Menu Search

in: Podcast

April 22, 2020 Last updated: May 28, 2020

Podcast #604: The Boring Decadence of Modern Society

On the surface, it can feel like we’ve made a lot of technological, economic, and cultural progress during the past 30 years. But if you look closer, you start to notice that in a lot of ways, we’ve been running on repeat for several decades now. My guest today argues that this is what typically happens to rich and powerful societies: A period of growth and dynamism, such as we experienced after WWII, is followed by a period of stagnation and malaise. His name is Ross Douthat and his latest book is The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. We begin our conversation discussing Ross’s idea of decadence and how it’s particularly marked by the quality of boredom. We then explore how decadence manifests itself in different areas of our society: Ross and I discuss how even though the realms of the economy and technology might seem vibrant (or at least they did before the pandemic struck), Americans are actually starting fewer businesses, moving less for work, and making fewer life-altering innovations than in times past. We then discuss the fact that clothing styles haven’t changed all that much from the 1990s, the repercussions of couples having fewer children, and the calcification of our political institutions. We end our conversation with how each of us as individuals can fight back against decadence. 

If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.

Show Highlights

  • Examples of decadent societies in history 
  • What is the evidence for economic stagnation?
  • Are people today any better off than previous generations?
  • The Simpsons paradox
  • Has technological innovation actually plateaued the last couple decades?
  • Why hasn’t fashion changed much since the 90s?
  • The unstoppable copying of pop culture franchises and tropes for the last 20-30 years
  • Stagnation in our political, corporate, and even creative institutions 
  • Are we really in an age of entrepreneurs?
  • The forgotten skill of community-building 
  • Why does decadence cause a drop in birth rates?
  • How the pandemic could push us further into decadence
  • Fighting back against the decadence 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Connect With Ross

Ross’s regular NYT column

Ross on Twitter

Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)

Listen to the episode on a separate page.

Download this episode.

Subscribe to the podcast in the media player of your choice.

Listen ad-free on Stitcher Premium; get a free month when you use code “manliness” at checkout.

Podcast Sponsors

Click here to see a full list of our podcast sponsors.

Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of “The Art of Manliness” podcast. On the surface I feel like we’ve made a lot of technological, economic, and cultural progress during the past 30 years. But if you look closer, you start to notice that in a lot of ways we’ve been running on repeat for several decades now. My guess today argues that this is what typically happens to rich and powerful societies. A period of growth and dynamism such as we experienced after World War II, is followed by a period of stagnation in more ways. Famous Ross Douthat and his latest book is “The Decadent Society, How we became the victims of our own success”. We begin our conversation discussing Ross’s idea of decadence, and how it’s particularly marked by the quality of boredom. We then explore how decadence manifest itself in different areas of a society.

Ross and I discussed how even though the realms of economy and technology might seem vibrant or at least they did before the pandemic struck. Americans are actually starting fewer businesses, moving less for work and making fewer life-altering innovations than in times past. We then discuss the fact that clothing styles haven’t changed all that much from the 1990s, the repercussions of couples having fewer children and the calcification of our political institutions. We end our conversation with how each of us as individuals, can fight back against decadence. After the show is over, check out our show notes at Ross joins me now via clearcast.IO.

Alright, Ross Douthat welcome to the show.

Ross Douthat: Thanks for having me. It’s good to be here.

Brett McKay: So you got a new book out “The Decadent Society, How we became the victims of our own success”. So let’s start off with this, definitions. What do you mean by decadence? ’cause I think most people associate that with chocolate or sex?

Ross Douthat: Right, and there’s some chocolate and sex in the book but mostly I’m arguing that we should understand decadence to mean stagnation, drift, repetition and boredom at a really high level of wealth and civilizational development. So basically once a society hits a certain point of, for want of a better word success, and its growth rates slow down, it stops thinking about the future, its political arguments go in circles its culture starts to repeat itself. And I think boredom is kind of the key thing. So if you think about sex, the decadence of… The real decadence with sex is like the most boring orgy in the world, basically.

Brett McKay: So before we get to your case that our current culture is a decadent one, let’s take a look at history. Are there any other examples from previous societies or civilizations where you saw that they arrived at decadence? The way you define it?

