Bethany McLean is an author and contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
To be complacent is to have “smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one’s achievements,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Tyler Cowen believes that as Americans we have become complacent about the way things are, and that’s a risk to our country’s future. “Most Americans don’t like change very much, unless it is on terms that they manage and control,” he writes in his provocative, yet in some ways unsatisfying, new book, “The Complacent Class,” “and they now have the resources and technology to manage their lives on this basis more and more, to the country’s long run collective detriment.”
The complaceny that Cowen detects affects America’s ability to solve its many problems. In his most compelling chapter, on political stagnation — the single reason to read this book — Cowen points out that only about 10 percent of the country’s budget today hasn’t effectively already been spent, because it’s committed to existing programs or will be consumed by interest payments on our debt, vs. about two-thirds of the budget back in the 1960s. That leaves us with limited flexibility to adapt to a rapidly changing world — a flexibility that will only decrease further as interest payments on our debt rise.
“At the end of the day, there is a complacency about this issue, because in the meantime life in the United States just doesn’t seem that bad,” Cowen writes. “And so we pile up more and more issues of this kind, namely ones not requiring resolution right now. The end result is likely to be that we lose our capacity to resolve them at all.”
Cowen also points out some highly counterintuitive facts. Such as: The rate of business start-ups has been declining since the 1980s. This is true despite Silicon Valley’s much-lauded successes. In fact, Cowen says, “even when it comes to the information and related high tech sectors, the growth in dynamism, as measured by the creation and growth of new firms, stops at about the year 2000 and then declines.” He argues that this leads to increased market concentration and a corresponding lack of innovation. You might quibble with his choice of Google as an example of a company that has “ascended the mountain” and now plays it safe, given that Google has created an entirely new corporate structure just to enable disruption, but if you don’t get nitpicky, the point is an interesting one.
Cowen can be an original and provocative thinker, such as when he describes how the new dress code of casual individualism, which is part of what he calls “countersignaling,” might actually be more oppressive than the old code of Organization Man in his suit and tie. “Countersignaling is when you go out of your way to show you don’t need to go out of your way,” he writes. But this is a harder code for people who weren’t raised in it to master, which might not be accidental. As a result, Cowen writes, “Don’t be fooled — this new form of status seeking is no less oppressive than older practices, and in some ways it is less conducive to upward mobility. The problem is this: if everything is casual, what exactly do you do to show your seriousness?”
More: He points out that segregation is growing, even if the reason isn’t overt racism. In the South, the percentage of black students in majority-white schools peaked in 1988 at 43.5 percent and is now at 23.2 percent, lower than the integration level in 1968, “a time when civil rights battles were close to their peak activity.” He says that the most heavily segregated cities across education, social class and sometimes race tend to be the “high-tech, knowledge-based metros.” In other words, we cluster together with like-minded people of similar backgrounds, creating a world that is far more exclusive than it is inclusive, and then pride ourselves on our moral superiority over those in the hinterlands. (Welcome to the bubble!) It’s not clear whether this is happening because we are complacent or whether it is causing us to become complacent. But, Cowen argues, it all has an economic cost. “If it were cheaper to move into America’s higher productivity cities, the U.S. gross domestic product would be 9.5 percent higher due to the gains from better jobs.”
As fascinating as Cowen’s analysis can be, his grand thesis is ultimately unconvincing. I had a hard time understanding who exactly composes the complacent class. Initially, Cowen argues that the entire country — from “the privileged class” to “those who dig in” to “those who get stuck” — is complacent, that despite the huge divisions of race and income in America, we are all “more or less OK with this division of the spoils.” Can this be right? I wanted Cowen to offer some evidence, but I was hard-pressed to find it other than in Cowen’s assertions. Throughout the book, he redefines who it is he’s calling complacent. At one point, he calls millenials the “most committed ideological carriers” of complacency, but at another point, the complacent class are those who benefited from the Reagan revolution. Then, the complacent class is “very often . . . the most vociferous advocates for greater discretionary spending from government,” which makes you think he’s talking about wealthy liberals. But later, Cowen equates the complacent class with Trump voters, writing that “it is no accident that Donald Trump came from a very wealthy family, and we can expect further ‘rebellion into a vacuum’ from the privileged class in the years to come.”
Partly because Cowen isn’t clear as to who the complacent class is, it’s also not always clear that his data supports his thesis. For instance, he points out that we just aren’t moving that much anymore. He notes that the interstate migration rate has fallen 51 percent below its 1948 to 1971 average and has been falling steadily since the mid-1980s. This is a well-covered and important phenomenon. But the overall statistics Cowen cites reflect all of America. Does this mean that all of America is complacent? Well, not necessarily: Cowen also cites data showing that “African Americans today have become especially immobile, and to an unprecedented degree.” Are they really smug? Or are they just stuck? To put this differently, maybe immobility and complacency are correlated. But Cowen doesn’t show that, let alone demonstrate any kind of causal relationship. (In fact, it’s possible that those who are most likely to be complacent are also most likely to be highly mobile, at least if mobility consists of moving to or between New York and San Francisco.)
Even Cowen is unsure about the other part of his argument, which is that whatever it is he’s calling complacency is a bad thing. For instance, he contends that technology-enabled “matching,” whether to life partners, music, travel, jobs or connections, is the “new grand project of our time.” In his thesis, this is bad, because it is making life more bland, and enforcing an unwritten code of segregation in our personal lives and in the workplace by enabling people and employers to find suitable prospects more readily. He writes, “The great adventures of life, the surprise of strangers, of strangeness, of the electric and eclectic moments of happenstance, and also of extreme ambition, are slowly being removed by code as a path to a new contentment.”
But then again, Cowen points out that in the old world, “over a third of urban Americans married people who lived within five blocks.” So does online dating decrease the potential for the “surprise of strangers” in our lives — or increase it? Indeed, he writes that there’s also a case to be made that matching “truly is beneficial.” While matching may lead to segregation of a sort, Cowen points out that “the tighter that segregation for worker quality evolves, the more corporations will ignore a lot of other dimensions of traditional discrimination, such as race and gender.” (Which might be wishful thinking, but it’s his argument.) If the takeaway is still supposed to be that matching is bad, Cowen added to my confusion by ending the section with this statement: “What you will not find so easily — in successful firms — is large numbers of slacking, untalented, destructive people who infest the prevailing corporate culture with ideas and practices of their own.” Okay, then!
Near the end, Cowen talks about how the idea for this book came about because of the time he’s spent in another country whose economy is much closer to his ideal. Get ready: It’s . . . China! “China has a culture of ambition and dynamism and a pace of change that hearken back to a much earlier America,” he writes. It’s an observation that feels cliched at this point. And given that China is now confronting its own problems of slowing growth and immense debt — oh, and human rights — the pros and cons of life in America vs. life in China would seem to be a bit more nuanced than Cowen expresses.
In the end, his point might be that some of us are complacent about certain aspects of life, and while there might be some benefits to this, there are also dangers lurking. Which makes for a book that accomplishes the laudable goal of making you think, if not one that delivers on its title.
By Tyler Cowen
St. Martin’s. 241 pp. $28.99