Saturday, January 9, 2021

8. The End of “We”—Why Governments Can No Longer Solve Problems

Below is a transcript for my Demographic Doom podcast episode #8 released on 4 October 2019. This transcript was prepared on 9 January 2021, more than a year after the original broadcast. I transcribed it because it is an important episode I am often referring to. (See references on Twitter via #dddpc08.) This transcript was derived from the automatically generated YouTube transcript, reformatted and lightly edited for clarity.

This episode is available on major podcast platforms, including PodbeanApple Podcasts and a video version on YouTube. See the description on the YouTube version for extensive annotations, links and corrections. You can also comment on this episode there. The main website for this project is 

I'm Glenn Campbell. I call myself a demographic philosopher. I'm looking at life and trying to predict the future through the lens of demographics, or changes in human populations.

Today, I want to talk about the collapse of “we”—meaning the collapse of collective action or government action. In other words, governments don't solve problems anymore. They put out fires, but they don't solve problems. Why is this happening, and is there any hope that they ever will? 

Well first of all, when you read an article these days about any big problem—be it climate change, or collapsing birth rates in South Korea, or rising debt—near the end of the article, you're going to find some pundit or expert saying "We must do this," we must go through A, B and C to solve this problem. And by “we”, these pundits are referring to the government. The government must do this. The government of South Korea must do certain things to make having families more economical. The government must do something to address its rising debt. 

All of these “we's” are impossible. There is no government action anymore. There is no government solution to problems anymore, so it's kind of silly for opinion writers to say we must do this or we must do that, because we know from experience that it's not going to happen. Governments just don't work anymore. 

What do I mean by solving problems? Well, let's say back when Hitler invaded Europe, America and Britain had a problem. They pulled together. They pulled themselves together. They organized, and they solved the problem. “We” as a collective country, America, solved the problem of this external threat. We ramped up war production. We organized ourselves. The whole society got involved in solving this problem, and evil was beaten back. 

Almost as remarkable was recovery of the world following World War Two. America led the led the recovery of Europe and Japan, and they were wildly successful. "We" solved the problem. We solved the problem of these war ravaged countries and brought them back brought them back from the brink. We can be proud of ourselves. 

And there are many other examples in 20th Century history of cases where governments did solve problems. We did fix things. In the 1950s, we started building our Interstate Highway System in America, during the Eisenhower administration, and it was wildly successful. It solved a problem. It stream-lined transportation, and even today, this day, I am using the Interstate Highway System. It's one thing that American can be proud of: We have great highways in America. 

But what problems have government solved lately? I mean, in the 21st century. In America, the only problem that I can think of that has been solved is Obamacare almost ten years ago. America had a problems of people not having health insurance, and through this very complex legislation, that problem was solved. Lots of things to not like about it, but essentially we pulled together and we solved a problem. 

Can you think of any problem that has been solved by the US government since then? All that governments seem to be doing these days is putting out fires that the governments themselves started or that their people started. 

This is October 2019, and in America we have the Trump fire burning out of control. America is trying to deal with that fire that half of Americans started back in 2016. And in Britain they're dealing with a great forest fire of Brexit, which half of their voters started back around the same time. And in the European Union, the richer countries in the European Union are dealing with the collapse of the poorer countries. I mean, we've all these fires raging, and governments are desperately trying to put out those fires, but in the meantime no problems are being solved. 

So why don't governments work anymore? I don't have a definitive solution to this, but I have my theory, and my theory has a population element to it. In the 20th Century, especially after World War Two, we had a huge population gain through the Baby Boom, and there were similar baby booms all over the world. We had lots of lots of babies coming online, which eventually, 20 years later, started powering the economy. 

So in America, we had a big building boom in the 70s, 80s and 90s, because all of these babies that were born in the 50s and 60s had to have homes. There weren't enough homes for them, so we built homes for them, and we opened restaurants and shopping malls and provided all sorts of services for the growing population. 

Relatively speaking, civilization was very prosperous during this period. When a civilization is prosperous, it's much easier to find common ground. It's much easier to get Republicans to agree with Democrats, conservatives to agree with liberals, if your society is prosperous to begin with. There's more honey to go around, so there are less sources of conflict, and it's easier to get a political consensus on things. 

What's happened in the 21st century is that prosperity is drying up. It may not seem it today, because it looks prosperous on the streets, but we don't have that same population punch that we had back at the end of the [20th] Century. For one thing, the baby boomers who powered the prosperity of the late 20th century started retiring around 2011, and when you retire, you stop powering the economy. You're drawing on resources instead of generating resources. 

So that's one of the reasons that things have taken an economic turn. We don't have this underlying prosperity anymore. There are a lot of people being left behind. There are a lot of people in Trump country who feel they've been screwed by their society, which is why they voted for Trump. The prosperity, if it still exists, isn't being spread around anymore, so you have a lot more divisions in society. 

