Nigel Tufnel, the greatest rocker who never lived, fronted the fictional band Spinal Tap, whose amplifier knobs went all the way to 11. Because 11 was “one louder” than 10, for “that extra push over the cliff.”
He would be perfect to supply the soundtrack for our times — and not just because he’s fake. For years, we’ve been living in an amped-up era: an impeachment, a dot-com bubble, a disputed presidential election, a massive terrorist attack, an endless war, a Great Recession, a slow recovery. But now we’re revving past the red line. The gears are shrieking. Smoke is curling in ever-thicker wisps from the engine.
Nothing but 11 will do.
This week, the president of the United States shared with the entire world three inflammatory videos, at least one of them a proven fraud, with no point except to signal his contempt for Muslims. His staff followed up by saying that it didn’t matter whether the videos were real. “Thank God for Trump!” cried the egregious David Duke of Ku Klux Klan ignominy. “That’s why we love him!”
America’s greatest ally, Britain, responded with horror, because Trump’s hysterical tweets aggrandized a previously marginal hate group known as Britain First. But congressional leaders had little to say about this casual trashing of our national interest because they were too busy trying to salvage a trillion-dollar tax cut to “create jobs” in an economy that is already at or near full employment. Once again the Senate — formerly known as a weighty and deliberative institution — was ramming secret legislation through white-knuckle votes without hearings. At one point, desperate GOP leaders offered to raise taxes if growth stalls, which is exactly backward. The screaming dissonance makes your head hurt.
Investors, who ought to be wary of such fiscal recklessness, were instead caught up in manias of their own. Remember 2009, when everyone swore we’d never let our markets get drunk on consumer debt and sketchy assets again? According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, household debt has passed the pre-recession record of nearly $13 trillion — and that’s before what’s shaping up to be a holiday spending binge. Meanwhile, imaginary money known as bitcoin has been selling for $12,000 per . . . per what? Per unit of imaginary money, backed solely by the full faith and credit of other bitcoin believers. bitcoin is up nearly 1,000 percent this year. It’s the Dutch tulip craze, except that in Holland investors at least ended up with some bulbs when the bubble burst. When the bottom drops out of bitcoin, today’s giddy buyers might as well have a wallet full of Monopoly money.
And yet, the stock market keeps climbing.
It’s a wonderful thing that our society has finally decided to stick up for victims of creeps and perverts in positions of influence. But catching up with 25 years of yuck is consuming a tremendous amount of the nation’s attention span. In the past week alone, fill-in-the-blank number of formerly successful men were outed for various sexual offenses. I say fill-in-the-blank because the list is almost certain to grow in the hours between my filing of this column and your reading of it.
Frenzy. If Tufnel could be conjured to provide the music, he could borrow lyrics from Matthew Arnold:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Everywhere you look the planet’s a-boil. Germany can’t form a government. China can’t — or won’t — rein in North Korea. Fascism is making a comeback in Europe, while Iran is tipping the balance of power in the Middle East. This sense of global chaos, which delights no one more than Trump’s buddy Vladimir Putin, is amplified by the void at the top of U.S. foreign policy, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson twists in the wind.
Piling mania on mania makes life easy for cable news directors and heaps fuel on the Twitter garbage fire. But it makes sustained attention to long-term problems and opportunities nearly impossible. I was struck this week by the glancing attention given to a report by McKinsey Global Institute on the accelerating process of automating work. The think tank estimated that one-third of all U.S. jobs could be filled by robots and computers over the next dozen years.
This revolution may lead to greater prosperity and new kinds of work eventually, but it is likely to cause huge disruptions for the already battered American middle class. The challenge demands innovative responses from some of the least innovative sectors of society: government and education.
This is the sort of stuff we should be talking about. But it’s too loud for rational conversation. The volume is cranked to 11, and we’re headed for the cliff.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.