The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream by Tyler Cowen paints a moderately bleak picture of Americans as screen-addicted couch potatoes:
In past generations, people moved through the physical world at ever faster speeds, whereas today traffic gets worse each year and plane travel is, if anything, slower than before.
The big practical questions for the postwar generation were about what we might place in the physical world and how that would exert its effects on us, because the physical world was viewed as a major source of inspiration. Would it be cities reaching into the heavens, underwater platforms, or colonies in outer space? All of these possibilities were embedded with futuristic architectures and also utopian ideologies, such as space travel bringing humankind together in cosmopolitan dreams of peace. Those options seemed like logical next steps for a world that had recently been transformed by railroads, automobiles, urbanization, and many other highly visible shifts in what was built, how we got around, and how things looked. But over the last few decades, the interest in those kinds of transportation-based, landscape-transforming projects largely has faded away.
We’re much more comfortable with the world of information, which is more static, can be controlled at our fingertips, and can be set to our own speed. That’s very good for some people—most of all the privileged class, which is very much at home in this world—and very bad for others. The final form of stasis has to do with how and where we place our individual bodies. Most of all, it seems we like to stay home and remove ourselves altogether from the possible changes of the external physical world.
Americans can literally have almost every possible need cared for without leaving their homes. This is a new form of American passivity, where a significant percentage of the population is happy to sit around and wait for contentment to be delivered.
only about half of the Millennial Generation bothers to get a driver’s license by age eighteen; in 1983, the share of seventeen-year-olds with a license was 69 percent.
In 1965, the most common leisure activity for American kids was outdoor play. Recent surveys suggest that the average American nine-year-old child spends fifty hours a week—by direct comparison, nearly seven hours a day—or more looking at electronic screens, which include televisions, computers, and cell phones.
We’re not doing the awesome stuff that we used to do…
One final way of thinking about progress, sometimes stressed by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel, is to ask whether the era of grand projects is mostly over. In the twentieth century, American grand projects included the Manhattan Project, which was highly successful, and cemented an era of Pax Americana. Two other grand projects were winning World War II and, starting in the 1950s, construction of the interstate highway system, both examples of thinking big and changing the world permanently on a large scale. The Apollo moon program was another grand project, and although its usefulness can be questioned, its mechanical success and above all its speed of execution cannot. At its peak it consumed over 2 percent of American GDP.29 “Defeating communism” is perhaps too abstract to qualify as a specific project, but it is another major victory backed by a coordinated effort. Another potential nominee would be “construction of a social welfare state,” although parts of this are politically controversial. In any case, a lot of these grand projects succeeded, often rather spectacularly. If we look at the last twenty-five years or so, what do we have to count as grand projects? Some people might cite the environmental movement, but for all of its virtues, we are still living in a world where biodiversity is plummeting, carbon emissions are rising, and the overall human footprint on the environment, including from the United States, is increasing. So this is a possible contender for the future, but no, it hasn’t happened just yet. Reforestation and cleaner air and water are major triumphs, but those happened much earlier in the twentieth century. The most obvious and most successful grand project today is that virtually every part of the United States is wired to the internet and cell phone system. You can go to almost any inhabited part of the country and immediately access Wikipedia or make a phone call to Africa; sometimes this even works on hiking trails or in other out-of-the-way places, ensuring we are never that far away from communicating with any and all of our friends and relations or maybe business associates.
When we try to do something big, it usually turns out badly
The other potential grand project would have to be … reconstructing Iraq, making Iraq democratic, and bringing peace to the Middle East. On that project we have seen a miserable failure, and with the rise of ISIS and the collapse of Syria, the situation is becoming much worse yet. So the post-1990 era for the United States is scored at one out of two. I don’t, by the way, count Obamacare on this list of grand projects. No matter what you think of it as policy, it provided health insurance to about 10 to 15 million of America’s previously uninsured 40 million–plus population, with the exact number for new coverage still evolving. That helps many of those individuals, but it is hardly a game-changer in terms of a broader social trajectory, especially since many of those people already were receiving partial health care coverage and, furthermore, the Obamacare exchanges are experiencing some serious problems. If anything, Obamacare has locked in the basic features of the previous U.S. health care system rather than revolutionizing them.
But could it be that the world isn’t stagnating, it is just that Americans are terrible at “big systems” thinking and public infrastructure? The Chinese, for example, have built about 14,000 miles of high-speed rail out of what will eventually be a 24,000-mile system (Wikipedia). About 1.5 billion rides occur per year on a system that did not exist a decade ago. The Chinese are building airports at a frantic pace and the transportation options for middle-class Chinese citizens improve dramatically every year. Cowen is a bit of a China fan:
Even with its recent economic troubles, China has a culture of ambition and dynamism and a pace of change that hearken back to a much earlier America. China, even though it is in the midst of some rather serious economic troubles, makes today’s America seem staid and static. For all of its flaws, China is a country where every time you return, you find a different and mostly better version of what you had left the time before. Hundreds or thousands of new buildings will be in place, the old restaurants will be gone, and what were major social and economic problems a few years ago, such as unfinished roads or missing water connections, will have disappeared or been leapfrogged. That is what life is like when a country grows at about 10 percent a year for over thirty years running, as indeed China had been doing up through 2009 or so, with some years of 7 to 8 percent growth thereafter (and an unknown rate of growth today, due to lack of trust in the government’s numbers). When a country’s growth rate is 10 percent, it’s as if a new country is being built every seven years or so, because that is how long it takes for such a nation to double in economic size.