Ross Douthat: Yeah, I think decadence is a pretty normal historical phenomenon and just about every society that has any kind of success goes through decadent phases or enters decadent periods. So the obvious example is if you start the clock on the Roman Empire around the time that the famous orgies are happening right in Nero’s Rome, and then you run forward to the actual fall of Rome or the fall of the Western Roman Empire, that’s about 400 years. There are moments of vigor and creativity in that span, but basically you could say that the Roman Empire was in various ways, decadent for centuries before it fell apart. Or to pick examples from the second millennium, the Ottoman Empire for about 150 years in the time when God called the sick man of Europe was pretty obviously decadent. The Chinese Empire in the 100 years before as European powers gradually picked away at it. So those are sort of big, famous examples, but really, any rich society is going to have decadent phases and periods when it sort of gets stuck and can’t figure out how to advance. So it’s a very normal thing for successful societies to enter into.

Brett McKay: And why is that, is it because once you reach a level of success, you’re just starting to play, you’re playing not to loose, you’re just trying to keep what you got? So, you’re not taking any risk to make advances?

Ross Douthat: Yeah, it’s some of that. Some of it is that there are sort of limits to human creativity in a particular cultural context, and so it makes sense that after you’ve… To take the case of the United States after you’ve invented the great American novel, and invented the movie industry, and then, revolutionize the movie industry a few more times, you might start to run out of ideas and just start making the same Star Wars movies over and over again, right? And in the same way in politics, if you build up a really successful constitutional order or a really successful system of government over time the system gets big and heavy and locked in and it’s too big to fail in the language of the last financial crisis. “It gets harder and harder to reform it”. So even if you want to change and adapt the system to new realities, it gets harder and harder to do that. And I think that’s what you see in Washington DC right now, but I think your original point is right too, that once a society is really successful, it runs out of enemies to challenge it, it runs out of fears to motivate it and it gets older, and this is a big thing that’s happened in the Western world. We’ve had fewer kids, society’s gotten older and being rich and old is a good recipe for decadence.

Brett McKay: So, I’ve seen you start to flesh out these ideas in your articles in the New York Times for about a year or so. When did you start noticing that America and Western society has probably entered into a decadent phase?

Ross Douthat: In a certain way, I’ve been working on this book for six or seven years, I guess, and I got sidetracked by other projects and personal stuff, but… So I really started working on it after the 2012 election, which is a long time ago, now. And part of the motivation was that we had just lived through this massive financial crisis, where in the aftermath, everyone in my profession was saying, “Well this changes everything, it’s gonna radically transform our politics in all these kind of ways. And instead we ended up in 2012 with Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney in what was in certain ways, the most boring and dispiriting, imaginable presidential election.

I had come of age as a journalist and writer after 9/11. So I had gone through the cycle once before where some big event happens and people say, “Well, this is the moment when our decadence ends and vigor is restored, and new things happen.” And then politics fell quickly back into the same patterns as before. So having gone through that twice, I felt like there was sort of a lesson there, which is that even big events, even financial crises and massive terrorist attacks don’t necessarily change the trajectory of a wealthy, stable, somewhat stagnant society that much. Now obviously when I was planning to publish the book, I wasn’t anticipating that we would get yet another immense, world-altering disaster happening while I was actually out promoting the book. So it remains to be seen whether the pandemic will have effects that 9/11 and the financial crisis didn’t have. It’s certainly possible that it could be a bigger jolt and an actual redirection. But so far, I think Western civilization has come through the 30 years since the Cold War ended, without having its stagnation altered that much, even by dramatic-seeming events.

Brett McKay: Let’s dig into the different types of stagnation that you highlight in your book and the first one is economic stagnation. And I’ve seen this argument put out by Tyler Cowen, the economist. It may look like we’re making a lot of progress economically, technological innovation, but really not. So what is the evidence that economists point to that say, really, the world has been economically stagnant for maybe 40-50 years.

Ross Douthat: So first, there’s just a sort of deceleration in growth. So if you go back to the late 1960s, early ’70s, which is when I start my story, you have a period in the post-war era of really rapid, dramatic economic growth, and then you have the stagflation of the 1970s, and you have temporary recoveries of growth under Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. But each time when the next recession comes along, it’s really wipes out a lot of those gains. So basically over the last couple of generations, we’ve settled into a normal where 4 or 5% growth is incredibly rare and 1.5-2% growth is the best that we’re gonna get, seemingly. And over the same period, you’ve also had fiscal policy change dramatically. So, Western governments, and especially the United States, now run immense peacetime deficits in a way that we didn’t have to 50 or 60 or 70 years ago.

So basically, you have an economy where we are spending more public money in order to sort of goose extremely low growth rates, as opposed to an earlier era, when the government didn’t have to do that kind of deficit spending work, and you got 4 or 5% growth without it. So it’s important to stress this is not the end of growth, it doesn’t mean that progress has ceased entirely. People still get richer, societies are still getting richer. But they’re just doing so at a very slow pace, and at a pace where we are doing this weird thing where we take our own surplus and pay ourselves extra money to feel like we’re growing more than we actually are.

