It is becoming increasingly clear that, at some time before AD 5,000 humanity will enter another Dark Age, in which life will be “nasty, brutish and short,” living standards will be abysmal, and both human potential and human knowledge will be very limited. If we are very lucky, we will eventually emerge from that dark age. Looking back from the new era, using the best archaeological, historical and economic tools available, what year do we think will be seen as the absolute apogee of our current civilization, our “Age of the Antonines”: 2019, 1999, 1928 or 1825?
First, it is unlikely that the best days of our current civilization lie ahead of us. Productivity growth has been declining for half a century, while fiscal and monetary policies have grown steadily worse, attempting to disguise poor economic performance with money-printing steroids. The Covid-19 pandemic may still prove to be a short-term affliction but it is being used as an excuse to impose ever more ridiculous restrictions on the liberty of the individual, and to bloat the state even more. As I wrote last week, social media has imposed gigantic additional costs on the economy and is increasingly restricting the communications of those who would fight against it. Culturally, music, art and literature have been in a deep downturn for at least half a century, with no obvious sign of a revival. Thus, the trend for at least the next several decades is downwards, and it is likely that with population growth imposing declining living standards on the West, that downward trend will continue until the 200 years following the Industrial Revolution’s full efflorescence around 1820 is remembered as a golden past. So the question is: where in that 200 years was the absolute peak of human civilization?
There is certainly a case for 2019, the last year before the pandemic hit. That year will almost certainly mark the peak in real GDP per capita, once the economic data are cleansed of falsifications and distortions imposed by 2020s governments trying to whitewash their economic records. China and India were after all much richer in 2019 than in 1999 and their upsurge, due to globalization, will surely outweigh the hiccups the future will find in the economic records in the early 21st Century of the increasingly socialist Western countries.
However, there is no question that economic policy was in 2019 embarked on a dangerous path. Worldwide interest rates were already set by fiat at rates far below their market clearing levels, which had caused a debt and government deficit bloat that was clearly going to lead to trouble and impoverishment. Global population was already excessive and causing increasingly shrill calls for economic activity to be shut down to combat “climate change,” while global conflict levels were clearly rising. Then, there is culture: where in the world of 2019 do you find art, music, literature or film that will still be enjoyed even a century from now? With a shadowed economic record and a poor cultural record, 2019 seems unlikely to appear a global apogee.
1999 appears to have a better case. GDP per capita was only marginally less than in 2019, and global debt levels were much lower. Most important, the world appeared to be at peace; the Soviet Union and its satellites had imploded, China appeared friendly and the West had not yet embarked on its crazy futile crusade against Islamic terrorism. Economic policy too appeared better: while the “Washington Consensus” allowed for excessively large government, it was not yet obvious that its apparently benign pursuit of globalization had any significant downsides.
Only culturally was 1999 a desert like 2019; the greatest work of literature from that period was probably “Harry Potter,” the music was equally as loathsome as in 2019, film had declined substantially from its 1930s-40s peak (though not as far as in 2019) and art was again undistinguished. Still, I fancy that 1999 beats 2019 by a small head and is thus the best contender from our lifetimes (though for Brits, 1989 may be preferable – Tony Blair and “Cool Britannia” were truly repulsive).
The third contender I have selected is 1928, although you could possibly argue for 1913 from that general period (and if you are German, you would certainly do so)! Like all dates before the post-World War II boom, this suffers from the fact that the world was substantially poorer in terms of GDP per capita and in terms of modern conveniences, the most important of which is medical technology. There were no antibiotics for example, so President Coolidge’s 16-year-old son Calvin Jr. died in 1924 of a blister from playing tennis that turned septic. On the other hand, global population at below 2 billion was much better under control – if it had stayed at that level, the environmental problems of 1970 onwards would never have occurred.
Politically also, this year scores mediocre marks outside the United States (magnificently governed, with Federal spending only 3% of GDP) and Britain (also well governed under Stanley Baldwin, though Keynesianism was creeping in at the edges under the malign influence of John Maynard Keynes himself). Some other countries, notably Argentina under its democratically elected President Marcelo de Alvear “the Argentine Coolidge” were also infinitely better governed than they have ever been since. On the other hand, you would not want to be living in Germany (the Horst Wessel Lied was composed in the following year), let alone in the Soviet Union.
1928 has a huge advantage over its two modern competitors in the cultural sphere. Music meant Cole Porter, Noel Coward and Louis Armstrong, while the “classical” repertoire included Ravel’s “Bolero.” Literature had Evelyn Waugh (Decline and Fall), Aldous Huxley (Point Counterpoint) as well as D.H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterley’s Lover), Bulldog Drummond (The Female of the Species) and The House at Pooh Corner! As for film, that had “Wings,” several early talkies and the debut of Mickey Mouse. Only art had an off-year.
Then we have 1825. Yes, everybody was poor, and medicine and plumbing were unspeakable, but the world population was only 1 billion, and industrially we are present at the creation of the Railway Age, with the Stockton and Darlington Railway opening that year – as does the Erie Canal. Scientifically, Faraday discoveed Benzene, but he was just getting going, while Cauchy, inspired by the sublimity of the new legitimist monarch Charles X, discovered Cauchy’s Theorem and the Cauchy Distribution, which I believe to be the function underlying Wall Street’s movements. The infinite possibilities of industrialization were in their dawn, and with Lord Liverpool as prime minister Britain had the best government it has ever enjoyed. British fiscal and monetary policy, based on the Gold Standard and a plethora of country banks, were better than they have ever been since, although taxes were still fairly high to service the Napoleonic War debt. The United States was also blessed with John Quincy Adams, while Austria with Francis I and Metternich and France with Charles X and the Comte de Villèle were also notably well run.
However, it is culturally where 1825 really shines. John Martin’s illustrations to Paradise Lost were published in that year and Turner, Constable and Ingres were all at their peaks. Sir Walter Scott published two novels in that year, and Samuel Pepys’ Diary was also published for the first time (Mrs. Arbuthnot’s Dairy, equally good, was in full swing but not published until 1950). And for lighter reading there is always the courtesan Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs, though some of her more eminent lovers were invited to pay her off, and so do not make an appearance – the Duke of Wellington does, though. However, it is music in which 1825 really shines – the British premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with in opera Boieldieu’s La Dame Blanche (one of my favorites) Pacini’s Last Days of Pompeii (another) and Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims (yet another, celebrating the coronation of Charles X). New works by Bellini and Donizetti, Mendelssohn’s Octet, Liszt’s Don Sanche, two Beethoven string quartets and a Schubert Piano Sonata also come from this magnificent year.
So there you have it. If like me you need modern medicine, you had better stick to 1999 or 2019. If you want to be materially well-off, those are also the years for you. If you like old movies and jazz and don’t care about politics or many modern conveniences, try 1928. But if you can avoid the doctors, want to see the Industrial Revolution in its golden, glittering dawn, and want the thrill of experiencing exquisite culture when it was truly fresh, then there is only one year for this civilization – 1825.
If by AD 5,000 they have invented time travel, that is where they will go!
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)