The Complacent Class | Tyler Cowen | 2017 | 241 pages
In his latest book, economist Tyler Cowen of the indispensable Marginal Revolution blog [bookmark it] advances a compelling- and alarming- idea that Americans, on the tail end of an epochal accumulation of wealth and prosperity and facing enormous disruptive challenges in coming decades, are woefully undermotivated to deal with it all.
Cowen argues that the restlessness of Americans obsessed with improving their lot, famously chronicled by Alexis de Tocqueville, has eroded into a sort of social stasis that threatens to intensify the structural challenges America faces in the next century. Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University and prolific writer, finds an America in which people are much less geographically mobile, less risk-tolerant, and more prone to ‘matching’- utilizing technology to align with others of the same interests, income level, race, etc. in everything from homebuying to music choice to dating.
Cowen comes back time and again to the theory of dynamism- that expanding societies in which social and economic conditions march forward are the product of a restless, innovative and risk-tolerant citizenry. “[They] never stop thinking of the good things they have not got.”- de Tocqueville. He argues that today, following decades of prosperity, dynamism is critically absent in American life.
We are not innovating and improving at the rate at which we think we are. For example, despite a widespread narrative about expanding entrepreneurialism in America, the founding of start-up businesses here has in fact declined since 2000. Or, Cowen suggests, look at higher education. The list of top universities in America is essentially the same as it was 100 years ago, with very few top tier entrants since 1910.
The character of Rustin Cohle from HBO series True Detective famously says "Time is a flat circle. Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again- forever." This is actually derived from Nietzsche's Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, a concept that the universe and energy has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space. Rather dour. But Cowen represents in the final pages of Class a cyclical interpretation of history and the future seemingly aligned with Nietzche- that periods of relative stability and prosperity throughout history have sown the seeds of conflict and instability to come. Stability, then, breeds volatility, and vice versa, something Nassim Taleb and Gregory F. Treverton argued in 2015 [Cowen cites the paper].
Cowen is so convicted in his [convincing] view of a cyclical global stability/volatility cycle, he chooses to bold the text of his conclusive sentence: “The biggest story of the last fifteen years, both nationally and globally, is the growing likelihood that a cyclical model of history will be a better predictor than a model of ongoing progress.”
We are in for a generationally challenging social and economic cycle, it seems. Better read up.