Does Amer­i­can com­pla­cency threaten the na­tion’s fu­ture?

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD -

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 much­lauded 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. Bethany McLean is an au­thor and con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Van­ity Fair.

THE COM­PLA­CENT CLASS The Self­De­feat­ing Quest for the Amer­i­can Dream By Tyler Cowen St. Martin’s. 241 pp. $28.99

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