Tyler Cowen, The Complacent Class [Review]

“Utilize designated areas,” Airman 1st Class Joshua Green, USAF

Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class arrived at almost the right time to affect the American discourse over the country’s economic and political direction. Had it hit in early or mid-2016, the book’s theme—that American elites have become too resistant to change—would have hit exactly the right sort of resonance. Throughout 2016, pretty much everyone but Hillary Clinton’s campaign managers recognized the widespread dissatisfaction with American cultural, economic, and political institutions. Indeed, this displeasure had become a staple of cultural criticism, such as Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites and Lee Siegel’s Harvard is Burning. Cowen’s book, in that sense, ploughs a well-prepared furrow.

And it really is striking how dissatisfied Americans are withe their institutions. Gallup, among others, regularly polls Americans about how much confidence they have in their institutions, and the data display pretty convincingly that Americans are losing faith in everything–except the military and the police. This is immediately apparent in absolute terms, where the military (top, green line) has retained–even grown in–public esteem while Congress, big business, and newspapers–none ever really popular–have dropped over the past three decades.

Looked at in terms of relative confidence (relative to 1993 levels), it is astonishing to see how steady confidence in the police and the military has been–and how bizarrely popular Congress was (relative to historical performance) in the 1990s. Notably, “civilian” institutions save for labor are all clearly less popular than they were three decades ago, while military or quasi-military institutions are growing. There is a pretty clear, and pretty clearly long-term, crisis of confidence in American institutions.

But Cowen’s frame is new and welcome. Why, he asks, is a country so manifestly unenamored of its elites and institutions so resistant to change? “Americans are in fact working much harder than before to postpone change, or to avoid it altogether, and that is true whether we’re talking about corporate competition, changing residences or jobs, or building things,” he writes (p. 1). Cowen’s answer (p. 2) is that a “growing number of people … accept, welcome, or even enforce a resistance to things new, different, or challenging. These people might in the abstract like some things to change, they might even consider themselves progressive or even radical politically, but in fact they have lost the capacity to imagine or embrace a world where things do change rapidly for most if not all people.” As he observes, “the defining feature of these groups of people is, most of all, the lack of a sense of urgency” (p. 5). Throughout, The Complacent Class draws an implicit contrast with Richard Florida’s classic work of thought-leadership, The Creative Class. Here, though, the latte-sipping Prius-driving elites are not the virtuous leaders of a productivity revolution; they are more likely to be the villains of the piece, whose mobilization against change and growth pulls the ladder up from behind them just when they have found a comfortable perch.

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Robin Hanson, The Age of Em [Review]

Originally published 14 December 2016 but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017.

Attention Conservation Notice: Robin Hanson has written a provocative book illuminating the contributions social science can make to understanding the future, even if the details are (amply) debatable.

What will the future look like? Social scientists pay a great deal less attention to this question than they should. There are departments of History, but no departments of Future–nor even a great number of academics whose primary research program explores the future.

There are good reasons for this. All of our evidence about how humans and human societies behave exists in the past (yes, literally all of it). The future, by contrast, may not even occur. Theorizing about the future, then, appears from one direction to look like nothing so much as a modern version of medieval Scholasticism–or, as the demotic version goes, like playing tennis without a net.

But the optimal level of effort to be invested in thinking seriously about the future is not zero, or close to zero. Indeed, it’s interesting that businesses and governments are more likely, not less, to invest resources in trying to estimate at least the parameters within which the near future will take place — for instance, as reflected in the US intelligence community’s Global Trends reports or Bill Gates’s now-forgotten The Road Ahead. More to the point, even though all of our evidence comes from the past, none of us will live there–and (almost) all of us will live in the future.

Robin Hanson’s Age of Em represents a significant intervention in debates about what kind of futures to envision, how to envision those futures, and why we should do so in the first place. Hanson’s future concerns a post-human society within the next 100 to 1,000 years in which whole-brain-scanned humans exist as emulations (or “ems”) within a joint virtual-physical world. Within this civilization, the limits of physics trump the limits of biological life, and ems are able to work and live in a population that expands at rates closer to insects or bacteria than to homo sapiens. As a consequence, the GDP of em-world increases rapidly—doubling every month or so—even as the population heads towards the trillions and wage rates plummet toward subsistence (which, Hanson notes, is the historical regularity within human societies over time and for most life-forms generally).

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The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson [Review]

I’ve mentioned before that, after the 2016 election, I began a new reading agenda. (I essentially sacrificed November and December’s reading budgets for this.) One puzzle, which I discussed in my review of Justin Gest’s The New Minority, was why people voted for Trump. The other was why Hillary lost. And after time spent reading a lot about the first puzzle, I was informed that I should probably be spending some time on the second one. That, in turn, led me to books such as Carol Anderson’s White Rage (my review here), as well as others not yet reviewed in this space. So I came to Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a Christmas present, with an agenda: how could it help me understand the country in which I live?

Wilkerson’s book–a vast and awesome, in the fullest sense of the term, work–helped me answer that, but it is much more than that. It is a bold and welcome telling of a story that was given, I believe, a paragraph in my high school history textbooks; certainly I recall “The Great Migration” as being a boldface term that I had to learn. In Wilkerson’s hands, though, the extent of that migration–the degree to which this voluntary movement of a people reshaped the United States–becomes clear. Wilkerson’s real aim here is to introduce Americans, or I should say White Americans, to their country, because its story has never been told.

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The Fourteenth Day, David Coleman [Review]

Originally published 3 November 2016 but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017.

Freedom, Donald Rumsfeld memorably pronounced, is messy. So too is history, although not the way political scientists do it. For political scientists and international-relations folks, especially in their more traditional security and policy-analytic guises, history is a source of data, a repository of cases, and, fundamentally, a storehouse of facts, neatly waiting to be trundled into a book or paper or rectangular dataset as needed. This is the only mindset under which the common conflation of “case” and “history” makes sense: cases can only be histories if histories themselves are simple and unproblematic once the relevant actors and factors are identified.

Among the most important cases in the study of security and policymaking in IR and foreign policy analysis are such well-worn topics as the outbreak of the First World War, the negotiations at the Conference of Versailles, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Recent scholarship has upended many of the conventional understandings of these events, with the rather salutary effect that scholars know more but “know” less about these traditional cases than they used to. In general, the more political scientists and IR types have adopted historical methodologies, the less they have found themselves trying to prove that a given theory was right. Instead, engaging in conversations with evidence, scholars have found that the evidence should inform the theory, even as the theory tells them where to look for evidence.

Yet with all the progress that has come in recent scholarship, there yet remains a sense that there is a canonical set of cases that not just students but scholars should respect. The trouble does not come from the investiture of a canon; without a shared vocabulary, how could we ever converse? Instead, it comes from the fact that these are canons of cases, and our understanding of cases remains mired in the idea that a case has an outcome and an initiation. If instead we decided to treat cases as investigations of histories–as artificial schemata imposed upon a complex, chaotic bundle–then we would recognize immediately the dangers, and the absurdities, of finding — indeed, requiring — an “end of history”.

In his The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis (2012, Norton), David Coleman does an excellent job of exploding just such an absurdity forced upon us by generations of scholarship, hagiography, and propaganda.

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The New Minority, Justin Gest [Review]

Like many people, in the aftermath of the election I discovered a keen interest in the reasons why so many White Americans had voted for Donald Trump. This followed from one of two puzzles that gripped me at about 8:30 pm Eastern time on 11/8. The first was, “How could Hillary lose?” The second, and the one more pertinent here, was “How could so many people vote for Trump?”

These questions have fueled two quite different reading agendas. Justin Gest’s compelling, excellent The New Minority fits comfortably into the second one. And I want to underscore how important the distinction is. Even had Trump lost, the question of how so many people voted for Trump should have dominated academic political science in the aftermath. To sum this up with “racism” or “classism” or “partisanship” is merely to label the unknown and pretend the labeling constitutes an answer. Exactly how does identity play into a vote for someone so manifestly unqualified? Exactly why would racism prove compatible with voting for Obama over Romney but Trump over Clinton? And why did Trump’s appeal resonate so much with people who had almost nothing in common with him? Nothing is so bizarre, then or now, as the spectacle of the disaffected, the marginal, the left out coming together in solidarity with the penthouse billionaire.

The answers to these questions will be different than the question of why Hillary lost. Nor does investigating this question require focusing on the politics of the white working class to the exclusion of Blacks, LGBT Americans, or immigrants. The surprising political power and the massive shift of this group make it worthy of study–not least because perhaps nobody, including themselves, thought that they mattered very much until the upheaval of 2016. One of Gest’s lessons is that had more work been done to integrate such perspectives earlier that the conditions for the calamity might not have occurred.

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Stalin and the Scientists, Joseph Ings [Review]

Somehow, reading about the Soviet history has become my hobby. Readers should therefore appreciate in advance that my comments here are from a particular standpoint. And I should also note that I have no love for the Soviet state: I think that Ronald Reagan was more right than wrong when he called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.”


