Back when I was much younger, I was very impressed by works of American gloom and doom. One of my earliest memories of National Review was a late-1960s article drawing earnest attention to the similarities between America (of that time) and Weimar Germany. I still have Charlotte Twight's America's Emerging Fascist Economy (1975) on my bookshelf; also present is The Ominious Parallels by Leonard Peikoff (1982); Lost Rights by James Bovard (1995);… well, you get the idea. I also devoured a number of how-to-survive-economic-doomsday tomes, of which there were piles in the 70s.
You'll note that we're still here. Bad as things can get, and have been, it's far from Nazi/Commie totalitarianism presiding over an economic system in rubble.
So I've learned to be skeptical of that general genre. And I hadn't read any good catastrophe-around-the-corner books recently. Until now: this one, by Joel Kotkin is pretty good. Particularly impressive is the "Notes" section, 91 pages out of a 273-page book. For those keeping score: exactly a third of the book is footnotes.
Kotkin's neo-feudalism thesis is wide-ranging and alarming. Basically: things have been getting worse for ordinary working/middle-class schmoes. And they're probably going to continue to get worse. Not just in ordinary economic terms, but in cultural trends too. He notes that the well-off are pulling away from the rest of us in every sense, and they have the political and economic power to (excuse me while I go into Sanders/Warren mode) "rig the system" to ensure that those trends continue.
Also: not just America. It's a worldwide phenomenon.
In support of this thesis, Kotkin draws on (I swear) every last bit of recent gloomy news/analysis/data from anyone and everyone, left and right. Robert Reich and Charles Murray! Glenn Reynolds and Bernie Sanders!
A lot of stuff I agree with. A lot of stuff I don't. Good news first: Kotkin is appropriately brutal about Progressive schemes like the "Green New Deal", designed by (and for) the folks who wing off to Davos on their private jets to come up with schemes to raise the price of energy and products that depend on energy use (I.e., everything else). He notes the unaffordability of housing has all sorts of bad effects, most notably on class mobility and family stability. It's not crazy to worry about the issues Kotkin highlights. Charles Murray has pointed to many of the same issues in books like Coming Apart.
But on to the bad: Kotkin can come off as a neo-Luddite. He points with alarm to "our dependency on machine interfaces, as opposed to genuine human interactions." My eyes roll, and imagine an early-20th century version of Kotkin griping about our growing dependency on those new-fangled automobiles, as opposed to having a more natural organic relationship with horses.
There's a lot of loaded language. The bad guys in Kotkin's eyes: the "elites"; the "clerisy"; the "oligarchs". (No kulaks, though. That's good.)
I wish he'd provided a more balanced economic picture. Last year I read The American Dream Is Not Dead by Michael R. Strain. Which is a much more nuanced and quantitative look at the American situation, in contrast to Kotkin's doom-and-gloom approach. And ultimately more convincing.
I mentioned those voluminous notes. I chased down one, and the results were not encouraging. Page 122:
Some conservative intellectuals have even thought that hardworking [immigrant] newcomers should replace the "lazy" elements of the working class.
The footnote goes to a 2017 Daily Caller article: Bill Kristol Says ‘Lazy’ White Working Class Should Be Replaced By ‘New Americans’.
So we note right away that what Kotkin calls "some conservative intellectuals" really means "Bill Kristol". The reference is to an AEI discussion between Kristol and (again) Charles Murray. (Video at the link, the relevant bits are about 50 minutes in.)
“You can make a case that America has been great because every — I think John Adams said this — basically if you are in free society, a capitalist society, after two or three generations of hard work everyone becomes kind of decadent, lazy, spoiled — whatever,” Kristol said.
“Then, luckily, you have these waves of people coming in from Italy, Ireland, Russia, and now Mexico, who really want to work hard and really want to succeed and really want their kids to live better lives than them and aren’t sort of clipping coupons or hoping that they can hang on and meanwhile grew up as spoiled kids and so forth. In that respect, I don’t know how this moment is that different from the early 20th century,” he added.
It should be noted that Kristol's comments were (1) kind of a pushback against Murray's mild desire to limit low-skilled immigration; and (2) an argument that third-generation native populations lack desire for low-skilled work. I don't know if that's true, but it's arguable. I see it mostly as an argument that their ancestors have handed them down enough capital so they don't have to dig ditches.
Overall, Kotkin is weak on answering Sowell's primary question: Compared to what? Yes, a dynamic, innovative society will have its problems. They will be made worse by trying to stifle that dynamism.
But who knows? After decades of books missing the mark on the coming dystopian nightmare, this one could be correct. Never hurts to be prepared.