The worst tweet of the year & Britain's economic woes
In which I argue that Britain’s economic woes stem at least in part from its mentality
In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp’s intended three-week visit at a sanatorium in the Alps stretches into seven years. Like many patients there, he suffered from tuberculosis1, also known as consumption. This latter name, deriving from the Latin "consumere," meaning "to use up" or "to waste," describes the disease's insidious nature, as it ravages the body from within, not with the abrupt ferocity of ailments like cancer, but with a gradual, erosive force. Tuberculosis, in its unhurried progression and due to the ghostly pallor it imparts to those it afflicts, held a romantic, almost nostalgic allure. This peculiar charm and the malady's debilitating course have made it into an inspiration for numerous literary works, including La Dame aux Camellias and Molloy, among others.
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Mann's "The Magic Mountain" is unique in capturing the temporal stasis experienced by the sanatorium's residents. Here, time appears suspended, with the patients ensconced in a seemingly idyllic retreat, detached from the external world's relentless march. Yet, within this sequestered haven, they witness the inexorable passage of their prime years, their lives wasting away silently before them.
I arrived in Britain 7 years ago, in October 2016. Before Brexit. If we are talking about Britain’s economic performance on measures like wage growth, productivity etc2, it could have just been 3 weeks.
The United Kingdom, much like the patients of Mann's sanatorium, watches life unfold, seemingly powerless to alter its course, consumed from the inside. It’s all still elegant, proper and nice: UK has a Royal Family to remind them of the good old times. There are numerous other signs of a glorious past: just walking along the streets of Cambridge and Oxford reminds one of that. Go to a Formal Dinner in one of the colleges in these institutions and you’ll see Fellows taking themselves very seriously and reminding everyone of the past glory through countless little rituals that have been preserved through centuries. But peel that sheen away, and the rot is showing: trains do not arrive in time, houses are getting old and you cannot build new ones because of weird regulations, wages are stagnating and so on. Britain, captured by the comfortable illusion of its past, seems to observe the world's relentless march from afar, reluctant to emerge from the cocoon of inaction. In stark contrast, one observes the trajectory of the United States, a nation charting a different course.
There have been many pieces written on UK’s economic stagnation and people have identified a bunch of material reasons for it: from an ageing population, to limited housing supply. But if you believe at all in the power of the zeitgeist, I’m here to offer another (complementary) diagnosis for what is happening now. The spirit of stagnation is in the air.
When I first arrived in Oxford, I was surprised by how many of my (well off) colleagues’ parents were retired in their 50s. There is much less of the hunger for success seen in young Americans: it seems the dream here is in many ways to retreat to a cozy life in your middle age, living off some property investments.
And here we turn to the worst tweet of the year, promised in the title of the piece:
Lee Anderson is a Conservative MP and his tweet captures everything that’s wrong the British zeitgeist. The centre right party in UK celebrates not the possibility of achievement, but rather getting by on a stagnant and insufficient median wage by saving and not complaining. The highest virtue the youth can attain is not bothering the older rent seekers.
Unlike their more rambunctious neighbors (the French), the Brits have a “stiff upper lip”- they do not complain and do not show too much emotion. That would be improper. An admirable trait in many ways. But this too has been weaponised against the younger generation, which has been convinced that living in a sort of state of submission is somehow desirable.
it’s a bit more complicated since we do not know for sure if he actually does suffer from it or been misdiagnosed
John Burn Murdoch from the FT is a great source of a lot of plots that show how bad the last decade has been for the UK. A lot of random things are just stagnating or getting worse