I Think We’re Turning Japanese … I Really Think So

Thoughts on social breakdown and how technology lets people isolate themselves.

Dear Reader (Including you truly blessed souls who’ve dreamed of listening to Kevin McCarthy for eight straight hours. Congrats on your cowbell moment!), 

Okay, strap in, because we’re going for a ride. Well, you, dear reader, are figuratively going for a ride—I’m literally going for a ride. I’m filing this from a rest stop off I-70 in Somerset, Pennsylvania, en route to Washington state.

Yuval Levin wrote a brilliant piece for The Dispatch earlier this week. Two of our AEI colleagues, Lyman Stone and Brad Wilcox, issued a fascinating report on fertility and family formation identifying the centrifugal forces dividing America. It’s worth reading.

“But,” Yuval writes, “I was most struck by something else about the portrait they paint. The report embodies a significant change in how we think about the basic character of social breakdown in America, and what we take to be the obstacles to human flourishing in our time.”

“Not long ago,” he continues, “it would have been taken for granted that social order in our free society is a function of our capacity to restrain and govern our most intense longings. Human beings are moved by passionate desires for things like pleasure, status, wealth, and power.”  

I don’t want to cut and paste the whole piece here, so I’ll summarize. When conservatives used to talk about social breakdown, we pointed at things like crime, sexual promiscuity—both heterosexual and homosexual—drug use and the violence it produces, out-of-wedlock births, divorce, etc. When progressives used to talk about social breakdown—not their preferred term—they pointed to greed, capitalism run amok, and a lack of social welfare policies that provided “security.”

Obviously, we still talk about such things, because these are still problems and always will be when dealing with human beings. But something is different. As the report documents, divorce rates are down because marriage rates are down. Fewer people get married and the ones that do are more committed to it, so fewer people get divorced. Out-of-wedlock births and abortion are down in part because fewer people are having sex. Drug use is a real problem, but the overall rate of drug use has been trending down and the kinds of drugs people use have shifted from stimulants like cocaine and meth to opiates like heroin and its prescription substitutes.

Say what you will about cocaine, it’s a social drug for people on the go. Heroin is like a pharmacological beanbag chair that lets you check out from the hassles of life.

I’m reminded of Susan McWilliams’ observation that 2006 marked a terrible turn in American civic life. That was the year when Americans started drinking bottled water more than beer. “Why is this important?” she asked. “It’s important because beer is a socially oriented beverage, and bottled water is a privately oriented one.” Beer commercials have happy fun people doing stuff together. Bottled water commercials, meanwhile, “tend to include lone individuals climbing things and running around by themselves, usually on a beach at sunrise—even though they are not being chased.”

In the famous (or infamous) Moynihan Report, Daniel Patrick Moynihan identified the problems that came with rapid urbanization: “It was this abrupt transition that produced the wild Irish slums of the 19th Century Northeast. Drunkenness, crime, corruption, discrimination, family disorganization, juvenile delinquency were the routine of that era.” The rapid urbanization of American blacks, Moynihan argued, was a replay of the same problems.

Yesterday’s dysfunction was a byproduct of too much bad dynamism. Today’s dysfunction is a byproduct of too much bad lethargy. Technology is obviously part of the explanation. Yuval writes:

Particularly for Americans who live in cities, the internet has also come to mediate different parts of our real-world experience (from dating to calling a taxi to getting food at a restaurant) in ways that have let more people live as functional loners, meeting their needs with a minimum of eye contact or interpersonal risk. And countless younger Americans dissipate their erotic energies in similar seemingly riskless substitutes for human contact, particularly video games and pornography—the latter of which has grown into a hideous, colossal scourge that our society has inexplicably decided to pretend it can do nothing about.

Yuval doesn’t use the word “entropy” (or Ross Douthat’s “decadence”) but that’s what he’s talking about.

Japansclerosis.

