‘Millennials fear surveillance institutions such as Google and Facebook — but also see them as tempting employers’
When Edward Snowden agreed to speak at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University by video link from Moscow last month, students snapped up the 500 places in the amphitheatre in three minutes. There were 7,000 people on the waiting list. “We’d never seen that before,” says Patrick Weil, a French political scientist who is on Snowden’s legal team.
I got in as a journalist. The instant Snowden’s face appears on screen, the hall erupts in applause and whistles. Crowds have gathered outside the door. Today’s conversation is poignant: Snowden would love to be living in Paris among us, but France won’t give him asylum.
In 2013, as a 29-year-old contractor at the US’s National Security Agency, Snowden revealed the extent of his government’s mass surveillance. He fled abroad and ended up in Moscow when the US cancelled his passport. Since then, despite dropping out of the news, he has become a hero — especially to younger people.
He has 3.9 million Twitter followers. About 80 per cent of French, German and Italian adults view him positively, as do most Americans under 35, reports the American Civil Liberties Union. He is the fourth most popular person among British millennials, after Michelle Obama, Pope Francis and Malala Yousafzai, according to pollsters YouGov. The cult of Snowden reveals a lot about millennial world views.
Even apart from his bizarre circumstances, Snowden has star quality: a stylish blond quiff, fine beard, total fluency in complete sentences, and high-status tech savvy. Then there’s his martyr’s story: exile after sacrificing his wellbeing for the cause of truth. If he hadn’t fled, he reminds us, “I would have one of the longest sentences in the history of criminal justice.”
Tellingly, the top eight heroes of British millennials, as measured by YouGov, include two other spillers of official secrets: WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, and the former US soldier turned whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Like Snowden, they appeal to a generation that has spent its life under technological surveillance by governments, tech companies and even parents. Anne Longfield, England’s children’s commissioner, has calculated that by the time the average child is 18, 70,000 posts about them will have appeared online, starting with ultrasound pictures from the womb.
It’s now common for university students to be tracked electronically by their parents, who can often access their children’s messages and online activity, notes US author Dave Eggers. Snowden tells the Parisian students: “The idea of an unconsidered thought, a youthful indiscretion, a forgotten mistake — these are things that no longer exist.”
A generation ago, he says, it took teams of officers just to establish one person’s location; now, a single officer can track “large numbers of people”. Snowden concludes: “Institutions have never been more powerful in human history.” Millennials fear these surveillance institutions — but also see them as tempting employers. Surveillance, after all, seems to be the thing that governments and corporates now do best. Snowden embodies this millennial ambivalence. Before he went rogue, he repeatedly took jobs with almighty institutions: the US army during the Iraq war, the CIA, the NSA.
The students at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University face similar career choices. During question-time, a woman doing an MA in “new-technology law” tells Snowden that she and her peers keep “being offered great opportunities by companies like Google, Facebook, et cetera”. The pay and the intellectual challenge are alluring. What should they do?
On screen, Snowden nods sympathetically. He says he struggled with the same question at the CIA and the NSA: “Is it better to be outside the organisation, without any power to change, or to try to reform it from within? But this is what I want you to remember: sometimes institutions are better at reforming the people they hire, than the people they hire are at reforming them. This was the case at the CIA, this was the case at NSA, at Google, at Facebook.
“If you do have values before you go in, you should write them down. And if you find something that feels wrong, smells wrong, looks wrong, and you are waiting for somebody to do something about it, I want you to remember: you are the person you are waiting for. We are never more than a single decision away from doing something. If I had the chance to do it again, I would, and I would do it sooner. I didn’t save the world, but I made it better.”
To Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days, Snowden’s decision to “do something” makes him the quintessential millennial employee: he chose his personal values over his employer. And, as the symbol of a generation short on workplace power, he used the junior employee’s quintessential weapon: the leak.
Snowden leaves his audience with a final thought: “When my family come to visit, they always say to me, ‘Stay safe.’ I appreciate it, I love it. [But] when we say goodbye tonight, we say, ‘Stay free.’ ” The students whoop. Yet as they troop down the stairs into the Parisian night, where Snowden wishes he could follow them, almost every one of them has already whipped out a smartphone.