Brett McKay: But yet some people, and this has kind of come up in the past 10 years, some people are noticing they’re not experiencing that growth economically. There are people talking about like, “My dad did better than me, financially, working a factory job, not going to college. And then here I am laden with thousands of dollars of student debt working a not a great job.”

Ross Douthat: Right. And this is something that economists, as they do, are constantly arguing about. Like how much better off is the average American worker today versus 40 or 50 years ago? And there are two competing theories. One theory says, “Look, growth has slowed down, but there has been growth, goods and services have gotten a lot cheaper. Your TVs and iPhones are amazing in a way that your dad working the factory job couldn’t have imagined.” The counter-argument is that a few really, big-ticket things, have not necessarily gotten cheaper. It’s not clear that real estate has gotten cheaper. A college education has become more and more important and that hasn’t gotten cheaper. And healthcare hasn’t gotten cheaper. You’ve had a lot of healthcare cost inflation. So it basically depends on how you weigh different things. If you say the most important thing is the cost of consumer goods and what’s available to you there, then people are definitely better off. But if you say the most important thing is a man’s ability to support his family on a single income and live in a middle class house then things are a lot more ambiguous, and it’s less clear that people are better off.

Brett McKay: And to that latter point, I just saw a meme going around. It’s a picture of Al Bundy’s house. You get this nice two-story house and we were like, “A guy in 1987 who worked as a shoe salesman was able to live in a nice house like this.” Again, it was television, but I think it’s trying to make that point.

Ross Douthat: No, but it was… My grandparents lived in Santa Monica, California, so my dad grew up there in the ’50s. And they had a one-story mission style, California house, probably three bedrooms, nice backyard with an orange tree. And my grandfather was a… God rest him, a not very successful salesman. He wasn’t Al Bundy, but he wasn’t like… He wasn’t not Al Bundy. [chuckle] And my grandmother didn’t work, and they were able to afford that house in basically an earthly paradise. And flash forward 70 years, their house has been torn down after they passed away. The houses there are now two-stories, they’re too big for their lots, they all cost $2 million. And that’s a change, right? And you can still get, the salesman might still be able to get a version of that house, maybe more cheaply made out in an exurb somewhere, in a hotter part of California that fewer people wanna live in. But, still, the shift from my grandfather’s era to today in that sense is real. Now, it is also true that there are fewer men who are shoe salesmen today, and more men who are white-collar workers. Right?

So there is a smaller population of ‘would-be Al Bundys’ but, yeah. But there’s definitely [chuckle] been a shift. It’s the… It’s the Simpson’s phenomenon too, right? Like, the Simpson’s home is this paradigm of middle class life, and Homer Simpson is nobody’s idea of an A student or uber meritocrat. And, it’s that Springfield, maybe it still existed in the ’80s, it doesn’t exist today.

Brett McKay: Well, this… Also this point of stagnation, you make the point that technology has stagnated, which is interesting ’cause most people think, “Well, no in the past 20 years things have sped up, we got the Internet, we got smartphones, we’ve got Slack, TikTok, whatever.” So what’s the case that we… We’re actually not innovating as much as we once did.

Ross Douthat: Well it’s similar to the argument about growth, right? That, there is clear innovation in a few really significant areas; the digital technology and communications technology have changed immensely over the last 30 or 40 years. Silicon Valley barely existed a couple of generations ago, now it’s the center of the global economy. Everytime you take out your iPhone you’re experiencing an amazing technological revolution. But, that revolution takes… Is most important for communication, entertainment, leisure. It’s an economy of convenience. And you haven’t had the same kind of changes in other areas of the economy relative to what people expected.

If you go back to the 1950s science fiction, people are imagining that what has… What did happen with the computer, right? That huge computers get shrunk down and stuck in your pocket would happen with atomic energy. So everyone would drive around a clean, safe atomic powered automobile in the year 2020, and things like that. And, that hasn’t happened. We do have… We have hybrids, we’re finally getting electric cars, but it’s taken a very long time. Energy costs haven’t been revolutionized the way people expected, transportation hasn’t been revolutionized, things like the self-driving car kept getting pushed further and further out.

