The Culture of Cope
In December, the Nemesis consultancy published “Max Pain: A Recent History,” a memo that builds upon their early-2020 missive, “The Umami Theory of Value.” Together, the two pieces bookend the pandemic and the cultural turbulence that it encompassed—a period that increasingly seems like a transitional phase from the 2010s ZIRP era to whatever comes next.
“Umami” was an “elegy for the experience economy and the excesses of the preceding decade,” which were still alive and well at the time of its publication; “Max Pain” is a reflection on how that excess-fueled economy actually fell apart:
“Starting in the summer of 2020 and peaking in late 2021, various factors conspired to create an economy gone wild: direct-check COVID relief, money printer gone brrrrr, a crypto bull market, and a global population stuck in front of their screens. Instead of the Umami Era disintegrating into pure, gritty dystopia, we saw incredible returns on incredibly random things. Taking seemingly ridiculous risks became a smart thing to do. We call this era Clown Town.”
As the above paragraph affirms, this cultural climate lies downstream of economic conditions. The authors describe how the already-weak correlation between effort and compensation dissolved further as speculative returns surged and traditional notions of value were debased beyond recognition. As the GameStop/AMC meme stock phenomenon of early 2021 transformed into the NFT mania that would characterize the rest of that year, it became clear that the Clown Town economy required a new type of person, willing to embrace risk and daring to be dumb in order to seize the opportunities presented by a meme-mediated reality. This was “a rational response to seeing absurd and/or conventionally shitty ideas have outsized success” (that risk, of course, was largely experienced as upside—until it wasn’t).
The essay articulates an essential dilemma of post-pandemic culture: