Predictions about the future are almost guaranteed to be wrong at least in one significant way. However, anticipating the future effects of current developments is not a fruitless exercise, nor is envisioning the multiple trajectories that future events can take. Thinking about how societies may change, even in the few years to come, is the best antidote against status quo bias, the idea that present conditions are somehow stable or ingrained in the natural order of things – that they are either necessarily desirable, because they exist, or inescapable for all of their flaws, because they exist.
From the standpoint of an advocate of individual liberty, free markets, and technological progress, what are the worst-case and best-case visions of the United States in the year 2020? I will present two scenarios that attempt to exclude clear extremes of low probability. On the one hand, my sketches of hypothetical futures do not involve nuclear war or a totalitarian dictatorship. On the other hand, they also do not involve complete world peace, the ideal libertarian society, or immortal human beings colonizing other galaxies. It would be far-fetched to expect events at either extreme on the continuum of desirability to unfold over a mere nine years. Instead, the scenarios I propose are closer to the 5th and 95th percentile of a hypothetical probability distribution of outcomes in terms of their friendliness to liberty, prosperity, and progress. (Yes, I know it would not really be possible to rank all outcomes somewhere along such a two-dimensional distribution, and I also do not pretend to know the shape of this simplistic distribution or the heaviness of its "tails" – but please bear with me on this one.) Neither of these scenarios is likely to be the outcome nine years from now, but the actual future will probably incorporate some elements of both scenarios, or at least their milder variants. Furthermore, I have taken the liberty of populating both scenarios with some colorful specific details which will certainly not turn out quite in the ways envisioned here – but they will, I hope, add to the appeal of this fiction.
As the future has not happened yet, we can affect things to come. For those of us who desire a freer world and numerous reforms in that direction, outlining these possibilities will also give us some benchmarks to evaluate the success or failure of our endeavors. The realistic best-case scenario is not perfect, but, if it is attained, it will be a sign of major success for advocates of freedom. The occurrence of the realistic worst-case scenario would be a sign that, clearly, some of our efforts were insufficient or misdirected.
So that I end on a high note, I will begin with my 5th-percentile worst-case scenario, thereafter following with the 95th-percentile best-case scenario. I strongly recommend that my readers look at both, lest they perceive me to be unduly biased toward either optimism or pessimism.
The 5th-Percentile Worst-Case Scenario
Despite a few sporadic, abortive months of "growth" – according to dubiously defined official statistics – the American economy never truly recovered from the financial crisis of 2008 or the malinvestments of the boom that preceded. Living standards and real earnings of most people continue a slow but noticeable downward creep, and an entire generation has grown up ceasing to expect what had been a given for all of their predecessors: that their standards of living would exceed those of their parents' generation. The "lost generation" that came out of colleges and universities in the late 2000s continues to be lost. About half of its members are financially self-sufficient, and half of those have deferred marrying and starting a family for fear of future economic insecurity. Many of the others still live with their parents and are either unemployed or have jobs at the lowest rungs of the economy. This generation has, for the first time, brought to the United States the earlier European phenomenon of mass dependency of thirty-somethings upon their extended families.
The main reason for the continued decline is the ossification of the economic structure, as the firms that were deemed "too big to fail" in 2008 continue to be treated this way today. Several of them – mostly gargantuan, politically connected financial institutions – even consolidated and managed to obtain additional subsidies to support their domination of vital financial services to consumers. Despite attempts in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act to replace bailouts with "systemic resolution authority" of large financial institutions, the safeguards in that law proved to be a dead letter as, due to the pressure of immensely influential bank lobbyists, "systemic resolution authority" in theory was interpreted by federal regulators as bailout authority in practice. The U.S. federal government engaged in two more rather sensationalized bailouts in the middle of the previous decade, predicting major economy-wide failures if trillions of dollars were not redistributed to the banking giants that continued to engage in reckless speculation, ignoring the socialized downside risk. Now, with the public generally desensitized to such gloom-and-doom rhetoric, the sudden monetary infusions of the past have simply become a slower, but continuous, inflow. Everyone knows it is happening, and anyone except the beneficiaries and the politicians feels powerless to do anything about it.
The bailed-out institutions continue to persist in their obsolete, wealth-destroying ways, perpetuating a corporate culture of reckless risk-taking on the one hand, and fear of substantive improvements on the other. This culture is extremely averse to hiring young people – or hiring anyone for that matter, and the people who already have jobs hold on to them for dear life, knowing they will not get others. So, while most young people have given up hope of self-sustaining employment, most older people continue to work well past their original expectations. Many have lost all or most of their retirement savings in the five financial-market crashes that occurred during the 2010s. While the bailed-out institutions profited massively from each such fiasco, many ordinary people were irreparably harmed by the vicissitudes of the economy-wide casino. With continued federal interventions into the economy, typically to favor the politically connected elite companies, it is becoming increasingly difficult for most other, non-privileged businesses to plan rationally, and continued artificial market disequilibria are reflected in the chaos and volatility of the financial markets.