And, the same goes with health and life expectancy. You’ve made some sort of slow grinding progress against cancer in the last 30 years, but, the expectations of the era when penicillin was being invented was that you were just gonna have a sort of a cascade of cures that, first we cure polio, and then we’ll cure cancer, and then we’ll cure Alzheimer’s and dementia. And that hasn’t happened either. So it’s been… The growth we’ve had has just been very mono-dimensional; very very tech-heavy. And it’s been hard for tech to transform other sectors.

Like, when tech money leaves tech and tries to transform how we take blood in pharmacies; you get Theranos, you get these companies that spend a ton of money, and end up being frauds. Or, you get WeWork, “We’re revolutionizing workspace,” and then, it turns out the company isn’t worth nearly what anyone expected. So there’s just been a challenge of taking the one area where we’ve had major progress and transforming the rest of society.

Brett McKay: And also you make the point too, and I’ve seen this case made as well is that the innovations we’ve had in the past 40 years, they’re not… They’re game changers, but they’re not. I’d rather have indoor plumbing and electricity, and I could do without my smartphone, I could get by and life would be… Or I’d rather have antibiotics than a smartphone. So it’s like the stuff we’ve… The innovations we’ve made they’re not… They’re… They’re not big… They’re not… It’s like it doesn’t move the needle too much in the grand scheme of things.

Ross Douthat: Right. There’s a sense in which… And this is Cowen’s point, Tyler Cowen who you mentioned earlier, that, there was a range of inventions that in hindsight looked like kind of low-hanging fruit where, once you could… Once you figured out a few things about electricity or biology, there were a bunch of really big transformative things that you could do really quickly basically in a 100-150 year period. And now we’re in a period where there’s still a lot of impressive cutting-edge research going on, and at some point it may cash out in revolutions. But, for now, the research is more impressive than the results, I guess. It’s one way to look at it.

Brett McKay: Right. You had this quote from a guy named Mark Stein, talking about imagining a man in the late 19th century, and going to the 1950s and coming to our age, this reminded me, have you been to the Carousel of Progress at Disney World?

Ross Douthat: Yes. A long… A long time ago, but yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that reminded me of that because… Okay, for those who don’t know the Carousel of Progress, is this little ride you get in with animatronics and there’s like this dad who starts out in the 1900s, and he takes you through the advancements in technology, and you start out in the 1900s, you get to the 1920s, and there’s electricity and indoor plumbing, and then you get to the 1940s, more advances, and then you get to the 21st century which was made in 1993. So, all the characters are wearing neon wind suits… [laughter] And… And it’s still like that. And I remember when you get to the 21st century, and you’re just completely underwhelmed.

It’s like, you can talk to the oven, which I guess we have with Alexa infused ovens, but that’s about it. And I was like, That’s… That’s not… I’m not… I’m not looking forward to the 21st century if that’s what it is.

Ross Douthat: I’m looking… I’m looking online… Right, so they have a kid wearing a sort of Oculus Rift Style Headset, I guess in…

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, grandma has two.

Ross Douthat: In the twenty… But… But the neon, the clothes too are… This is one of the smaller points I make in the book and I’m stealing it from a journalist named Kurt Anderson. But, he makes the point that if you watch movies from… Or just look at pictures from any decade in the 21st century, you… In the 20th century excuse me. You get this really clear distinction decade to decade, in fashions and styles, and what people are wearing. Nobody mistakes the 1930s for the Mad Men era, and no one mistakes the Mad Men era definitely, for the 1970s. And then somewhere around the 1990s, things stop changing that much. And so if you turn on Friends and Frasier now, the hairstyles are a little different, some of the clothes are a little baggier, but there isn’t…

Brett McKay: There hasn’t been that kind of fashion turnover either. So the sort of Jepson futuristic wardrobes, the jump suits of Star Trek and so on. None of that has actually happened, which might be a good thing. I don’t wanna wear the Star Trek jump suit, but it does suggest too that there’s been this… That changes in fashion reflect changes in technology, and we haven’t had either of those changes.

Ross Douthat: Yeah, I’ve noticed that too. I look at high school kids and they’re wearing the same thing that I wore in high school 20 years ago. T-shirt, jeans, a pair of Converse that’s it. That was my uniform, and I see kids still wearing that.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and if you walk around a college campus all the guys have the, if they’re pretentious, they have the same black P-coat that I owned when I was young and pretending to be an adult. And it’s not ugly, but it’s nothing like the change from the 50s to the 70s.

Ross Douthat: And then, yeah, this is the sickest idea of repetition and culture as well. Something you see too with style. And then also other parts of culture is that we keep going back into the past for our inspiration. So with style, you see these decades, we say “oh 90s are back now”. I guess, I think wind suits in some cases are back that whole Seinfeld norm court thing kind of had a thing. There’s…

Brett McKay: The Rachel haircut came back.

