Tyler Cowen’s *The Complacent Class*

Reading The Complacent Class, by Tyler Cowen, reminded me of a few questions I’ve puzzled over for the last few years:

  • American colleges like to proclaim that they teach critical thinking skills: Not what to think, but how to think. Meanwhile, students who attend elite colleges typically enter one of a few career paths: finance, consulting, “tech,” medicine, or law. I’ve always felt this to be a bit of a paradox. Are there really so few good career paths that make sense for excellent students, who go into them after they’ve engaged in intense critical thinking? Or are most college students not such wonderful critical thinkers after all?
  • How adventurous can suburban life be when one is surrounded by people of similar socioeconomic class, and where nearly every social activity is mediated by the car?
  • Why do so few people share what they learn, from books, travel, and other experiences?

I’ll summarize Cowen’s book below, and then present other thoughts that reading it has prompted. As usual on this site, my pieces about books are less reviews, more records of things I’ve found striking.

***

Americans used to be so can-do, but they’ve lost some of that. Cowen’s book discusses the reasons behind and the consequences for that decline, starting with ways to measure the loss of restlessness: Americans are moving less between states; they’re starting new businesses at lower rates; and they’re marrying and living amongst people too much like themselves.

When the pie isn’t growing, it makes sense to dedicate yourself to protecting your own share. “What I find striking about contemporary America is how much we are slowing things down, how much we are digging ourselves in, and how much we are investing in stability,” Cowen writes. I’d put it in the following terms: too many parts of society are oriented towards bottom line activities of mistake avoidance instead of top line activities of taking risk and creating value.

Decades ago, people had a greater sense of urgency. As Cowen writes, some of this wasn’t always for the good. Anxious people are no longer so seduced by ideas like communism; and it’s a good thing that we haven’t had as many domestic bombings as the 2,500 between 1971 and 1972. But society loses other things when people aren’t dynamic. Not only is it economically unfortunate that productivity doesn’t grow; politics becomes more gridlocked, businesses wield greater monopoly power, and society as a whole loses the ability to regenerate itself. Toqueville considered the United States to be a land perpetually in motion; isn’t it a shame that seems no longer the case?

Americans are getting more passive—Cowen means this in the medical sense. More people are being prescribed opiods, antidepressants, and ADHD meds, all to induce calm. And: “Of all the drugs that might have been legalized [since the 1960’s], American citizens chose the one—marijuana—that makes users spacey, calm, and sleepy.”

“You can think of this book as detailing the social roots of the resulting slow growth outcome and explaining why that economic and technological stagnation has lasted so long.”

***

After presenting various claims to argue the decline of American dynamism, Cowen identifies a country that very much has a cheerful, can-do spirit: China. “I have visited China many times over the past five years, for a different book project, and what I’ve observed there has made America’s social stagnation increasingly clear to me. That was one reason I came to write this book.”

I find claims for Chinese dynamism to be appealing. People I know who came of age during the Cultural Revolution make up a terribly interesting generation; it seems like you can pluck anyone over the age of 45 to find a totally improbable resumé. Cowen cites the examples of Jack Ma, who used to pester tourists for English lessons, and Wang Wenyin, a metals billionaire who used to live in a cement pipe. I personally know someone who never went to college and was instead a tank driver; then he was decommissioned and got into the manufacturing business; later on, he was involved in real estate, in Hainan no less; now he focuses his attentions on finance. So many other Chinese, my parents among them, have experienced swerves of similar magnitude in their careers.

Dynamism is the natural mode given 10 percent growth rates, which imply an economic doubling every seven years. If you grew up in almost any large city in China, you witnessed the construction of highways, along with the cars to jam them; the erection of skyscrapers, along with the companies to fill them; the laying down of rail tracks, along with the high-speed trains to glide over them.

I have only a bit of exposure to Chinese science fiction, and my impression is that it’s optimistic in the same way that American science fiction was optimistic in the ‘50s. That makes sense, right? Chinese society has advanced more in the 40-year period since the start of reform-and-opening than American society has between the Great Depression and the ‘70s. Authors extrapolate the growth they’ve seen in their lifetimes into the future; on the other hand, dystopian science fiction is the natural outcome of stagnant growth.

