In his new book, The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen argues that Americans have gotten too comfortable.
In The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, Tyler Cowen argues that more Americans are living comfortably and contently with what life has handed them. By sheltering ourselves from the new and different, it’s hard to see what is lost by standing still. But if you look at the data, we’re seeing a shift in the fabric of American society — from losses in new startups and economic growth to more instances of segregation and inequality. It’s not too late to change course and re-embrace the restlessness that has long defined America.
Cowen built a quiz that you can take to see if you are, in his eyes, too comfortable with your life. The quiz is composed of 27 questions like “In the last 10 years, how many states have you lived in?” and “Have you lived in a neighborhood for at least a year where you were the racial minority?” The quiz has four possible outcomes:
Tier 1: You are a trailblazer — You do not accept the status quo as the best outcome in life. Your ambitions will help America get out of its rut.
Tier 2: You are a striver — You embrace newness, but you need to strive harder to break the mold.
Tier 3: You are comfortable — You are interested in trying new things but not enough to create real change.
Tier 4: You are complacent — You need to get off the couch, step outside, and see what you’re missing.
I took the quiz and got “comfortable”, which seems fair enough, given the questions. I think part of that result is being introverted and part of it is family considerations that take precedence in my life over adventure and risk-taking. I wouldn’t ever call myself a “trailblazer” but I don’t know anyone who runs their own business who would consider that situation “comfortable”. “Terrifying on a daily basis” maybe.
Tyler Cowen’s new book, The Complacent Class, comes out today. In it, he argues that as a society, Americans have stopped taking risks, are too comfortable, and rely too heavily on incremental improvements of existing goods & ideas, which has resulted in a stagnation of our culture and economy. This video by Cowen is a good introduction to what he means by that.
After about the 1970s, innovation on this scale slowed down. Computers and communication have been the focus. What we’ve seen more recently has been mostly incremental improvements, with the large exception of smart phones.
This means that we’ve experienced a ton of changes in our virtual world, but surprisingly few in our physical world. For example, travel hasn’t much improved and, in some cases, has even slowed down. The planes we’re primarily using? They were designed half a century ago.
Since the 1960s, our culture has gotten less restless, too. It’s become more bureaucratic. The sixties and seventies ushered in a wave of protests and civil disobedience. But today, people hire protests planners and file for permits. The demands for change are tamer compared to their mid-century counterparts.
Time published an excerpt of the book last week:
Americans traditionally have thought of themselves as the great movers, and indeed that was true in the nineteenth century and even through most of the twentieth. But since the 1980s, Americans have become much less restless in movements across the country, and more people are looking to simply settle down and entrench themselves.
Here is this change in a single number: The interstate migration rate has fallen 51 percent below its 1948-1971 average, and that number has been falling steadily since the mid-1980s. Or, if we look at the rate of moving between counties within a state, it fell 31 percent. The rate of moving within a county fell 38 percent. Those are pretty steep drops for a country that has not changed its fundamental economic or political systems. You might think that information technology (IT) would make it easier to find a job on the other side of the country, and maybe it has, but that has not been the dominant effect. If anything, Americans have used the dynamism of IT to help ourselves stay put, not to move around.
And in a recent piece in the NY Times that mentions Cowen’s book, David Brooks references a piece by Nicholas Eberstadt called Our Miserable 21st Century:
That means there’s an army of Americans semi-attached to their communities, who struggle to contribute, to realize their capacities and find their dignity. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics time-use studies, these labor force dropouts spend on average 2,000 hours a year watching some screen. That’s about the number of hours that usually go to a full-time job.
Fifty-seven percent of white males who have dropped out get by on some form of government disability check. About half of the men who have dropped out take pain medication on a daily basis. A survey in Ohio found that over one three-month period, 11 percent of Ohioans were prescribed opiates. One in eight American men now has a felony conviction on his record.
If you need a chaser, consider this from the introductory chapter of Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (which I’m currently reading):
For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.
The Complacent Class is a forthcoming book by Tyler Cowen.
Since Alexis de Tocqueville, restlessness has been accepted as a signature American trait. Our willingness to move, take risks, and adapt to change have produced a dynamic economy and a tradition of innovation from Ben Franklin to Steve Jobs.
The problem, according to legendary blogger, economist and bestselling author Tyler Cowen, is that Americans today have broken from this tradition — we’re working harder than ever to avoid change. We’re moving residences less, marrying people more like ourselves and choosing our music and our mates based on algorithms that wall us off from anything that might be too new or too different. Match.com matches us in love. Spotify and Pandora match us in music. Facebook matches us to just about everything else.
Of course, this “matching culture” brings tremendous positives: music we like, partners who make us happy, neighbors who want the same things. We’re more comfortable. But, according to Cowen, there are significant collateral downsides attending this comfort, among them heightened inequality and segregation and decreased incentives to innovate and create.
Cowen is also releasing another book called Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.
In that work, I outline a true and objectively valid case for a free and prosperous society, and consider the importance of economic growth for political philosophy, how and why the political spectrum should be reconfigured, how we should think about existential risk, what is right and wrong in Parfit and Nozick and Singer and effective altruism, how to get around the Arrow Impossibility Theorem, to what extent individual rights can be absolute, how much to discount the future, when redistribution is justified, whether we must be agnostic about the distant future, and most of all why we need to “think big.”
It is only available by emailing him that you’ve pre-ordered The Complacent Class. Oh, and a reminder about how I (try to) read books.