Ross Douthat: The Rachel haircut came back. I’m sure Luke Perry sideburns gonna come back eventually, but you all see this with films and art and music, nothing… If you listen to a song today that was made today compared to 20 years ago, not that much of a difference.

Yeah, I think the last big musical innovation was the rise of Rap and HipHop, which still gets cast by some people as like this…, “It’s the new thing that the youth are into.” But Rap and HipHop have been around, what are we now 2020? So for 35, 40 years. And there is… I think you can make the argument that, basically, we’re all still living inside baby boomer pop culture. And that almost everything that matters in our pop culture was sort of invented somewhere between 1930 and 1970 or 1975, with the exception of the Harry Potter stories. That’s the one sort of millennial era, sort of pop culture juggernaut. But Star Wars, Star Trek the entire comic book universe. If you go into a mall at Christmas time, except for Mariah Carey, 80% of the Christmas carols will be from that period from World War II through the 1970s. And part of that just reflects the fact that that was a really dynamic and creative era in American History and it’s not entirely a bad thing to have that kind of stuff to rework and play with. And I enjoy the Marvel movies in their way, but it is, I think, a sign of a certain kind of stuck-ness and repetition that did not characterize America in 1960, in 1965 or so.

Brett McKay: Yeah, with movies you talk about we’re rebooting. Star Wars is still going on, even though the first one came out in the late 70s, the Marvel movies, that’s pretty much it. And then even when they come out, the new movie, it’s typically a reboot of a franchise that existed for 30 years.

Ross Douthat: Yeah, and this is actually, this has happened especially in the last 20 years. So if you go back and look at the budget, the box office top 10 from the mid 1990s, you would have one or two sequels. But it was very normal to have original movies, these stories that nobody had ever seen before, right. That were… No story is completely original. Everybody’s reworking and remaking things. Shakespeare didn’t come up with all his own stories, but there’s a difference between Mel Gibson coming up with Brave Heart out of the true history of William Wallis, but making a movie that nobody was making in the early 1990s versus the 17th film in the Marvel extended universe.

Brett McKay: Right and again, I think it goes back this idea of decadence being like you’re not… You’re playing not to loose. It’s like the movie studios know that a Marvel movie will do really well, so that’s what they’re gonna put out and they’re not gonna take a risk on, I don’t know an “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

Ross Douthat: Right, and when they do take risks people get punished or find that they don’t have the capacities that you need. So this is my theory of Star Wars that the original Star Wars movies, are great, interesting creative pastiches of old Hollywood adventure movies, and Powstanie Warszawski and so on. And then Lucas wanted in the prequels to do something sort of deeper and more sweeping and more tragic and really interesting. So he had high ambitions. He just didn’t have the capabilities and the capacities to actually do that and so the results were kind of laughable. And so then, thereafter, once the movies are turned over to Disney you get the retreat to safety, the playing not to lose where it’s like… “well, we try doing a movie, been doing movies about galactic politics with senate speeches and so on and nobody wants to do that again”. So we’re just going to literally make the original trilogy over again with the same beats and the genders of some characters switched, and that’s how you get the JJ Abraham’s Star War movies.

Brett McKay: Alright, so we’ve talked about stagnation with the economy, with culture, but another area where you highlight where decadence can take root and stagnate is in our institutions. So talking about political institutions, you can even see corporate institutions, what are some examples of sort of stagnation, there?

Ross Douthat: Well, for these it’s just one it’s just politics and government. And then this is the part of decadence, that I think everybody accepts as a reality. I get very little argument about this, that. Basically over the last 40 or 50 years you’ve had the combination of a 200-year-old constitutional structure, a 100-year-old welfare state and partisan polarization make our political institutions less trustworthy, less trusted, and over time, completely dysfunctional. So we’ve reached a point where a president can expect to maybe pass one piece of legislation even if it’s party controls controls the House and Senate when he takes office. You have these figures coming in in different ways who seem like they could be revolutionary. Obama comes in and everyone’s saying he’s gonna be the liberal FDR.

And Donald Trump comes in, and everyone says, “Oh, it’s this transformational populism.” And then, one thing happens and then nothing else happens for the rest of the presidency. And policy gets made, increasingly, by the bureaucracy and the courts, and Congress just abdicates everything, except when there’s a pandemic and you actually have to do something. So policy-making still happens under emergency conditions. Budgets get passed when you’re gonna hit the fiscal cliff. Bail outs happen when the economy is tanking, and we’ll spend two trillion dollars when the whole economy is shutting down. But otherwise, the system can’t actually be reformed. And all of those emergency things that happen, you’ll notice, just add more to deficit spending. Rightly so in certain cases. We should be doing more deficit spending in a pandemic, but it doesn’t reflect any kind of structural reform.