Meanwhile, in the U.S. it is often illegal to work:
Some of the decline in labor mobility may stem from the law itself, specifically the growth of occupational licensure. In the 1950s, only about 5 percent of workers required a government-issued license to do their jobs, but by 2008, that figure had risen to about 29 percent.
The data show that individuals in tightly licensed occupations demonstrate lower levels of cross-state mobility. For instance, men in heavily licensed occupations are less likely to move across state lines than men in less heavily licensed occupations, even after adjusting for demographic variables that might cause the two groups to differ. Those same men, reluctant to cross state lines and lose licensure rights, are not less reluctant to move around within their states, where they keep their licenses.
Or you’ll get sued as a result of hiring someone:
It’s also harder to fire workers than it was several decades ago, in part because of fear of lawsuits over discrimination, as American society has steadily become more litigious. This means that some employers will be less likely to hire in the first place, in order to minimize their lawsuit risks. They look more for the kind of workers they will not need to fire or not need to replace anytime soon, which also slows down the pace of job turnover.
So we sit around reading prissy Jane Austen novels (or, since we’re screen-addicted, watching movie adaptions):
Current philosophies and aesthetics mirror this shift toward the calm. The metaphysics of the big political debates of the 1960s now strike us as absurd. In the 1970s, intellectual, angst-ridden American teenagers noodled over Nietzsche, the meaning of the counterculture, and the classic Russian novels of ideas. Woody Allen satirized these books in his movie Love and Death, and it was assumed that enough of the viewers would catch the references. These days Jane Austen is the canonical classic novelist, with the Wall Street Journal even referring to “the Jane Austen industry.” And a lot of her stories are about … matching. For better or worse, these stories are less concerned with the titanic struggle of good versus evil—can you imagine Mr. Darcy shouting, as would a Dostoyevsky character, “If there is no God, then everything is permitted!”? Instead people are afraid of having their calm disturbed, so the frontier issue in many colleges and universities is whether to put “trigger warnings” on school curricula, out of fear that somebody will be offended or traumatized by what we used to welcome as radical and revisionist texts.
Cowen sounds pessimistic about the 325 million souls here in the U.S. It is tough to argue that he is wrong. A friend points out that regulatory compliance is the true religion of the U.S.: “People used to spend a huge amount of time in the Middle Ages going to church and praying. Now they spend about 40 percent of their time doing regulatory compliance so it has the same place in our society that religion had in theirs.”
But why do we need to be innovative? The Chinese are great at engineering (look at DJI!) and building infrastructure. Let them vacuum the CO2 out of the atmosphere. Singapore and Switzerland are full of rich well-educated hard-working people. They will presumably develop all kinds of new ideas for us. The Iranians and Koreans have already shown that they can make more interesting movies than Americans. The world might be a way better place in 50 years even if no American were to create anything useful between now and 2067. Do you really need Xbox to get through 99 weeks of cashing unemployment checks if you have Nintendo and PlayStation?
Cowen is optimistic about our social freedoms:
This relatively recent emphasis on security pops up in so many forms, many of them extremely beneficial for our lives. For instance, the acceptance of gay marriage has proved a big (and to me pleasant) surprise. As recently as 2008, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton would endorse national gay marriage, and they both openly expressed reservations about the idea.
Even within the community of gay and LGBT intellectuals, the gay marriage movement was not entirely popular. Michael Warner, for instance, a leading “queer theorist,” argued that marriage was too conservative an institution and what the gay community needed instead was a radical liberation from the idea of shame. Warner wanted straights to learn from the sexual practices of gays at the time, including the idea of promiscuity as it had been attributed to the male gay community.
For an economist, he is curiously incurious about quantifying the net benefits of same-sex marriage. Is it better to be rich in Singapore or gay-married in the comparatively poor (per capita GDP) United States? Do the benefits, financial and psychological, to the roughly 170,000 same-sex married couples in the U.S. outweigh the suffering of people who were sued for a same-sex divorce? (Cowen lives under Virginia family law, which provides for no-fault divorce (i.e., the plaintiff in the divorce lawsuit is guaranteed to win) any time that one partner could become better off by ending the marriage.) Given that the divorce rate among same-sex couples seems to be comparable to that among mixed-sex couples, we can expect that roughly half of the same-sex couples will end up becoming customers of the U.S. divorce industry.
Wikipedia says Tyler Cowen is married to someone named “Natasha” so it does not seem as though the changed law has any relevance to his own domestic situation. Yet Cowen has devoted some of his interest and some of his book pages to the subject. Is this an illustration of how an economy’s growth can be limited by political disagreement consuming scarce attention and time? People who are occupied with occupying Wall Street, knitting pussy hats, protesting social injustice (at least on Facebook), etc. can’t be simultaneously working or learning something that might increase their future productivity.
Readers: What do you think? Are the next 50 years going to feel stagnant to Americans because America is stagnating or feel dynamic because we will be able to import innovations from all over the world?
More: read The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream
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