So if we're facing a vague threat like climate change, which is hard to visualize and certainly hard to solve, so you've got half of America saying that climate change doesn't exist. If that's the case, you're not going to solve climate change. And it's the same if you're talking about demographic problems. The demographic problems all over the developed world are not having enough babies to power your economy at the same level you had before, while at the same time, everybody is accumulating so much debt that you need the same growth that you had before. These are vague problems that are difficult to solve, and if half of America is frustrated and just who wants to burn everything down, then nothing is going to happen.

And this is replicated around the world. What sort of problems has the British Parliament solved since Brexit? They've been totally crippled, paralyzed by the Brexit process and all sorts of legislation to solve Britain's many other problems has fallen by the wayside. The same thing in Germany and in France, where they're grappling with their own crises, like the crisis of the eurozone that they themselves created by joining all these countries into a single currency.

So what this means is that you cannot in good conscience write an article and say “we” must do this or “we” must do that, because it's not going to happen. It's just kind of silly to say that. It's silly to say “we" must make our country more friendly to families, “we” must offer incentives to mothers, “we” might do this or we must do that to address our huge debt, because these are just words that people put down on paper, that you should know very well are not going to happen in real life, mainly because most of these solutions involve spending money and there is no money. Governments are already so heavily in debt that you don't have the money to take great initiatives—at least without jacking up the debt even more. 

When I say “we” has collapsed, that “we” has ended, I mean we as a country and we as a society no longer have power. The only thing that we do as a collective unit these days is we watch the same television shows, we see the same clips from Donald Trump. We are all hooked into the same popular culture, but that does not mean that we can solve problems together. Those times have passed. 

So I know this is a very pessimistic view. I'm saying the governments, if they don't collapse outright, they've at least lost their ability to solve problems. They haven't solved problems in the last 10 years, and I don't expect them to solve problems in the next 25 or 30 years. Things have devolved to such a state that big governments don't work anymore. 

Which means we've got to redefine the definition of “we.” When we talk about “we” today we're talking about the whole damn country or the whole damn world. “we've” got to do this, or “we've” got to do that, and that's simply silly. “We” doesn't work anymore, at least on those scales. The only “we” that does work is the local “we”. You can do things personally. You and your friends can do things. You and your neighborhood can do things, assuming you're properly motivated. 

If you and your neighbors are surrounded by hostile forces, then you and your neighbors will get together, and “we” will do something to protect ourselves from those hostile forces. So “community” needs to be redefined in your mind from “we” the national government to “we” my town and my local tribe—“we” the people that I can communicate with directly., who may not be able to fix the problems of the world, but we can protect ourselves from the effects of those problems on our neighborhood. 

So I'm not pessimistic in the sense of humanity surviving. Humanity is clever, and humanity will continue to survive, but it may not survive as these megalithic countries that we've come to focus on. Everybody today is focused on national politics. We're all tuned in to what Donald Trump is saying. Very few people now are focused on local politics, which is what is your city or state is doing, because if big governments like the United States collapse, then those are the governments we have left. If the US federal government collapses, then what you have left is the government of Massachusetts and the government of Boston. And whatever local governments there are, those are going to have to take up the slack of whatever the federal government can't do anymore.

Ultimately the only "we" that you can rely on is “we the people” that you are in immediate contact with—“we the people” that you live with and “we the people” of your neighborhood. We don't pay much attention to those tiny little “we’s” anymore but humanity was built on them. Back before there were these massive civilizations, humanity survived in tribes. You lived in a tribe of maybe 60 people, of hunter-gatherers, and your tribe pulled together to survive together.

And it worked. The tribe would travel from place to place in search of resources, and you had people in your community elders in your community who knew about these resources because they had more experience with them, and they taught the younger members of the tribe, and your tribe survived. 

You could think of the tribe as the natural organizational unit of human beings. Human beings evolved to live in small tribes, and maybe that's what we end up going back to. If all governments above the tribe collapse, that's what you end up going back to. You end up going back to joining together with your neighbors for mutual protection from whatever the outside threats may be. 

So I'm not entirely pessimistic. I'm pessimistic in that I don't think the US government will ever solve problems again, but I think that humans can solve problems. They just have to be pushed into units that are small enough that they can be effective. Unfortunately, this means that big problems like climate change don't get a get addressed, but frankly, climate change isn't being addressed anyway. I mean, even if you get all countries to cooperate, the damage is already done, and we have to respond to climate change not try to change it.

So what I see ahead of us in the short term is just a series of fires. There was the election of Donald Trump. There was the Brexit vote. And you know this year or next year, there will be a massive recession, and this could be lead to even more fires. There will be fire after fire that governments will desperately try to put out, but in the meantime, no solutions, no problems will be solved. And eventually governments will probably collapse. 

So if governments do collapse, then you've got to think of another solution. The other solution is, so here I am; I've got problems in front of me. I can't solve them alone, so let me call on my neighbor, and maybe we together as neighbors can solve our problems.


Written, recorded and edited by Glenn Campbell. For annotations, links and corrections, see the description on the video version of this podcast. You can also leave comments there. See here for all my podcast scripts on this blog.

{Proofread and announced on twitter 1/9/21.}