So, that’s politics. I think, in other areas what you have is, it’s not that level of dysfunction, but you have a lot of consolidation and monopoly power. I think that’s, again, a feature of the playing-not-to-lose dynamic that you were describing. So even in Silicon Valley, the most dynamic sector of the economy, has still ended up dominated by four or five companies after this brief, wild west period of real entrepreneurialism. And entrepreneurs then sort of compete to get bought up by these bigger companies. Or even in higher education where everyone said, “Oh the internet is gonna come along, and it’s gonna hugely disrupt higher ed, and all these schools are gonna have to be totally reinvented.”

And maybe the pandemic will accelerate some of that, but if you go and look at the US News & World Report rankings of colleges, there’s no list that’s more stable, unchanging. Places move up and down. University of Chicago has climbed a little bit, but you would not look at American higher ed and say, “Oh this is a sector where you could start a new college, and become really successful, and attract a lot of students.” It’s more like, no, you have these old behemoths competing for a shrinking population of students, relying on foreign student money to keep them solvent. And the University of Phoenix isn’t gonna topple that system.

Brett McKay: We had that point you made about entrepreneurship. I think, yeah, there’s this idea we have in our narrative that we have about ourself and our current age, that we’re in age of entrepreneurs, look at all these tech startups. But you point out, and other economists have shown, is that we’re actually less entrepreneurial than we were 40 or 50 years ago, fewer smaller businesses are opening up.

Ross Douthat: Yes. Fewer old companies are going out of business, fewer new companies are opening up. It’s harder to keep a new company and business than it used to be. And also, people are literally just not moving as much as they used to, which again is sort of surprising and counter-intuitive. People say, “Oh, the reason society is so adrift and atomized now is that everybody’s moving around more and more, nobody stays in one place.” But weirdly, Americans are more likely to stay in one place than they were 20 or 30 years ago. They’re less likely to move in search of work. They’re more likely to end up in the area where they grew up or the area where they moved after college. And that’s a big shift and a sign of, again, sclerosis, people getting locked in place. And it interacts with government policy too. So you have large bureaucracies that are based in states that mean if you’re… Whether you’re getting welfare somewhere or if you have to pay child support, you have visitation rights, they’re all kind of structural forces that tend to keep people within state lines in a way that might not have been the case 50 years ago.

Brett McKay: Is that necessarily a bad thing, people settling down and establishing roots in a community? Or are people not moving and they’re not doing that?

Ross Douthat: I think that the problem is they’re not doing either. So you have a lot of these sort of decayed communities that don’t provide enough work, but people aren’t leaving them to find new work. And that’s, I think, the story of… In a lot of Midwestern former [30:07] ____ America you have a lot of towns in situations like that. A lot of the zones where the opioid epidemic is worst are like that. People, instead of moving, are getting hooked on drugs. So yeah, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to stay in or come back to your hometown. And there are ways in which we should probably want more people… A certain kind of talented American would probably be better for the country if they did move back instead of just clustering in a few elite mega cities. But for a lot of the people who were staying, they’re not staying to put down root. They’re just staying and drifting.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I can see… If you moved a lot, there’d be an incentive for you to get involved in your community ’cause you’re trying to get something is… I saw that with my parents. They moved to a new place, and my mom was involved in the neighborhood, the neighborhood women’s group, and planning parties and things like that. And that’s not really happening anymore in the neighbor that I grew up in. And it finally took the moms who did this stuff 30 years ago to get it going again in my mom’s neighborhood. So they’re planning parties again. Well, not anymore ’cause we got the pandemic going on. But yeah, there’s…

It seems like this is a forgotten skill of community building, people just… Again, I think it’s a sign of decadence. I don’t wanna do this anymore, it’s too much work I don’t know how to organize myself or other people.

Ross Douthat: Yeah, and it also reflects changes in family and the economy too. So, the other thing about our economy is it’s not just that we, in order to have these proliferates or running higher deficits we also have more people working than ever before which is a good thing in so far as it means that women can be professionally fulfilled in a way that they couldn’t be in 1945 or 1955 but it also means that families that would like to have one earner and have the other spouse at home can feel like they can’t afford it and that in turn means that the communities themselves have fewer people in them day-to-day, and again, not right now but when the pandemic ends if you have an economy built around two-earner households there isn’t time and space for community building. The neighborhoods of 60 years ago where kids played in the streets where that worked because parents were home and so you had a sense that your kids were being supervised by somebody even if you weren’t supervising themselves and all of that goes away in a two-earner economy.