Which brings me to Japan. About a decade ago, people started noticing that something was amiss in the Land of the Rising Sun. People weren’t having sex, at least not a lot of it. A 2013 survey by the Japan Family Planning Association found that 45 percent of women aged 16-24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact.”  More than 1 in 4 men felt the same way. Terms like “hikikomori”—shut-ins or hermits—and “parasito shingurus”—“parasite singles,” adults who are still living with their parents into their mid-30s—became popular buzzwords. “Otakus”—geeks—cared more about playing esports than playing the field at bars. Soshoku danshi—“herbivore men” or “grass eater men”—are passive, unassertive men who have lost any interest in marriage or “manliness” as traditionally understood.

A lot has been written about all of this, and many of the factors Yuval identifies are often part of the diagnosis.

I’ve been to Japan only once. It was in the mid-1990s and the internet really wasn’t a big thing yet. But man, porn was. I was amazed by the depravity and ubiquity of it. And I was—I swear—only going by the cover art on DVDs and the stuff in comic books (though Rapeman was no longer on the shelves when I got there). What really amazed me—beyond the grotesque images of nurses hung on meat hooks and pedophilic school girl scenes—was that these things were on display right next to the sections with Disney movies and the like. It reminded me of Bart Simpson scolding his sister, Lisa, for covering her eyes during a bloody scene in a movie: “If you don’t watch the violence, you’ll never get desensitized to it.” 

One major theory has to do with the structure of Japan’s economy and its work culture generally. The emphasis on careerism and working your way up the system leaves little room or energy for family formation. Other theories cover the waterfront, from the vacuum left by the abandonment of militarism, to the culture shock of feminism, to hypofrontality caused by large scale porn addiction. I have no idea how to weigh the different variables. Porn probably plays a big role for some people and not for others. Ditto video games, the internet, political economy, etc.

Cultural norms are weird.

An idea or custom can emerge for specific reasons and then catch on and grow because others emulate it. Once a critical mass is reached, the thing that originally caused it becomes incidental. Suggestibility and social contagion are real things and not just for yawning and laughing. Consider, for instance, the recent weird rise in Tourette’s syndrome—or Tourette’s-like behavior. Some people have Tourette’s for physiological reasons beyond their control. Others, apparently, consciously or unconsciously mimic it when exposed to it through TikTok videos. In 1374, Europe saw sudden outbreaks of uncontrolled dancing. It wasn’t an early version of Footloose, but a bizarre contagious act of mimicry remembered as St. Vitus’ Dance. No one knows what sparked it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it started with a few people who actually had Sydenham chorea (colloquially known as St. Vitus’ Dance, named after the weird event). Personally, I think the sudden onset of transgenderism in teenagers can be at least partially explained by this kind of thing.

Velocity of life.

But let’s move on to inflation. My friend David Bahnsen, after many attempts, has finally persuaded me that the thing to really worry about is deflation, not inflation (our podcast conversation about this will come out next week). I’m not going to get in the weeds—this is a math-free zone—but the basic problem is that there are trillions of dollars sitting in bank accounts like so many Otakus playing video games in their parents’ basements. Our current bout of inflation is mostly a supply-side problem driven by supply chain snags. As with all inflationary periods, too much money is chasing too few goods (and services). But unlike the 1970s, the problem today isn’t the “too much money” part; it’s the “too few goods” part. That may sound strange given that since the financial crisis of 2007-08, the Fed has pumped trillions of dollars—at least on paper—into the economy.

But here’s the thing: The word people don’t focus on enough in Uncle Milton’s famous dictum about too much money chasing too few goods is “chase.” The velocity of money—how often a unit of currency changes hands and circulates around the economy—is the key here. There’s so much money sitting in banks because lenders can’t find good and productive ways to invest it. In effect, it doesn’t matter if there’s a lot of money out there if it’s not chasing anything. This is why David worries that the real danger is that we will become like Japan, which has been “printing money” for 30 years and its economy has been stagnant that whole time.

