Dawning of the ‘Age of Aquariums’
THE COMPLACENT CLASS: THE SELF-DEFEATING QUEST FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM By Tyler Cowen St. Martin’s Press, $28.99, 241 pages
You can see it in aquariums. Anyone who has kept tropical fish knows that in a large, “mixed” tank where several varieties are thrown together, the newly “integrated” fish tend to re-segregate as quickly as possible and as thoroughly as space and opportunity permit. Zebra fish hang out with other zebra fish, guppies cluster with fellow guppies, bottom feeders continue to feed on the bottom and “kissing gouramis” only kiss each other They are all citizens of the same aquarium, sharing the same food and oxygen. But they still subdivide into separate varietal communities within the communal space.
So do different groups of people — not defined by race but by education, social status, tradition and communal standards. The very term “affluent suburb” embraces a long list of shared characteristics such as lower crime rates, higherquality schools, better-maintained neighborhoods, lower illegitimacy rates, more disposable income and a host of other metrics that apply to affluent suburbanites regardless of their creed, color or ethnic origin.
Welcome to the Age of Aquariums. Since our earliest days as a nation, we Americans have prided ourselves on being an upwardly mobile society, and we have been one. Not a classless society, but a society in which class entry, re-classification as it were, is attainable on the basis of personal achievement: rags to riches, slum to suburb, unskilled laborer to entrepreneur. It still is, but the speed and volume of social mobility, both upward and downward, has slowed. This worries Tyler Cowen, a distinguished professor of economics at George Mason University and — that great rarity among economists — an articulate, engaging writer with at least one New York Times bestseller, “The Great Stagnation” already to his credit.
In his latest book, “The Complacent Class,” Mr. Cowen depicts and decries what he sees as a re-segregating, “matching culture” trend that sees more and more Americans locking themselves in place socially, economically, educationally and geographically. These are all factors that can contribute to the state of stagnation — or stasis — he has already addressed in earlier work. The numbers, at least superficially, back him up. Geographic mobility and job-changing — forced by cutbacks or driven by better opportunities elsewhere — are down. So are productivity and innovation. Obviously, none of this is good news. But is it all that surprising?
In the century between the mid1800s and the mid-1900s America underwent vast change and growth. Mass internal migration — at least as much as mass immigration — accounted for much of it. But why? For one thing, there was a nationwide flight of population from rural to urban locations, from agricultural to industrial pursuits. The remaining farm population continues to shrink, but that massive shift is largely a fait accompli, over and done with. During the same century, major chunks of the U.S. were transforming from sparsely populated, underdeveloped areas — e.g., California, Florida, Arizona, Texas and Alaska — into population magnets with mushrooming major urban areas and employment opportunities. We have no equivalent “wide open spaces” waiting to be filled by internal migration and economic expansion today.
Another factor: Before the advent of the welfare state, there were negative incentives for mobility as well. If you lived in the dust bowl and lost everything — job, farm and house — it was move or die. You couldn’t survive in place on food stamps, public housing, unemployment benefits and Medicaid. Millions of people moved, not necessarily because they wanted to, but because they had to. Not anymore.
What Mr. Cowen calls the “self-defeating quest for the American Dream” may actually be the self-defeating attainment of the American Dream, a case of success spoiling itself. It is also important to bear in mind that the occupants of today’s affluent suburbs and gentrified urban areas are a much more ethnically, religiously and racially diverse group than ever before: less WASP and more Italian, Irish, Polish, Jewish, Asian, African and God knows what else in origin, compared to the America of even a few generations ago.
This stands in stark contrast to most of the rest of the world. From former Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia to much of Africa, the Middle East and ex-Soviet Union — not to mention the European Union and even the United Kingdom — a period of dis-integration seems to be supplanting a long epoch of sometimes involuntary integration and centralization. Clunky and bloated as American society and the American economy are, we are not as divided — and not as far into a socioeconomic death spiral — as most of our competitors.