Thinking about that point makes me wonder if economists are poorly-equipped to measure how an optimistic vision can propel growth. If hipper boutiques and cafés are your only exposures to physical change, then it’s a bit more difficult to imagine a radically different future. Not so for people in Shenzhen and Shanghai. For Chinese who’ve lived through high growth rates over most of their lives, they’re right to expect a whole new world in a decade. On the other hand, if one’s physical environment never much changes, then it may be difficult to think about the future very much at all. Here’s Cowen: “We are using the acceleration of information transmission to decelerate changes in our physical world.” Must our imaginations be limited by the screen?

Technologically, my optimistic hope for China is that it will propel development in the world of atoms, picking up from where developed countries left off. Maybe it can take the torch on space exploration, to Mars and beyond. Maybe it can push forward nuclear fusion; it’s already been reported that American thorium scientists who could no longer develop the technology in the United States have taken their designs to China, which is happy to encourage their work. Maybe it will take the lead on life extension science, ocean exploration, cheap energy, and all the other things.

Peter Thiel has said that Chinese society is pessimistic and determinate. He writes: “Under determinate pessimism, you’ll be like China—stuck methodically copying things without any hope for a radically better future.” If that was once true, it is no longer. I submit that in many ways it’s optimistic and determinate; instead, it is the NIMBYs of Marin County and Palo Alto who are pessimistic and indeterminate, rationing out their land without necessarily a clear end goal. (Here is by the way a sampling of police blotter reports in the town of Atherton, California, where all the VCs live.) By the way, Zero to One has sold more copies in China than anywhere else in the world.

***

Who are a few uncomplacent Americans? I nominate three people for embodying restlessness and a particularly American kind of success.

I’ve already written about Philip Glass. When he received prize monies from Juilliard, he spent it on a motorcycle so that he could ride around the country. He was never afraid to go into steep debt to realize his creative works. Or to drop everything to go off on trips to India, Afghanistan, and Iran. He keeps composing for new settings, like films and opera houses. He was not a “professional composer” until the age of 41—up until that point, he had worked variously as a plumber, furniture mover, and taxi driver. (One time he was almost murdered in his own cab.) Three weeks ago I attended the premiere of his 11th symphony, commissioned for the occasion of his 80th birthday.

One doesn’t have to admire Steve Bannon’s policy views to see that he’s lived a unique life. The recitation of his career path (born in Norfolk; Virginia Tech; HBS; officer in the Navy; Goldman; etc.) doesn’t sufficiently convey the diversity of his experiences. He has been involved with Seinfeld; Biosphere 2; the rescue effort of the Iran hostage crisis; a World of Warcraft virtual gold mining company; Titus (the Shakespeare adaptation featuring Anthony Hopkins); Breitbart; the White House; and surely other interesting ventures I’ve never read about.

And how about Patrick Byrne, a philosophy PhD who founded Overstock.com? His Wikipedia profile has a lot of gaps, and he’s the kind of person I wish the New Yorker would feature. After teaching philosophy, he founded a company that made industrial torches, and then another company that makes police and firefighter uniforms. He contracted Hepatitis C from a trip to Xinjiang in his 20’s; ongoing treatment has required his heart to be stopped over 100 times. More recently, he has found greater fame for his embrace of Bitcoin, making Overstock the first major retailer to accept a cryptocurrency.

***

Let me take this opportunity to register a complaint with the term “open-minded,” which is increasingly praised as an important virtue.

I’ve started to dislike the term. First of all, it’s unobjectionable—who would profess he is not open-minded? More importantly, it’s not always clear what the term refers to, and this is worth thinking through. It might indicate the state of being “soft-minded,” in which one would readily be swayed by better arguments. But often it tends to connote “empty-minded,” in which one accepts anything and retains little. Many people are indeed open to different cultures and ideas, but they’re not necessarily conceptualizing their experience, nor active in seeking new experiences out.