I also grew up in the shadow of the Cold War in the American Midwest. The demotic understanding of the USSR was that they were the bad guys–pre-1991, they were bad guys who wanted to kill (enslave? humiliate?) us, and post-1991 they were the bad guys who lost because their system was bad. The sophisticated explanation, based on a mishmash of Orwell, Chambers, and Koestler (often as translated through third- and fourth-hand impressions of those texts), was that Soviet society was a particular kind of evil, a melange of the gray and the violent.

Reprogramming myself from that perspective began with, surprisingly enough, a Time-Life book called, simply, The Soviet Union. I encountered this on my middle-school library’s shelves, which meant that this had to have happened post-collapse (1993 or 1994). I think I read it eight or nine times; I know for certain I stole it from the library (a sin, to be sure, but I don’t think that I’ve deprived anyone of its circulation!).  I was enthralled by the portrait of Soviet normalcy it portrayed: people getting married, people going to work, people attending poetry readings (a novel thought in more than one way), people engaging in “hero projects” to build the trans-Siberian railroad, and so on. The overwhelming takeaways were that the Soviets were … normal. Poor. Constricted. But normal. Everyday people made their life there, and considered other ways of living strange.

Heady stuff at 12 years of age

I know now about the fine variations in Soviet strategies of rule–the distinctions between 1937, 1957, and 1977 in the USSR are almost as familiar to me now as the parallel changes in, say, British life would be. But it’s in the spirit of that first shock that a culture could exist on so fundamentally different lines that I continue to read about Soviet history. In essence, I’m still trying to square the puzzle of my childhood: how could people living in a system so different from mine nevertheless seem so similar?

Simon Ings’s Stalin and the Scientists speaks more to my chosen career now (although I wish for a companion volume: Stalin and the Social Scientists). How did Soviets at the height of Stalinism do science? Ings’s answer is: cautiously, but with more dedication than one would expect.

Ings’s world of Soviet science focuses on the mixture of the political and the scientific. As he writes (xiv), “In the end, only obedience mattered. Stalin believed that science should serve the state.” For a political scientist, I will confess to a slight frisson at the idea that STEM should be so subordinated to the political; contemporary American discourse makes the opposite claim (frequently to its demerit). Of course, the result of this was awful: “It was counterproductive. It was tantamount to wrecking.” (xv) This led to a bizarre paradox: “By the time Stalin died on 5 March 1953, the Soviet Union boasted the largeest and best-funded scientific establishment in history. It was at once the glory and the laughing stock of the intellectual world.” (xv)

This was the system that produced both the first artificial satellite and Trofim Lysenko’s counter-Darwin explanation of evolution, both the first man in space and the waste of Kazakhstan’s virgin lands. So what happened?

At this point,  I have links to share. To learn more about the Soviet science system, I recommend:

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The Not-Quite States of America, Doug Mack [Review]

Attention conservation notice: Doug Mack has written a good, short, breezy book about the territorial possessions of the United States, a topic that should help to shake conventional ideas of what the “United States” is.
(This post was originally published in February but died in the great server mistake of 2017, so I’m republishing it here.)

One of the great thrills of social science should be the constant rediscovery of the world as begging for explanation. Viewing social life as a dynamic process should prompt a constant unsettling with the superficially —a disenchantment with received wisdom and estrangement from the familiar. When we flatter ourselves, social scientists preen themselves on exactly those dimensions: interrogating this and wrestling with that.

Of course, social life being infinite, most of the time we fail at this task. Intellectual fashions provide the most obvious evidence that much of what seems to be deep engagement really arises from fads. More fundamentally, however, researchers often proceed from “stylized facts” about parts of the social world that are merely better drawn caricatures of social life than the non-specialist presents. Even if we manage to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of conventional wisdom in some particular niche, the necessity of producing a steady stream of work that engages our fellows and our blind spots about our own ignorance (compounded by the epistemic arrogance that a professional standing as an “expert” breeds).

I am at least as guilty of these tendencies as the next social scientist. There is one small region in which I am slightly less guilty than my fellows, however: I think — I hope — that I take the peculiar composite nature of the United States government a little more seriously than the average scholar of international relations. For me, the “United States” is never a unitary actor, even if its outward appearance sometimes puts such a mask over its structurally divided government. Instead, I view the country as a patchwork actor, one marked by multiple traditions of identities, governed by two major parties who alternate according to a coin flip, and divided into fifty states and territories. 

It’s the “and territories” that, as Doug Mack describes in his new book The Not-Quite States of America, people often forget. A chance encounter with ceremonial quarters honoring Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands jolts Mack into realizing that millions of people—many, although not all, American citizens—live in what can only be described as a U.S. empire. Unsettled by this estrangement from the familiar, he sets out to visit them to learn about their people and their culture to make them more comprehensible. Mack’s book is a sugar-coated challenge to the way you will think about the everyday politics of “America”– and a surprisingly sharp (if inadvertent) challenge to categories IR and comparative scholars employ to divide the world.

