The Washington Post technology columnist Taylor Lorenz on Sunday tweeted that “People are like ‘why are kids so depressed it must be their PHONES!’ But never mention the fact that we’re living in a late stage capitalist hellscape during an ongoing deadly pandemic w record wealth inequality, 0 social safety net/job security, as climate change cooks the world … u have to be delusional to look at life in our country rn and have any amt of hope or optimism.”
People are like “why are kids so depressed it must be their PHONES!” But never mention the fact that we’re living in a late stage capitalist hellscape during an ongoing deadly pandemic w record wealth inequality, 0 social safety net/job security, as climate change cooks the world— Taylor Lorenz (@TaylorLorenz) February 20, 2023
This is a misinformation-dense tweet, combining several popular progressive tropes. There is a lot to take issue with, both factually and tonally, but I will limit myself to six points.
Depression rates among 12-17 year olds were flat at around 12 percent for girls (and five for boys) between 2007 and 2011. They began to climb dramatically in 2012, reaching 20 percent for girls (and seven for boys) in 2017. Of course, neither ‘late stage capitalism’ nor climate change nor the pandemic started in 2012.
2. The Pandemic
To be sure, the Covid-19 pandemic inflicted serious harm on societies and economies around the world. However, for the low-risk youth, greater physical, psychological, and financial damage was done by the lockdowns that were imposed in response to the virus.
“We did serious harm to our children and young adults who were robbed of their education, jobs and normal existence, as well as suffering damage to their future prospects, while they were left to inherit a record-breaking mountain of public debt,” Edinburgh University’s Professor Mark Woolhouse, an expert on infectious diseases, lamented in The Guardian. “People over 75 are an astonishing 10,000 times more at risk [from Covid-19] than those who are under 15.”
For her part, Lorenz is a lockdown maximalist. Responding to her paper’s article about China’s extreme ‘zero covid’ policies, Lorenz tweeted that “Choosing not to kill off millions of vulnerable people (as the US is doing) isn’t a ‘critical flaw,'”.
3. Social Safety Nets
This is the familiar claim that the US once had a generous welfare state until it was slashed to the bone by trickle-down Reaganites and neoliberals. Again, the timing is odd. America’s most progressive president in decades, Barack Obama, was mid-way through his eight-year tenure in 2012 when the mental health crisis appears to have started. It is also misleading to claim that the US government allocates little to social spending. Of the nearly $4 trillion in federal spending in 2016, almost three quarters went towards “human services,” with Social Security (24%), Medicare (15%), Health (13%), and Income Security (13%) accounting for the bulk. As a share of the US economy, public social spending surged from 6.71 percent in 1965 to 12.84 percent in 1980 to 14.25 percent in 2000 to 19.32 percent in 2016. More recently, Washington’s firehose of pandemic stimulus cash became one of the drivers of the inflation crisis. Don’t blame capitalism for that.
4. Job Security
Nor should you blame capitalism for the damage that Covid-19 and the lockdowns did to the employment market. Lorenz refers to the growing gig economy in a subsequent tweet as an example of a pernicious trend in job insecurity. This is actually a mixed bag, offering both upsides and downsides.
“About two-thirds of current or recent gig platform workers think companies that run these platforms are fair when it comes to their pay, but smaller shares say the same for benefits’, a 2021 Pew study concluded. Pew also reported that almost four out of five gig workers had at least “somewhat positive” experiences with these jobs, with almost one in four reporting “very positive” experiences. Room for improvement certainly but hardly a “hellscape.”
5. ‘Record Wealth Inequality’
The lockdowns and the Fed’s overinflation of the money supply were bad for middle and lower class incomes. Even so, Lorenz’s characterization is simplistic. For example, the US middle class does appear to have shrunk from 61 to 50 percent of the adult population. However, the lower income category grew by only four percent (to 29%) while the percentage of upper income adults expanded from 14 to 21 percent. Further, according to Pew, “Black adults, as well as married men and women, were … among the biggest gainers [in income] from 1971 to 2021, with net increases ranging from 12 to 14 percentage points.”
6. ‘Late Stage Capitalism’
This is another bad cliché, rooted in Karl Marx’s 19th century prediction that capitalism will collapse under the weight of its contradictions. The subsequent century instead saw Marxist dictatorships rise and fall while the capitalist West built islands of historically unprecedented peace and prosperity in Europe, North America, East Asia, and the South Pacific. By the dawn of the 21st century, only a handful of impoverished police states like Cuba and North Korea were still holding out for the post-capitalist paradise.
In the West, true believers continued to seize on every economic downturn as a sign that the revolution was nigh. Today, 175 years since the publication of The Communist Manifesto, there isn’t a single post-capitalist country in existence that is as wealthy, technologically advanced or politically and socially free as the capitalist democracies of the West. Even China, which poses the century’s greatest challenge to the West, only reached its current level after abandoning Marxism-Maoism and embracing a mixed economy.
Speaking last August, China’s Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua said that it was “necessary” to “make great efforts to attract new foreign investment.” One can picture Mao spinning in his mausoleum. Like the Great Helmsman’s mummy, the “late stage capitalism” cliché should be laid to rest. And so should Lorenz’s phone.