While not having reached Weimar or Zimbabwe levels, the inflation of the past decade has been brutal, nearing 50% to 60% per year. The massive increases in the monetary base from 2008 to 2011 finally did work their way into consumer prices, one the too-big-to-fail banks decided that they no longer need to hold the Fed's gifts to them in their reserves – since they would be bailed out again anyway. The impossibility for preserving wealth through cash was a major motivator for tens of millions of people to gamble their money in the financial markets, further fueling periodic unsustainable booms in the prices of every major type of security, and the inevitable subsequent collapses and panics. A sizable fraction of Americans hold some significant portion of their wealth in gold, but private ownership of gold has again been outlawed. The War on Gold is intended by the federal government to discourage hoarding – widely trumpeted by federal politicians and their Keynesian economic apologists as the cause of the entire economic mess. Like the ongoing War on Drugs, this war has not accomplished its stated objective and has instead merely exacerbated the militarization of police and the suffering of innocents. About one in fifty American homes has at some time in the past decade been raided by SWAT teams on suspicion of either drug or gold offenses. Meanwhile, a thriving black market in gold exists, and gold is easy to obtain – provided one is willing to pay a considerable bid-ask spread and undertake the risk of dealing with the local gold gang.
In many ways, the United States of 2020 looks very much like the United States of 1980, except less free, more decayed, and on a reverse trajectory. The proliferation of electronic technology in the late 1990s and 2000s has largely ceased because electricity costs are becoming prohibitive. Most other innovations have slowed to a crawl and have largely been outpaced by infrastructural deterioration. A series of energy restrictions and mandates – pushed by the Environmental Protection Agency, Luddite environmentalist ideologues, and a visceral public fear of nuclear power – has stymied virtually all future improvements in power generation. While previously, some progress in clean energy was attempted, its advocates have largely been sidelined by a more militant, anti-technological wing of the environmentalist movement. Many older power plants still operate – although they continue to be blamed for "destroying the planet" – but no new capacity emerges to replace the plants that are retired due to old age or political pressure. All of America's nuclear plants have been decommissioned, following the lead of Germany and Italy in the early 2010s. Out of fears for the livelihood of abundantly breeding species of fish, many hydroelectric dams have been dismantled, eliminating another vital power source and returning many rivers to their primordial state of highly unpredictable, devastating flooding. Meanwhile, efforts to cultivate viable wind and solar power have failed, largely because they were driven by subsidies and grants from national governments, rather than by market forces. A few entrepreneurs tried competing in these markets, and they might have developed promising products in a free economy, but they were not the ones whom the U.S. federal government favored in the competition – so they lost to the politically connected but incompetent firms. Luddite thinkers are beginning to emerge who denounce even wind and solar power as unacceptable interference with nature. Their proposal is simply to decommission all sources of power as quickly as possible. With "public" utility service becoming ever more sporadic, some households have begun to burn wood for heat in the winter months.
The social structure of the United States is becoming increasingly stratified. It is now a given that it is "whom you know" – not "what you know" – that will get you ahead in life. It is also a given that you will probably do what at least one of your parents did for the rest of your life. That is the easiest way to acquire knowledge for a skilled trade, and all the other trades have numerous arcane barriers to entry that federal politicians and myriad lobby groups have worked for decades to establish. Notions of "rugged individualism" and "pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps" now seem as archaic as the 40-hour workweek and free carry-on luggage on airplane trips. In thinking about this situation, most people simply shrug and say, "Life's not fair; suck it up." The middle and upper-middle classes continue to shrink, and the vast majority of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small stratum of old lawyers, managers of politically connected firms, politicians, union bosses, and a handful favored intellectuals (but they must have the politically expedient ideas!). Everyone else is a cog in what is ever more explicitly becoming a centrally planned economic machine – one that sputters and explodes with increasing frequency.
