A Millennial conundrum: Communism and youth

February 18, 2016 1:06 PM (UTC+8)

 

“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain” … a popular quote usually misattributed to Winston Churchill

Something is breaking across Western and specifically Anglo-Saxon democracies, and it isn’t the china or the glass ceiling. Quite to the contrary, we seem to have a revolution of sorts on our hands (if one believes Twitter, which of course one never does) with younger voters demanding authentic, reliable voices to speak up for commonality of benefits.

welcome

Or to put it bluntly, communism is suddenly super-cool with today’s youth. It must be all the sharing stuff on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram, where one’s worth appears to be inevitably tied to the number of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ for one’s posts. This is primarily the reason some people realistically fear there will be a President Kanye West in the US and a Prime Minister One Direction in the UK during our lifetimes. Oh what’s that you say – ‘One Direction’ is a group, not a person? That only makes them the future cabinet.

First, youth in the UK propelled the hitherto-unknown and ‘only on the ticket for discussion purposes’ candidate Jeremy Corbyn to the head of the opposition Labour party, leaving the previously dominant Blair and Brown camps in the dust, sampling the bedding in the chicken coop in a manner of speaking. True to his (very red) colour, Mr Corbyn has been brandishing some very left of centre ideas in Parliament including not bowing before the Queen and judging Islamic State (IS) to be a ‘misunderstood lot’. Yes, I do believe that’s sort of the gist of the conversations in the students’ rooms of UK universities these days so Mr Corbyn actually represents the voice of the people, albeit the very young who only learnt to use spoons properly just the other day.

Then there is Mr Bernie Sanders – here you have a person considered virtually unelectable by the Democratic establishment for the better part of the past 30 or so years; and yet someone who has clung on to the fringe leftist end of the party for nearly as long. Spewing hatred towards the rich and bankers, Mr Sanders is also a furtive voice against globalization, in favour of universal healthcare (think ‘Obamacare marries the UK’s NHS’) and increased minimum wages. After a credible showing in Iowa where he tied with the establishment’s favourite Mrs Hillary Clinton, Mr Sanders has comprehensively beaten Mrs Clinton in New Hampshire, setting the proverbial cat amongst the leftie pigeons. Well, at least that’s what the chap on CNN breathlessly announced earlier this week.

So what’s this attraction amongst the youth for a completely unworkable system that failed comprehensively in recent history, even though ‘recent’ in this case means a time before most of these folks were born in the nineties. Far from complaining about a generational shift in political views, it perhaps behoves us to understand some of the factors propelling the support for communism and related ideologies among the very young.

Sharing economy: Technology has propelled sharing into new markets, from cars and vacation homes after opening up personal space on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. For people with itinerant lifestyles driven by mobility in jobs, such a sharing economy may end up shaking the very foundations of property rights – everyone is essentially a tenant at prevailing market rates for everything, and everyone is a target for advertisers based on their data profiles. The sense of one’s privacy and private property that diminishes as a result of these technologies could be driving non-trivial changes in crowd behaviour

Inflated asset values: Incipient asset bubbles across most markets have driven affordability from the “laughably low” levels before the Global Financial Crisis to their absurd nadirs on the back of concerted and global central bank easing.  It used to be something of an expectation that one earned and saved money while in the twenties, and got married and bought a house in the thirties. At current home prices (and lower wages) in major Anglo-Saxon economies, owning a home in London or New York depends almost entirely on the Bank – in this case, the Bank of Mum and Dad. Youth who do not have such expectations are likely to see themselves as tenants for life, driving the sharing economy whilst despising the property owning classes. A spot of communism is no bad thing, under those circumstances

Lack of jobs: Looking through the employment reports from the UK and US primarily but also elsewhere in the European Union, it appears that there are now only two types of jobs.  The first kind is entrepreneurial, Silicon Valley type of jobs with low wages and high equity payoffs in the event that one’s company gets ‘funded’. Then there is the second type of job which offers low wages and no equity upside at all – this would be otherwise referred to as ‘flipping burgers’. All the other jobs, be it in services such as banking or government or manufacturing such as in assembly and production, have simply evaporated from Western societies. On the heels of the financial crisis in Greece, observers pointed to rampant unemployment amongst the youth as a factor propelling leftist and communist political parties such as the ruling Syriza. The gradual evisceration of decent, paying jobs due to increased regulations of banks, globalization that helped move manufacturing jobs to China and other supporting factors have contributed to the current state of affairs where the average graduate doesn’t have a lot of prospects and all positions are intensely competed for

Student loans: Another factor that could be propelling the spread of communism amongst the young is the rapid increase in student loans especially in the US. Per official data, total student loan debt in the US exceeds $1.2 Trillion; this is just over 10% of the total amount due on mortgages estimated at over $11.5 Trillion, and one-third of other consumer credit balances which stand at $3.5 Trillion. I don’t know about you, but $1.2 Trillion sounds like an awful lot of money, and something that could propel people to vote for folks who promise to write-off these amounts or at least reduce aggressive enforcement practices when they cannot repay. The core issue is that a social ‘contract’ of sorts has been broken – you go to college and end up with a nice job whereas now you go to college and are addled with debt but no job with which to pay it off. This isn’t only a US problem – ever since the UK introduced higher fees for universities to cut the national subsidy, debt levels have increased amongst the very young while reducing enrolment in various liberal streams such as literature. It may be early days yet, but it seems that the UK has successfully converted yesterday’s solitary jobless leftist author to today’s mob of angry leftist engineers.

No prosecution: We shouldn’t forget the primary fuel in all this – the lack of prosecutions for bad behaviour at banks, mortgage advisors and investment funds has only helped to create broader appeal for anti-establishment candidates. Voters simply do not want to choose between different shades of beige; which is what the centrist parties were giving them in both the UK and the US. Being seen as a defender of Wall Street or the City of London is no good thing these days. Since the young have little hopes of getting a job in those places, why would they care if these establishments failed at all? Some of the loudest cheers at Bernie Sanders’ rallies for example, come when he talks about taking the battle to Wall Street. The contrast with the more measured approach favoured by (sensible) candidates is too great; but young people want blood and gore, not a Dickensian discussion about progress in a cruel world.

Missing in all this is any real discussion on how communism failed previously and why it will do so again. Value creation is a naturally disruptive process that necessitates adjustments over time. While it is true that a number of particularly disruptive technologies have crowded out employment gains and other real benefits of the established systems of the West, these may not be quite as long-lasting as is being feared by today’s youth. The bigger trouble though is that the people who should be having such discussions namely senior leaders of the political and economic establishments simply have no credibility. For this, they have no one to blame but themselves.

All of these fears could of course come to naught if some scandal or the other derailed Mr Sanders and Mr Corbyn later in their careers. That would however only open the door to the true heroes of today’s youth, such as Mr Kanye West whose hip-hop music is seen as an influential statement of the anti-establishment rhetoric; it is perhaps no happy accident that the callipygian charms of his wife Kim Kardashian help keep him and his brood in the public domain.  And as for ‘One Direction’, Anglo-Saxon economies may have already settled on theirs – down.

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