Brett McKay: Well, speaking of family life, you also make this point that in a decadence in society fewer kids are born. What’s going on there, what’s causing the decrease in fertility, is it economics or is it cultural shift, is it like a combination of all that stuff?

Ross Douthat: Yeah, it has to be all of it together it’s a little bit mysterious and this is one of the basic almost universal facts about rich societies the world over, is that they all have too few kids to reproduce and sustain themselves and the US was an outlier to this trend for a long time and 20 years ago there was this assumption that just like we were more religious than the rest of the developed world we also had bigger families and more kids but more recently and especially since the Great Recession that’s changed and our fertility rates are below replacement too just like Europe and East Asia and you have places where they are way below replacement like our fertility rate is like 1.7 now with two being replacement level.

Places like South Korea are down to one, so they’re literally having half as many kids as they would need to maintain their current population. And some of this reflects obvious facts, like declining infant mortality means you don’t have to have seven kids to have four grow up to adulthood, we’re not in agrarian economy anymore so you don’t need five strong sons to work in your fields and women have more opportunities than they did 50 years ago so they’re less likely to become mothers. But it’s really unclear why it’s settled this low especially because people still say that they want more kids than we’re actually having, that men and women both say the average desired fertility, desired family size is like two and a half kids and we’re ending up with 1.6 or 1.7 kids instead.

So it has to have something to do with these economic trends where people feel like they have to work harder to stay ahead and the costs of these basic goods for families have gone up, education, health care, housing and so on. But it also has something to do with culture generally, it has something to do with the thing we were talking about in the beginning that rich societies or comfortable societies are less likely to take risks and try new things and in this context having a kid or having a large family is in certain ways one of the more challenging and riskier things that you can do and so people do less of it. And then something has happened with the internet too where so far internet dating, internet sex, pornography all of these things seem to push the sexes away from each other a little bit more so it’s not just the number of kids are going down, the number of people getting married is going down, the number of people in relationships goes down and the amount of sex goes down. Americans are having less sex than they did when I was in college which is hard to believe let me tell you, infact, there it is.

Brett McKay: No, yeah, we had that journalist from the Atlantic who did that article about the sex recession. Yeah, there all those factors, it’s a whole bunch of factors going in on it wants to cause less sex in relationship forming and I’m sure I don’t know the pandemic could go either way.

Ross Douthat: I think the pandemic pushes people deeper into decadence I think in this case, unless you get… I think you could see a bounce back where once people post-quarantine once they’re allowed out of the house and the economy starts recovering that you could have more dating, marriages and babies then but over the next year or so people… Nobody Is gonna be dating or they’re gonna be dating virtually and you’ve already seen Porn Hub is doing very well, this is a better moment probably for Porn Hub than for baby making even if people are stuck in the house with their spouse or significant other they’re in a context of economic anxiety, if they already have kids they’re dealing with those kids. I know and we’re having a baby in a couple of weeks ourselves…

So these thoughts are in my mind but we didn’t conceive the child in the lockdown and I doubt that we would have.

Brett McKay: So what’s the future of decadence are we just gonna just hang out here for a while in this blasé, boring, stagnant thing or do we have to pray for an apocalypse, do we all become accelerationists and want the world to end or can we work our way out of it?

Ross Douthat: So I don’t think you don’t wanna pray for an apocalypse because…

Brett McKay: There’s some people on the internet to do that though.

Ross Douthat: No, listen, I totally understand that impulse, the desire for excitement, the desire for drama. But the reality is that most apocalypses, probably all apocalypses are worse than decadence and that decadence is bad, but as long as you’re in it, there’s a chance that you can get out of it without having to endure the collapse of civilization. That should be option A, before you go all the way to Tyler Durden, and blowing up the credit card companies and people pounding mash in the ruins of New York City. You might wanna try and sort of… You might wanna try A Renaissance without the Dark Age I guess first. But that’s challenging and it’s hard to get one and I think what you sort of can hope for, again, we’re living through a moment like this right now is that instead of a big apocalypse coming along and leveling society that a sort of moment of crisis that exposes some of the realities of decadence that are hidden when things are going well. That exposes sort of the problems in your public health bureaucracy or the problems in your government or the ways in which your society is sort of over-extended, and doesn’t know how to make things anymore, and so on. Something like that can be a spur to change in transformation in a way that doesn’t require a 100 million dead people.

