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The Complacent Class

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2017

Tyler Cowen’s new book, The Complacent Class, comes out today. In it, he argues that as a society, Americans have stopped taking risks, are too comfortable, and rely too heavily on incremental improvements of existing goods & ideas, which has resulted in a stagnation of our culture and economy. This video by Cowen is a good introduction to what he means by that.

After about the 1970s, innovation on this scale slowed down. Computers and communication have been the focus. What we’ve seen more recently has been mostly incremental improvements, with the large exception of smart phones.

This means that we’ve experienced a ton of changes in our virtual world, but surprisingly few in our physical world. For example, travel hasn’t much improved and, in some cases, has even slowed down. The planes we’re primarily using? They were designed half a century ago.

Since the 1960s, our culture has gotten less restless, too. It’s become more bureaucratic. The sixties and seventies ushered in a wave of protests and civil disobedience. But today, people hire protests planners and file for permits. The demands for change are tamer compared to their mid-century counterparts.

Time published an excerpt of the book last week:

Americans traditionally have thought of themselves as the great movers, and indeed that was true in the nineteenth century and even through most of the twentieth. But since the 1980s, Americans have become much less restless in movements across the country, and more people are looking to simply settle down and entrench themselves.

Here is this change in a single number: The interstate migration rate has fallen 51 percent below its 1948-1971 average, and that number has been falling steadily since the mid-1980s. Or, if we look at the rate of moving between counties within a state, it fell 31 percent. The rate of moving within a county fell 38 percent. Those are pretty steep drops for a country that has not changed its fundamental economic or political systems. You might think that information technology (IT) would make it easier to find a job on the other side of the country, and maybe it has, but that has not been the dominant effect. If anything, Americans have used the dynamism of IT to help ourselves stay put, not to move around.

And in a recent piece in the NY Times that mentions Cowen’s book, David Brooks references a piece by Nicholas Eberstadt called Our Miserable 21st Century:

That means there’s an army of Americans semi-attached to their communities, who struggle to contribute, to realize their capacities and find their dignity. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics time-use studies, these labor force dropouts spend on average 2,000 hours a year watching some screen. That’s about the number of hours that usually go to a full-time job.

Fifty-seven percent of white males who have dropped out get by on some form of government disability check. About half of the men who have dropped out take pain medication on a daily basis. A survey in Ohio found that over one three-month period, 11 percent of Ohioans were prescribed opiates. One in eight American men now has a felony conviction on his record.

If you need a chaser, consider this from the introductory chapter of Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (which I’m currently reading):

For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.