Whether you believe the “libertarian moment has finally arrived” or not, there’s no question that 2014 was a watershed for the decentralization of all sorts of cultural, economic, and political power. Thanks to technology that empowers individuals (think Twitter, Uber, cellphone cameras) and the continuing breakdown of all sorts of gatekeeper institutions (social, political, religious), more and more people in the United States and around the globe are ready, willing, and able to try and call their own shots.
That’s profoundly liberating and anxiety-inducing all at the same time. Some of the outcomes will be unambiguously good, some bad, and most will be a mixture of both. But this new world isn’t going away any time soon.
Here are five trends that grew in 2014 and will continue to gain steam this year—and through the rest of the decade.
1. The end of America as a destination country
Americans have always taken for granted that everyone in the world wants to move here–that’s one of the reasons some people are worried about opening the borders. We’ll be overrun!
Yeah, not so much. Illegal immigration to the United States peaked in 2007 and legal immigration peaked even sooner, in 2006. Part of the reason for the decline is our persistently rotten economy and part of it is our stupid business climate (see below). But a big part of it is that other countries offer better chances for growth and opportunity for migrants and natives alike.
For instance, India and China, the world’s two most populous countries, have higher economic growth rates than the United States. Hard-working individuals have more places than ever from which to choose.
2. The end of America as a business destination
China has surpassed the United States as the planet’s largest economy and Burger King shipped its corporate headquarters to Canada. The two actions aren’t directly connected but each points to ways in which the U.S. is being dethroned as the center of the universe (if it ever was to anyone but Americans).
Burger King didn’t move from Miami to the Great White North because it likes snow all of a sudden. It did so to save millions in taxes. The U.S. corporate tax code and related regulations (many stemming from Sarbanes-Oxley, the Bush-era rules passed in the wake of Enron’s collapse) make it easier and smarter for investors to start companies elsewhere or move all or part of their business. Despite widespread agreement among many Republicans and Democrats in the federal government, there’s no reason to believe that any meaningful reform will take place any time soon.
3. Cheap and abundant energy changes everything
Massively proliferating energy from fracking, shale oil, improved green technologies, and other sources makes everything cheaper for everyone in the world. The price of a barrel of oil has dropped 40 percent since June and has been on the skids for five years.
Beyond savings that can be directed to other economic activities, the drop if energy costs also means that tyrannical countries ranging from Russia to Venezuela to Saudi Arabia have less clout on the world stage. The oil cartel OPEC controls about 40 percent of world production but it’s facing increasing difficulty in keeping its member states in line. The United States had long been OPEC’s biggest customer, which meant that we had to deal gingerly with Saudi Arabia and other Middle-Eastern producers, especially when it came to foreign policy.
With the U.S. producing more of its own energy than was even conceivable a few years ago, China and Asia more broadly is rapidly becoming OPEC’s top customer. Which means that world politics—the decline in oil prices is hamstringing Vladimir Putin in Russia—are going through a major restructuring.
4. Cultural elites take it on the chin
It hasn’t been a good year for cultural elites. In November, the once-beloved comedian Bill Cosby took to Twitter and asked fans to contribute “#cosbymemes.” The feed was immediately filled with images mocking him and calling attention to a growing number of rape accusations. The auteur behind HBO’s Girls, Lena Dunham, published a memoir in which she wrote about being the victim of sexual assault and offering her little sister “three pieces of candy if I could kiss her on the lips for five seconds.” A commentary by Kevin Williamson of National Review led to a negative reaction that forced Dunham (and even her sister) to engage in a Twitter exchange and to cancel planned appearances.
This sort of thing didn’t happen as easily in the past, when it was harder for everyday people or even members of the media, to speak directly to top-line stars and personalities. The Sony hack, in which unknown perpetrators released terabytes of emails, documents, and even movies, takes it all to a new level. It’s a very different world—filled with very different conversations—when the audience can speak back to whomever it wants.
5. The death of brand loyalty, especially in politics
It seems like only yesterday that everyone agreed the GOP was finished because it had no way of appealing to younger voters and minorities, who would always and everywhere vote Democratic. “For Republicans, Just Doing the Math is Frightening,” read one typical story’s headline.
All it took to dispel that truism was a few years with Democrats calling the shots and reneging on implicit and explicit promises to safeguard civil liberties, not invade random countries, or screw up the economy more than the GOP under George W. Bush. Now the question is “Are Democrats Losing the Youth Vote?” The short answer is that while younger voters aren’t exactly giving bear hugs to Republicans, they have cooled considerably on Democrats over the past several elections. Latinos voted two-to-one for Democrats but also “shifted Republican in key races.”
Although the Republicans won the midterms in a landslide—taking the Senate, increasing its lead in the House of Representatives, and controlling more seats at the state level than ever—there’s every reason to believe that all it will take to see another shift is a couple of years of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner in power.
Which is the point: Brand loyalty is dead in most consumer products—does anyone still come from a Chevrolet or Ford or even Mercedes family?—and it’s shot in politics too. Trust in government and politics, which is at historically low levels, has led to rapid swings in control of Congress and shrinking affiliation with either the Democrats or Republicans. That’s another trend that shows no sign of slowing down in 2015 and beyond.
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