Federal Reserve’s bid to stave off depression sowed the seeds of a generational revolt
Is Ben Bernanke the father of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Not in the literal sense, obviously, but in the philosophical and political sense.
As we mark the 10th anniversary of the bull market, it is worth considering whether the efforts of the US Federal Reserve, under Mr Bernanke’s leadership, to avoid 1930s-style debt deflation ended up spawning a new generation of socialists, such as the freshman Congresswoman Ms Ocasio-Cortez, in the home of global capitalism.
Mr Bernanke’s unorthodox “cash for trash” scheme, otherwise known as quantitative easing, drove up asset prices and bailed out baby boomers at the profound political cost of pricing out millennials from that most divisive of asset markets, property. This has left the former comfortable, but the latter with a fragile stake in the society they are supposed to build.
As we look towards the 2020 US presidential election, could Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s leftwing politics become the anthem of choice for America’s millennials?
But before we look forward, it is worth going back a bit. The 2008 crash itself didn’t destroy wealth, but rather revealed how much wealth had already been destroyed by poor decisions taken in the boom. This underscored the truism that the worst of investments are often taken in the best of times.
Mr Bernanke, a keen student of the 1930s, understood that a “balance sheet recession” must be combated by reflating assets. By exchanging old bad loans on the banks’ balance sheets with good new money, underpinned by negative interest rates, the Fed drove asset prices skywards. Higher valuations fixed balance sheets and ultimately coaxed more spending and investment. However, such “hyper-trickle-down” economics also meant that wealth inequality was not the unintended consequence, but the objective, of policy.
Soaring asset prices, particularly property prices, drive a wedge between those who depend on wages for their income and those who depend on rents and dividends. This wages versus rents-and-dividends game plays out generationally, because the young tend to be asset-poor and the old and the middle-aged tend to be asset-rich. Unorthodox monetary policy, therefore, penalises the young and subsidises the old.
When asset prices rise much faster than wages, the average person falls further behind. Their stake in society weakens. The faster this new asset-fuelled economy grows, the greater the gap between the insiders with a stake and outsiders without. This threatens a social contract based on the notion that the faster the economy grows, the better off everyone becomes.
What then? Well, politics shifts.
Notwithstanding the observation often attributed to Winston Churchill about a 20-year-old who isn’t a socialist not having a heart, and a 40-year-old who isn’t a capitalist having no head, polling indicates a significant shift in attitudes compared with prior generations.
According to the Pew Research Center, American millennials (defined as those born between 1981 and 1996) are the only generation in which a majority (57 per cent) hold “mostly/consistently liberal” political views, with a mere 12 per cent holding more conservative beliefs.
Fifty-eight per cent of millennials express a clear preference for big government. Seventy-nine per cent of millennials believe immigrants strengthen the US, compared to just 56 per cent of baby boomers. On foreign policy, millennials (77 per cent) are far more likely than boomers (52 per cent) to believe that peace is best ensured by good diplomacy rather than military strength. Sixty-seven per cent want the state to provide universal healthcare, and 57 per cent want higher public spending and the provision of more public services, compared with 43 per cent of baby boomers. Sixty-six per cent of millennials believe that the system unfairly favours powerful interests.
One battle ground for the new politics is the urban property market. While average hourly earnings have risen in the US by just 22 per cent over the past 9 years, property prices have surged across US metropolitan areas. Prices have risen by 34 per cent in Boston, 55 per cent in Houston, 67 per cent in Los Angeles and a whopping 96 per cent in San Francisco. The young are locked out.
Similar developments in the UK have produced comparable political generational divides. If only the votes of the under-25s were counted in the last UK general election, not a single Conservative would have won a seat.
Ten years ago, faced with the real prospect of another Great Depression, Mr Bernanke launched QE to avoid mass default. Implicitly, he was underwriting the wealth of his own generation, the baby boomers. Now the division of that wealth has become a key battleground for the next election with people such as Ms Ocasio-Cortez arguing that very high incomes should be taxed at 70 per cent.
For the purist, capitalism without default is a bit like Catholicism without hell. But we have confession for a reason. Everyone needs absolution. QE was capitalism’s confessional. But what if the day of reckoning was only postponed? What if a policy designed to protect the balance sheets of the wealthy has unleashed forces that may lead to the mass appropriation of those assets in the years ahead?
The writer is an economist, author and broadcaster