I would like for everyone to be “hungry-minded,” in which one realizes that there is so much to know. A hungry-minded person senses that he is expert in so few areas of knowledge; that terrible gaps plague even his supposed areas of expertise; that there are important areas of knowledge of whose existence he is barely even aware; and that he should be fixing these deficiencies, now and ravenously. My favorite people to talk to are those who look for new experiences, think about them in an analytic way, and are eager to share their thoughts.

Here’s kind of an analogy to determinate and indeterminate views of the world.

As I mentioned above, I’ve become enthusiastic for the idea that positive vision of the world is important for growth. To get to a more technologically advanced world, first people have to imagine one. That requires thinking hard about technologies of the future, and then taking the steps required to make them real. We can’t be optimistic in a merely vague way, and pin our hopes on policies that supposedly create room for innovation; instead we should be more direct.

It’s why I’m slightly skeptical of thinking that we can save the world with indeterminate policies like looser monetary policy or housing reform. Are so many companies waiting to make things happen if only we’d cut interest rates by 0.25 percent? Will so many excellent service jobs be created if rents in Manhattan and the Mission were only cheaper by $250? To me these are policies worth advocating for, but I must say that they feel so marginal. That’s especially the case with housing policy, which are disheartening if you consider construction in Asian megacities.

***

The prescriptive antidote to The Complacent Class is a book like Tim Harford’s Messy. The most striking thing I learned from Harford is that the most success-oriented teams are usually the most miserable teams. For example, the amateur investment clubs that generate the highest returns are usually composed of people who don’t know each other well—it’s the only way to generate pushback on ideas that aren’t well thought through. Clubs composed of friends will find it more important to keep friendships intact rather than focus on returns.

Success often entails putting oneself in uncomfortable situations, like improvising during an important speech or flying a plane manually instead of relying on autopilot. Living a life that’s not so well-ordered can improve skill-acquisition. Both Harford and Cowen are somewhat critical of dating algorithms, although they argue that algorithms are overrated in different ways.

I’ve recently read another excellent book about a decidedly non-complacent people: La Place de la Concorde Suisse, by John McPhee, It’s a slim 1985 account of his being embedded in a French-speaking unit of the Swiss Army. The people take the army seriously—at least in 1985—by offering heavy support for conscription, permitting army practices to encroach on daily life, and regularly maintaining the elaborate system of hidden demolitions around the country. It’s odd to me that a country that hasn’t experienced warfare for centuries would maintain such a militarized culture. The book makes it feel that being Swiss is the civic religion of Switzerland, and the service in the army is the annual demonstration of faith.

I’m not sure the practice encourages dynamism, exactly, but it’s one way to ward off complacency.

(Do these happy Swiss cows realize that the barn they’re standing beside conceals an artillery gun? via Flickr)

***

Some final thoughts:

  • The part of the book I found the least compelling was the final chapter, in which Cowen says that sooner or later people will snap out of complacency. But his case isn’t well built-up. The longer that people have been complacent, the more stultified they are; will dynamism be easy to re-learn? Can we readily imagine that Europe will be so dynamic again? I’m not sure that it’s easy to make people dynamic, though China has successfully ordered restarts a few times in history. I’m happy to be pointed to discussions of this topic.
  • When Cowen says that “our political system has creaked to a standstill” or that “people are used to the idea of a world that more or less looks the same,” he’s not being contrarian. Instead he’s being reasonable. Still, I suspect that some people will accuse him of insufficient awareness of tech. The biggest objections to this book will come from those who haven’t been steeped in Thielian arguments for techno-pessimism.
  • I’ve long felt it unfortunate that the word “plastics” has been a putdown when people discuss ambition. Plastics are important, why do we make fun of that innovation?
  • Maybe we can lay the blame for complacency at the feet of Carter, who again and again entreated Americans to lower their expectations. He’s the president who encouraged people to carpool, who put on a sweater and asked people to lower their thermostats, and who oversaw repeated crises.
  • Little things matter when you read Cowen. The chapter titled “Why Americans Stopped Rioting and Legalized Marijuana?” is about how courts and bureaucrats have conjured legalistic tactics to reduce mass incidents. “Bureaucracy, whatever its other goals may be, is firmly on the side of the complacent class.” The chapter never explicitly mentions pot, except in the title. By introducing little oddities in the text, Cowen makes room for claims that are too difficult to baldly state; in other cases, watch for occasions in which he’s offering commentary on something other than what he’s directly writing about.

Thanks to MG for comments.

Addendum: I thank Joe Weisenthal for introducing the term “soft-minded” to me in the first place.

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16 thoughts on “Tyler Cowen’s *The Complacent Class*

  1. Very interesting site. Class of 2015? Really?

    Keep it up. You’re doing what I did as a young man on the make. With much more promise.

  2. Americans might be more innovative if they had decent, affordable health care not linked to their jobs. Hard to go it alone or be innovative when 20 to 40 percent of your income gets gobbled up healthcare expense.

  3. There is certainly a dynamic at play, and many moving parts, but being positive is a byproduct of a feedback loop where people have either: (a) taken risk and come out ahead or (b) taken risk and come out of it without losing everything so that they can continue to take more risk if their appetite allows for it. If one sees one’s peers taking risk and doing well then one may be emboldened to roll the dice. Chinese culture, society, and the positivity emanating from it has provided fantastic opportunities but also a blinding herd mentality as we have seen with global real estate markets being affected by Chinese taking capital out of their country and putting it in real estate elsewhere, because of the perception that it is safe. Sometimes, being knowledgeable and being positive can be mutually exclusive, as can seeing the after effects of an older generation losing a lot and having to start over.

  4. The dynamism and optimism are expressions of the sense of personal freedom and opportunity, which seems to exist and permeate more in China free-wheeling capitalism than in the US. The difficulty here is how to strike a balance. Certainly, regulations and restrictions can be stultifying. But some of it came out of bloody lessons about product safety, long-term consequences that were unforeseen, or a failure of justice somewhere. How often do you see Chinese entrepreneurs run roughshod thru intellectual property protection, human right protection, environment protection or even consumer protection. Yet, the reaction in regulation and law does have its cost, both in real economic term and in the intangible spirit of discovery. Perhaps there should be a zone of experimentation, a frontier if you will, where one could experiment with life without so much law and regulations. The real worries though, is how to create one without loophole for exploitation.

  5. Very much enjoyed this summary, reading my copy now.

    One quick thing–this line is glib:
    “Will so many excellent service jobs be created if rents in Manhattan and the Mission were only cheaper by $250? To me these are policies worth advocating for, but I must say that they feel so marginal.”

    By preframing the change as marginal, of course the change seems marginal. But you’re eliding quantity when you talk only about price even if we only built modestly. And if we built radically, it’s underestimating the price effects.

    1.) If we built several hundred thousand more units across both cities even at prevailing median rents, that’s an enormous increase in the number of people with access to these skill clusters

    2.) Huge quantities of construction would push prices far, far further down. The hard+soft cost of an additional square foot of high-rise construction in Manhattan is ~$450. In the outer boroughs it’s about $385/s.f. That means the cost of a new 2-bed Manhattan condo would converge to $450,000 in the limiting case. Current median price is well over $1,000,000. We’re talking about halving the price of a median 2-bed Manhattan condo. That’s far from a marginal change.

    Otherwise, great review!

    • Is the option of halving rent in Manhattan on the table? Most proposals I’ve seen might at best slow the growth in prices, not reverse it. And even those meek proposals face significant opposition. Your idea of radical construction is far outside the mainstream, I’m not sure that I’m the one being glib.

      • The options on the table reflect our complacency, rather than some fatal flaw inherent in the underlying “indeterminacy” of removing or substantially easing F.A.R. limits. If that’s what you’re saying, then I misread your intention and I apologize.

        Housing reform is only as meek as we want it to be. The distinction is important–if the idea has little potential in the limiting case, then housing reformers are themselves complacent. If the limiting case does indeed halve Manhattan condo prices, then it is the opponents of housing reformers who are complacent.

        In this book’s context those are high stakes for, say a Manhattan-based housing reformer!

  6. It’s hard for me to sq.uare with my impression that they r always complaining

    Changes in biotech and IT gimme the creeps

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