the way is more than enough to be going on with. There aren’t too many other subjects that keep me awake at night, as snoring is one of my hobbies and I hate to miss an opportunity to practice.

Probably the only major one regards the erosion of personal freedom. I am extremely proud to be an inheritor of the Anglo-Saxon concept of the freeman, offering loyalty to his overlord but with both tied together by requirements of mutual respect and consultation. The strength of this ancient concept can be seen in its survival through the Norman conquest and feudal times, developing eventually into our modern parliamentary democracy. For only the briefest periods of post-Roman history have the mass of inhabitants of England been voiceless in their government, a remarkable achievement.

I am not for a moment suggesting that totalitarianism is an immanent possibility for Britain. But what I do see is a steady tilting of the balance of power between the state and individual, and the further along that road one travels, the harder it is to make any mileage in the opposite direction. For a while, during the great explosion in use of the internet in the early 2000s, it appeared that the balance was definitely shifting the other way, as people filled the internet with whatever they saw fit and used it to communicate and interact in so many new ways, all apparently done free of state management.

Unfortunately it is the inevitable tendency of all bureaucracies to steadily gather power to themselves, unless very firmly directed otherwise. And so although it has taken the best part of a decade for many of the world’s civil services to react to the revolution in digital information, the British government is now far from alone in attempting to control and monitor all kinds of digital data and communication. The chosen directions of regulation are many and each is presented with plenty of justification, but the end result is the same: the state accrues more and more control over the allowable contents of information shared between individuals, while assuming the right to read personal communications, even where the parties concerned have made active efforts to protect their privacy. The end result is that the internet has quickly ceased to be a frontier of anything much, has now settled into commercial corporatism and could well in future come to be shunned entirely by the same individualists that blazed the trail in the first place.

Other more general factors are at work here as well, from CCTV of public spaces approaching universality to steadily reducing voter turnouts. The danger of the steady increase in public apathy towards politics is that it allows substantive changes to be made to the relationship between state and individual without the majority of those affected even being aware of the fact. Once changes are in place, they quickly become the new norm and require a great political effort to overturn. The very uselessness of our current generation of politicians is actually one of their greatest strengths.

Having rattled on again for a while, we return to the fundamental question: is this concern of mine Malthusian? It is a historical fact that every succeeding generation decries their politicians as a diminishment of what came before (although this does not in itself disprove the proposition). Any political problem is by definition man made, and the problem is certainly global: how many countries could you name where the state is actively seceding power to their citizens? But a key attribute of true Malthusianism is that the proposed solution for the catastrophe at hand should in some way cause harm to those who ‘deserve’ it. My proposed solution is simply that the state allows free people to be free people, and only steps in to restrict liberties where evidence exists of criminal behaviour in that specific instance. The collection of mass information, to be used later on if required, should be absolutely forbidden. I think this makes me almost anti-Malthusian.

Further reflection leads me to suggest a few more minor concerns, such as an upcoming reduction in public confidence in science as the Global Warming scare fizzles out, or attempting to predict which socialist, anti-human hobby-horse the alarmists will leap onto next, but these are clearly not catastrophic problems. I do not think China will come to dominate the world economy in my lifetime and I do not think we will all die from SARS or be swamped by rising sea levels.

On the evidence presented, case dismissed.

Damn, now I realise I have a new mid-life crisis: that of having committing the cardinal sin of writing an article with the title framed as a question, the answer to which is ‘No’.

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