That would be the optimistic take on the era we’re living through now, is that once we come out of this agony there will be an opportunity to shift things in our politics. Shift things in our economy to have a little more growth, and dynamism to maybe people go so deep into the virtual cocoon during the lock down that they come out and they’re ready to do more things in the real world. But it’s also totally possible right, that you go through a crisis like this and people come out of it and and they tell each other. Now, everything is gonna be different, but in fact you sort of slip back into the way things were before very quickly, except your system, your government is a little more discredited, your local communities are a little less functional and you’re just actually a little deeper in decadents than you were before. That in the Roman Empire, Rome had a series of epidemics, pandemics, over its hundreds of years of decline, that played a big role in the decline and after each one, there was presumably opportunities for re-invigoration that you’ve got a dilation in the constant team. Sometimes they took them, but for the most part, they just sort of pushed the Empire further along its decadent trajectory.

Brett McKay: And it sounds like if any change is gonna happen, like a Renaissance it’ll have to be bottom-up. You can’t look to the institutions that are decrepit to save yourself, save you from decadence.

Ross Douthat: Well, I think for most people listening to this podcast, that’s absolutely right. The war against decadence starts in your home, or business or community. You strike a blow against decadents when you start a company, or start a family, or during the pandemic plant a garden in your backyard. Or figure out how to repair things yourselves, that sort of attitude I think is the appropriate one for the average person, maybe especially the average man to take. That being said, if you’re in politics, I write a column about politics as my day job, so I spend a certain amount of time thinking about, well what should senators be thinking about what should people who work for a president be thinking about? There are ways in which individual actors can try and redirect a system. You do have these moments in history where really talented political figures come along and effectively rebuild or re-found the system. I don’t think you can give up on the idea that some kind of political refounding is possible, and that could then have some kind of virtuous interaction with the efforts that people are making from the bottom up. So if you get the right statesman, you could get policies that make the life of the entrepreneur or the father easier than it is under our current situation.

Brett McKay: I like that idea of individuals pushing back against decadence, reminding me of that Flannery O’Connor quote, “push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you”.

Ross Douthat: But in this case, you have to push harder. ’cause the thing about decadence is it’s this, it’s this sort of soft pillow. That’s sort of the challenge in a way is that, it’s not… I think about this in the context of religion, ’cause I’m a practicing Catholic of some kind, and you have a lot of my fellow believers who will say “Well as America becomes less Christian, we’re gonna get to a point where society is so anti-Christian, that you’ll have a landscape of persecution or something”. I don’t think that’s actually the challenge. I think the challenge for religious people, which I think applies beyond religion is that society is not gonna persecute you, they’re just gonna sort of ignore you and encourage you to not get up and go to church on Sunday morning, because it’s much easier to sit around and see what’s on the Netflix. I think that applies across the board. I think there’s nobody… Maybe someone in your zoning committee or someone in City Hall is gonna keep you from building an addition to your house, obviously there’s bureaucratic red tape here and there, but nobody’s preventing you from starting a family. Nobody is forcing you not to get married. It’s just there’s a lot other entertaining stuff, you could be doing and it’s easy to just…, marijuana is legal now. You can just sort of drift it’s soft, so you gonna have to push harder.

Brett McKay: Push harder, I like that. Well Ross, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about the book and your work?

Ross Douthat: Yes, obviously copies are available at, but I should also say since we’re in this pandemic moment that if you have a local bookstore that is selling books, delivering books, having you pick up books try and keep making some money. In this context, I would obviously urge you to buy the book there and support your local businesses, and then I write a column twice a week for the New York Times, so you can find me there, and on Twitter at DouthatNYT.

Brett McKay: Alright Russ Douthat, thanks so much for your time it’s been a pleasure.

Ross Douthat: Absolutely, thanks so much for having me on.

Brett McKay: My guest there was Ross Douthat, he is the author of the book “The Decadent Society”. It’s a available on the, and book stores everywhere. Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition to the AOM podcast, check on our website at Art Of or you find our podcast archives holds thousands of articles we’ve written over the is about pretty much anything you can think of. Also if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast you can do so, and switch to premium head over to switch your Sign up, use code MANLINESS at check out to get a free month trial once you’re signed up download the stitcher app on Android or IOS and you start enjoying ad-free episodes in AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher. It helps out a lot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think could get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding all of you to listen to AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.


Related Articles