As with declining fertility, I’m sure the internet is part of the problem. The internet (and automation generally) is incredibly good at cutting out middlemen. Why go to the store in your car and pay for stuff when you can have it delivered to your house? Why go to the movies when you can “Netflix and chill”? Why deal with the social awkwardness—fueled by how we raise kids to be fragile—of dating when you can watch porn?

You see what I’m getting at? David is worried about the velocity of money, Yuval is worried about the velocity of people. The pandemic magnified both problems in very similar ways. This is why I sincerely believe that part—but not all—of the answer to both problems is real, robust, and sustained economic growth. Economic growth fuels both the velocity of money and the velocity of people. It creates avenues for real life satisfaction through a sense of accomplishment and pride that comes from honest work and improving the lives of those you care about.

Nationalism and the last man.

Which brings me to nationalism. The other day, I reluctantly wrote a very long piece (now available to everybody) criticizing my friend Christopher DeMuth’s embrace of “national conservatism.” One point I didn’t address was DeMuth’s strange embrace of bombastic or “excessive” politics.

Demuth believes that the proper response to left-wing radicalism is to lean into nationalistic, populist fury, though he puts it more soberly: “National conservatives recognize that in today’s politics, the excesses are the essence. Like Burke after 1789, we shift to opposing revolution tout court.” To me, this is a polite way of saying the right should give into the dark side. Let the rage and anger flow, because persuasion and reformist approaches are no longer adequate to the task.

The reference to Burke’s (justified) opposition to the French Revolution is telling. Burke was writing about dismaying affairs in another country. For many nationalists, the “blue” parts of the country are simply enemy territory, which is why so many nationalist demagogues and buffoons (though obviously not DeMuth) give rhetorical oxygen to the idea of secession. But blue America is America too. Indeed, some of the best places in America are governed by Democrats. I’m happy to argue that they vote wrong. But I reject the idea that they aren’t my fellow countrymen. I think it’s better to engage in the pre-French Revolutionary Burkeanism of persuading voters to vote better than to pay lip-service to the idea that they’re not really Americans at all.

When I wrote Liberal Fascism, I insisted that there was simply no appetite for the “traditional” militaristic fascism we saw in mid-century Europe. The American right was too wedded to classical liberal dogma to tolerate such stuff, at least for long (though we came close under Woodrow Wilson, whose “ardent nationalism” Chris admires). The real danger wasn’t Orwell’s 1984 but Huxley’s Brave New World, in which people grew soft from soma use and prepackaged joy delivered to their doorstep. The only way real fascism could arrive is if we so drained life of meaning and the quotidian glories of earned success that a new generation would find itself attracted to manufactured political or ideological sources of meaning and glory.

Raise enough “men without chests,” in C.S. Lewis’ famous phrase, and one day a man on a white horse will seem like a thrilling way to find meaning deprived to them by the lack of velocity in their lives.  

The most famous passage of Lewis’ lament is depressingly apt for our current moment:

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to

clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open

a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs

is more 'drive', or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity'. In a sort of ghastly

simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without

chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are

shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

The attraction of nationalism, like identity politics and many political “movements,” is that it allows people to buy meaning on the cheap. Unable to chart a path for your individual pursuit of happiness, you hitch your wagon to a great cause that, via the transitive properties of tribalism and identitarianism, gives you a poor substitute for individually earned success. When starved for food, you’ll eat whatever is on offer. When starved for meaning, you’ll sign up for whatever you can find. But nationalist or socialist victory won’t make you any less lonely when you leave the crowd or the mob. Only those little platoons of friends, family, faith, and the freedom to pursue happiness as you see it can provide those things.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: The girls were very, very excited to see the materfamilias arrive last night and had no idea what was in store for them this morning. And now I think they believe this is how their life will be for the rest of time. Anyway, I really do have to get back on the road. But expect cross country canine updates later.

ICYMI

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