Because of the individual health-insurance mandate that went into effect in 2014, health insurance has in effect become a tax paid to private institutions. Large, politically connected health insurers, now gifted by the federal government with a captive clientele, have lost any need to treat the majority of Americans as paying customers. Instead, most ordinary people pay exorbitant premiums for virtually no coverage, and the health insurers, having almost all the bargaining power, find ways to deny even officially covered benefits. In a few states, the legislatures legalized the performance of most routine medical tasks by nurses, since doctors have become unaffordable for many. This has somewhat slowed the deterioration of routine medical care, and one can go to a local nurse's clinic to obtain such services. For serious illnesses, however, life-saving care is routinely being denied, due to pervasive rationing of medical services by a combination of federal panels and health insurers. Going to a hospital for any significant treatment is now colloquially known as "going to the hospice."
Travel has become increasingly difficult. The public highways have been deteriorating under governmental monopolies and are dangerous to traverse in some places. Amtrak's monopoly over passenger train transport remains in full force, but Amtrak has increasingly been abandoning stretches of track for lack of funds or ability to maintain them, despite steeply rising passenger fares. Airport security has remained humiliating, with the Transportation Security Administration inventing ever more intrusive searches of all passengers – to show them that it can. Tens of millions of Americans have refused to fly on principle, but the rest must continue to do so for business reasons, or else they will lose the only jobs they can hope to have. But unless it is subsidized by large politically connected corporations, airplane travel has become prohibitively expensive for the average passenger – and a ticket typically only pays for "flying cattle-car" treatment in any case. Many Americans have become effectively bound to the land where they live. For most Americans, almost all non-business travel occurs within about 50 miles of their homes – and even there they are periodically subject to random searches, requiring no probable cause, by federal "homeland security" officials in conjunction with police. This is an initiative implemented in 2018, designed to "keep terrorists out of our neighborhoods."
The United States military continues to occupy Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan. Despite massive and increasing budget deficits, the administration believes such occupations to be necessary to preventing the resurgence of terrorist activity in all of these countries. Multiple guerilla movements have arisen to resist the American occupations, but most of them have nothing to do with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or any original regime that the occupations overthrew. Largely, the "militants" are upset at the indiscriminate American bombings and raids of civilian neighborhoods in ongoing "counterinsurgency" operations. Naturally, this is a conflict that feeds on itself. In 2015, the United States instituted its first military draft in 43 years, and there are now serious discussions about increasing the draft age to 35. Many politicians point out that this measure will have an added "benefit" of reducing the unemployment of all those young people who still live with their parents, while showing those cynical youngsters what sacrifice and patriotism really mean. With many soldiers' tours of duty now deferred indefinitely, and with military training budgets continually reduced (since the politicians must save money on something), serving in the military has become close to a death sentence for many.
It no longer matters which political party or which officials are in charge. The inexorable dynamic of the system is toward the exploitation of virtually the entire population by a small, entrenched, now practically dynastic power elite. The dominant public expectation is fatalistic: life will keep slowly getting worse, human nature being what it is, and the best you can hope for is to live out your days without encountering too much of the decay – or upsetting the wrong people.
What Will You Do?
With regard to such a dismal but conceivable world, the question to my readers is, "What will you do?" The question has two possible contexts. It could be, "What will you do if you one day find yourself living in such a society?" Or it could be, "What will you do to prevent our society from ever lapsing into this state?" Under the latter premise, the set of options available to you is clearly more pleasant. Perhaps, even, it involves ways of approaching the realistic best-case scenario I will explore next.
The 95th-Percentile Best-Case Scenario
After the election of Ron Paul to the Presidency in 2012, the U.S. political class saw that its game was up. Most politicians had already begun making a few concessions of their favorite interventionist schemes, recognizing that cuts at the federal level are necessary to prevent a complete fiscal collapse.
The Paul presidency was a shock to the economic and political status quo, as most of the federal "life support" to "zombie" or "vampire" financial institutions was rapidly withdrawn. The Federal Reserve's former secrecy has been ended, and public exposure of its former massive special favors to politically connected institutions has rendered such practices untenable in the foreseeable future. While still not dismantled, the central bank is winding down most of its operations. Its crucial provisional role is to sustainably elevate the U.S. monetary system to a gold standard. Getting the excess fiat money out of the system takes time, though, and meanwhile the United States is on a transitional "gold-fiat standard" – where about a quarter of the money supply is backed by gold, and every dollar can be redeemed with the Treasury for the amount of gold that would currently sell for 25 cents on the open market. This proportion is expected to increase over time as old fiat notes are retired and not replaced. Furthermore, the Federal Reserve is prohibited from purchasing U.S. debt securities and from electronically increasing the money balances of banking institutions.
The shrinking money supply is enabling a gentle deflation to take place in virtually all consumer prices, allowing savers to benefit the most. Frugality has therefore reemerged as a culturally emphasized virtue, and many aging social critics of the Baby Boomer generation have extensively expressed surprise at the conspicuous decline in "conspicuous consumption" – and the shift in emphasis by manufacturers on the functional usefulness and durability of goods. The Austrian school of economics, now the predominant paradigm, explains that a massive decrease in the prevailing rates of time preference has taken place.
