Tuesday, October 07, 2014

End of the Empire

If the top 1/100th of 1% crowding airports with their private jets isn't afraid of impoverished, disenchanted debt-serfs with pitchforks, they should be.

By End of the Empire I refer not to the collapse of American Imperial power but to the excesses and anxieties that characterize the decay of Empire. I have covered the dynamics of Imperial decay before: How Empires Fall (April 17, 2013): 

The imperial tree falls not because the challenges are too great but because the core of the tree has been weakened by the gradual loss of surplus, purpose, institutional effectiveness, intellectual vigor and productive investment.

What I want to address today is the psychological characteristics of Imperial decay: a jaded populace that seeks distraction from their anxieties in excess. We know what characterizes empires on the make: a populace that is vigorous, confident, brimming with abilities and more than willing to engage in spirited intellectual debate on key issues.

What characterizes the American populace today? Jaded, unwilling to sacrifice comfort and convenience for long-term gain, incapable of honest debate, brimming with resentful excuses, insecure, anxious, fearful, depressed, distracted, self-absorbed. These last seven are of course the key traits of permanent adolescence, the state of arrested development encouraged by consumerism.

But they also characterize an Empire that has lost its edge, its ability to sacrifice for a common good, its confidence in its leadership and institutions, and its focus on building value rather than consuming.

Longtime correspondent Kevin K. recently submitted a comparison of the cost for a family of four to attend an NFL football game. San Francisco led the pack at $641 per game for average seats and a few drinks/hot dogs. (Scratch the $10 program and the $22 hat and that drops it all the way down to $609.)
49ers stadium priciest in NFL for a family of four: $641

The cheapest outing in the league came in at $345. I confess I'm frugal (hey I'm a writer, frugality is part of the package), but $345 doesn't strike me as particularly affordable. That's two months' groceries in our abode, and $641 is the cost of a 3,000-mile car-camping trip.

It's remarkably easy to drop $600 on a dinner for four at a high-end eatery (with wine, of course). It's almost laughable to look at archived menus of top-end restaurants in the 1960s; even in major bastions of old wealth like San Francisco, the fare at the best restaurants in town in the 1960s would barely pass muster at a decent cafe nowadays in terms of sophistication and complexity.

There is no way to parody current high-end restaurant fare: it is its own parody.Whatever bizarre combination of ingredients you might propose in a parody is on the menu at some fancy bistro--with a straight face and hefty price tag.

You know we're in trouble when parody has been rendered impossible.

Want to attend a live rock concert with a big name band? $600 might buy you two decent seats--or not. Even lesser names cost in excess of $100.

The median household income in the U.S. is around $51,000. A house in a "nice" neighborhood in many Left Coast cities costs $1,000,000. These are not mansions or the best house in town: these are average homes.

Although I can't find statistics to verify this, I am fairly confident that this ratio of median income to average houses in "nice" Left Coast neighborhoods (20 to 1) far exceeds the extremes of 1929.

$105,000 income puts a household in the top 20%, and $150,000 puts a household in the top 10%. How many football games (or meals, weekends away, concerts, etc.) at $600 a pop can a household earning $105,000 afford? How many should a household indulge in, given the pressing need to save for investment and emergencies?

We all know households that have no business squandering these sums on entertainment do so for two reasons: entitlement and aspirational spending. Imperial populations feel entitled: to bread and circuses (food stamps and 24-hour sports channels), to high-paying, secure jobs where sluggards can't be fired, to trust funds (so we don't have to lower ourselves to do work that is not fulfilling), to pills that cure us of ailments we nurtured with our unhealthy lifestyles, etc. etc. etc.

Everyone aspires to look like they belong in the elite. The top 10% want to look like they're 1%ers, the top 20% want to look like top 5%ers, the top 40% want to look like top 10%ers, and so on.

The absurd excesses of consumerism are driven by one key dynamic: the top slice has never been wealthier or had so much free cash to blow on excess consumption.

The top 1/10th of 1% has never been wealthier, the top 1% has never been wealthier, the top 5% have never been wealthier, and the top 10% have never been wealthier. People wonder why they're "poor" despite earning $250,000 a year, and yet they seem unaware of where their earnings go because they're entitled to all the goodies: by golly, we worked hard and we deserve it.

Even if we didn't work hard, we still deserve it, because we're special.

One would imagine that the populace of an Empire at its zenith would feel euphoric, confident, secure, fearless: chomping at the bit to go out and do great things not just for themselves but for the Empire.

Instead, we see a populace on anti-depressants, insecure, anxious, burdened by ill health, jaded by 24 hours of everything, every day, distrustful of its corrupt leadership and self-serving institutions, and beneath the rah-rah phony cheer, fearful that the whole rotten contraption might give way before they secure their share of the Imperial swag.

If the top 1/100th of 1% crowding airports with their private jets isn't afraid of impoverished, disenchanted debt-serfs with pitchforks, they should be.

Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy(Kindle, $9.95)(print, $20)
go to Kindle edition
Are you like me? Ever since my first summer job decades ago, I've been chasing financial security. Not win-the-lottery, Bill Gates riches (although it would be nice!), but simply a feeling of financial control. I want my financial worries to if not disappear at least be manageable and comprehensible.

And like most of you, the way I've moved toward my goal has always hinged not just on having a job but a career.

You don't have to be a financial blogger to know that "having a job" and "having a career" do not mean the same thing today as they did when I first started swinging a hammer for a paycheck.

Even the basic concept "getting a job" has changed so radically that jobs--getting and keeping them, and the perceived lack of them--is the number one financial topic among friends, family and for that matter, complete strangers.

So I sat down and wrote this book: Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.

It details everything I've verified about employment and the economy, and lays out an action plan to get you employed.

I am proud of this book. It is the culmination of both my practical work experiences and my financial analysis, and it is a useful, practical, and clarifying read.

Test drive the first section and see for yourself.     Kindle, $9.95     print, $20

"I want to thank you for creating your book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy. It is rare to find a person with a mind like yours, who can take a holistic systems view of things without being captured by specific perspectives or agendas. Your contribution to humanity is much appreciated."
Laura Y.

Gordon Long and I discuss The New Nature of Work: Jobs, Occupations & Careers(25 minutes, YouTube) 

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