Unlike prices of goods and most services, wages and salaries have not declined in either real or nominal terms because of the improved individual bargaining power that employees now have. Major economic liberalizations in the middle of the last decade have rendered many of the old politically favored corporate structures uncompetitive on a free market. Most economists now recognize that Mises's famous calculation problem applies not just to socialist economies but also to private entities that, through subsidies and political barriers to entry, have grown far larger and more cumbersome than a free market could sustain. The largest firms are now about one third the size of their counterparts one decade ago. Most of the big-name financial companies of 2010 no longer exist, each having rapidly dissolved into tens of competing subsidiaries, or else having collapsed of its own weight and had its assets acquired at fire-sale prices by entrepreneurs in the rising field of Internet finance.
The companies that exist have largely moved to a Web-based production structure, with virtually all nonphysical work being performed from home. The only jobs that require a physical commute anymore are those involving a direct component of human service. For those who do commute, driverless cars have become a safe, convenient way to do so without wasting their time in traffic. Since Nevada's legalization of driverless cars in 2011, this technology has made leaps and bounds and has now become perfected to the point of virtually eliminating road fatalities. Children growing up today wonder how anyone could have ever accepted a society where some 30,000 people died every year as a side effect of routine travel.
The revolution in business structure, and the rapid rise into economic prominence of the Millennial generation, has resulted in the shedding of many old corporate norms that were previously unquestioned, including the office, the standard workweek, and the concept of a job as a package of uniform benefits for all. Virtually all employment now is what would have been called independent contracting ten years ago. Most people no longer rely on one company, project, or work function to earn their living. Rather, they diversify their jobs much like they diversify their investments. As far as investments are concerned, the financial markets have stabilized greatly after the elimination of the majority of artificial centrally planned distortions which in the past led to speculative malinvestments and panics. Publicly traded corporations have returned to paying large dividends on stocks as the primary way of attracting loyal investors, instead of expecting everyone to simply gamble on a share's future resale price. Most people hold at least half of their wealth in cash, now an appreciating asset. Of the rest they invest about three quarters in conservative, highly de-leveraged stocks and bonds – and the remaining quarter in many of the hundreds of thousands of startup enterprises. The latter investment is more akin to microlending than conventional stock ownership, and the investor often communicates directly with the startup's management to keep track of how the company evolves.
The emerging hyperpluralized, hypertechnological economy has been a particular blessing to the young, who quickly integrated the potential of electronic technology into every aspect of the economy. Approximately 25% of the generation born between 1985 and 2000 are millionaires in 2011 dollars, and the rest lead at least decent middle-class lifestyles. This generation considers itself to have truly achieved, for the first time in history, the direct connection between merit and reward. Social networking has evolved to encompass numerous universally accepted ways to highlight one's precise business-relevant abilities – and to have one's profile be securely updated in real time with a record of one's ongoing accomplishments.
As for the older workers, retirement ages are beginning to go down for the first time in U.S. history, with the mean standing at sixty. This is despite the Social Security program's eligible retirement age being increased to seventy-five. Most people now rely on private savings and investments to retire and have chosen the Option of 2013: to leave the Social Security system altogether. Social Security, welfare, Medicare, and Medicaid continue to operate but are rapidly becoming depopulated. A full phase-out is expected by 2035, as these systems satisfactorily discharge all existing obligations and accept no new participants. By that time, it is expected that the economic structure will change enough for voluntary cooperatives and fraternal societies to provide a minimal social-safety net to the critically ill, disabled, orphaned, and senile. Meanwhile, most retirees inhabit large houses and remain physically and intellectually active. Retirement has, in some circles, become synonymous with mastering either an artistic or a technical pursuit and engaging in it out of love for the work.
In computing, biotechnology, transportation, and utility infrastructure, many observers have characterized the progress of the past decade as equivalent to that of the entire preceding fifty years. Private space flight has also taken off, and routine suborbital flights have replaced airplane travel for most passengers. A permanent experimental station has been built on the moon, funded by a consortium of private firms. There is talk of a joint venture between SpaceX and Virgin Galactic to prepare the first manned expedition to Mars.
Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has just published a book called The Singularity is Nearer, explaining that humanity has clearly progressed beyond the "bend" in the curve of exponential technological growth. Life expectancy in the United States is now comparable to that in Europe – having increased from 78 years in 2010 to 85 years in 2020. Many wonder whether it will increase by more than ten years in the next decade; this would be the "longevity escape velocity" that many futurists have been anticipating. One thing is certain, though: the cost of most medical products and services has become as cheap as that of a haircut, now that the Food and Drug Administration has been replaced by a competing market in private medical certification agencies – and that doctors licensed by the American Medical Association no longer have a legal monopoly on most healthcare services. Health insurance plays a greatly diminished role, too, since general healthcare costs have declined massively as a result of advancements in mass-manufactured medical technology and the loosening of drug-patent laws. Furthermore, since the Supreme Court overturned the individual health-insurance mandate in 2012, while keeping the rest of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act intact, health insurers found themselves no longer able to offer attractive products to consumers, who canceled their health insurance in droves due to continually escalating premiums. Most health-insurance plans today offer cheap catastrophic protection, with deductibles starting at the equivalent of $100,000 in 2011. Health care rarely costs that much anymore in any case, since cheap electronic technology has made even advanced surgical procedures routine and reliable. As an added bonus, health care is no longer tied to employment – a development that has contributed to greater employee bargaining power and upward economic mobility.
Virtually all energy is now renewable. Electricity is largely provided by the next generation of ultra-safe miniature nuclear reactors. Along with being driverless, cars are electric and similar in durability to the Tesla Roadster of the late 2000s. New homes are built with abilities to recycle water and conserve large amounts of heat through insulation. At the same time, the functionality and reliability of all appliances has expanded dramatically. All of this has happened largely not out of a concern for the environment, but due to the profit motive of emerging entrepreneurs who drove down the costs of producing virtually everything. Indeed, most people can now afford to manufacture a wide variety of small-to-medium-sized tools and appliances via tabletop 3D printers. The concern with frugality and saving also helped inspire a non-environmentalist, largely non-political conservation movement. While it could be called Green in a different sense, the color of choice for this movement is Gold – as it also tends to advocate for a more rapid transition to a 100% gold standard. Still, virtually all measures of environmental quality have been improving considerably. Water and air are now cleaner, and, due to increased private ownership and prudent management of land, no endangered species have become extinct for at least six years.
The United States is no longer a world power politically, as the Paul administration has consistently practiced a foreign policy of non-interventionism. President Paul withdraw all United States troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya within a month of taking office. Within another five months, the entire American military presence on foreign soil was eliminated. Massive budget savings and a precipitous decline in acts of terrorism against Americans ensued. This, combined with an escalation of Arab Spring revolutions, rapidly fueled a new Age of Enlightenment in the Middle East, which looks today like a politically freer version of Dubai might have looked in 2011. Islamic fundamentalism is seen as an ideological backwater by most Muslims, who have followed the lead of liberal Turkish scholars in developing a more humane interpretation of their religious texts.
While it is not the world's policeman anymore – and does not even have a membership in NATO, the United Nations, or even one entangling alliance – the United States has become an economic model for the rest of the world to emulate. Bloodless revolutions in China, Cuba, and Venezuela – along with a coup d'etat in North Korea – have led to freedom-oriented governments that seek, above all, to forge trade relations with the West and to encourage international travel and cultural exchange. Most global trade is now free and unregulated, and the only tariffs that exist are for the purpose of raising government revenue. The U.S. tax rate has also declined. The personal income tax and its burdensome reporting have been eliminated, and most federal revenues are in the form of a small sales tax, non-protectionist tariffs, and interest on the growing federal surplus.
There certainly remain numerous salient problems. For instance, the online educational revolution has led to massive increases in home-schooling, leading many public schools to the verge of shutdown for lack of pupils. Most communities are faced with the difficult question of what to do with immense, almost deserted school buildings that cost millions of dollars per year to maintain. Large economic restructuring due to liberalization has resulted in a lot of "dead capital" over the past decade, as many older buildings and means of production were simply abandoned as obsolete, replaced by rapidly emerging cheaper and more convenient substitutes. Despite improved recycling, the problem of waste as a side effect of production remains challenging. But many expect the market to resolve these issues in interesting and creative ways.
Term limits and advanced age prevent President Paul from continuing in office beyond January 2021. The outcome of the 2020 election – a contest of fifteen independent candidates of roughly equivalent public support – is anyone's guess. But it no longer matters which political party or which officials are in charge. The inexorable dynamic of the system is toward the rapid improvement of living standards for all. The dominant public expectation is melioristic: life will rapidly improve, and it does not matter so much where you began – since tomorrow will be better than today. Your most exciting hope, however, is that you will preserve yourself to experience the even more amazing events to come.
What Will You Do?
Really, what will you do?