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The Ideas Industry, Daniel Drezner [Review]

My teaching reviews often compare my lecture style to TED Talks. Students, I think, mean this as a compliment, but academics will understand my ambivalence at the comparison. TED Talks  deliver bite-sized, attractive, and simple explanations of complicated topics. That’s why audiences love them, and it’s why the format is beloved of popularizers of science as well as other salesmen. But academics pride themselves on being the opposite. Indeed, for many scholars, it sometimes seems as if having their work described as a “lengthy, plain, and complicated explanation of a simple topic”, it would be a compliment compared to being called a public intellectual. For many scholars, therefore, TED Talks represent what is wrong with the “marketplace of ideas”.

Yet for my students and the world at large, it is TED who is right and we who are wrong. In his new book The Ideas Industry, Daniel Drezner, a professor of political science at Tufts University and a prominent voice in public debates over international relations, ponders why. Drezner’s thesis is that the cozy, stolid, and critical world of the public intellectual—a craftsman of ideational handicrafts who learned his (and it was almost always “his”) trade in an apprenticeship—has been disrupted by a world of corporatized, mercenary, and partisan “thought leaders”.

This is, he argues, not altogether a bad thing.

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Is Democracy Bunk?

Attention conservation notice: Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have written a very good book that deserves a wide audience. Their critique of behavioralist and liberal (Manchester not FOX) verities raise real doubts about how political scientists and others study and justify democracy. Their points also matter for prominent IR theories of foreign policy behavior. Their book suffers from a lack of comparative perspective, an overreliance on cross-sectional observational data, and some presentist biases in their history–all of which argue for more, not less, research in their program.


High school civics teachers across the United States preach a happy catechism of the virtues of American democracy. The people form a body of free citizens. Endowed with the power to vote, these citizens choose representatives to advance their interest in lawmaking and enforcing the laws. Those representatives act according to the will of the people, and should they disobey, they will be replaced through the peaceful revolution of the ballot box by a new representative who will serve the people’s bidding. Democracy thereby constitutes a self-correcting machine for the translation of the wishes of the people into the best possible policy.

In Democracy for Realists (2016, Princeton University Press), Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels refute that litany. In place of the happy vision’s individual citizens calculating whether the government of the day has succeeded, they describe a world in which individuals invent facts to justify the positions their group identifications has supplied them with. In place of a citizenry rationally deciding that the government of the day is competent despite setbacks beyond its control, they show that even an exemplary president is apt to lose if some event beyond his or her control causes a spike in prices or joblessness. And instead of a democratic system correcting its errors and improving the policies it produces, they depict instead a myopic Leviathan randomly lurching from policy to policy, reversing itself on a whim, responding only to the tyranny of popular opinion.

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Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes [Review]

One emerging theme of my post-election reading has been the importance of deep stories the sorts of core beliefs, narratives, and faiths that people take for granted. One deep story on the Clintonista side was the notion of American progress, an almost cinematic tale of redemption and progress in which Hillary’s narrative would have coincided with a putative feminist triumph. At roughly 8:15 p.m. Eastern time on Election Night, progressives found themselves embracing a darker deep story of the farther left: America as an irredeemable bastion of the forces of reaction, in which every victory for progress is temporary and every activist effort ultimately futile because of the enduring power of–well, its hard to say of who, exactly, but ur-Fascism will serve as a label for now.

In Twilight of the ElitesChris Hayes supplies what I think is a more accurate, or at least more resonant story: the Betrayal of the Elites. Hayes argues that American institutions, refashioned after the Second World War to accelerate the assimilation of ethnics, women, and other minorities, have become a self-perpetuating ring of credentials and connections that betrays their original meritocratic rationale. As US elites have come to believe that they have received all the signs of the meritocratic elect–they went to Harvard; they went to the best grad schools or hedge funds; and their kids do the same–they are ever more affirmed in their belief that they are only enjoying their just desserts. If others have less than they do, well–they shake their heads sadly–perhaps those less fortunate are only receiving what theydeserve.

Hayes’s deep story reads like the precise inverse of Hochschild’s deep story, in which rural folks see America as a queue in which Others are getting ahead by stealing their places. For the Elect, how long you’ve served, how loyal you are, how good a parent or a spouse or a neighbor you are–these are irrelevant compared to how good you are, as measured by smarts, earning, or prestige. A member of the Elect would have little sympathy for Hochschild’s line-waiters and their markedly inefficient view of distribution; don’t those at the back of the line understand that they need to retool to compete in the new line economy?

Reading Hayes’s book years after its release is jarring, not least because he was already adducing fake news and insurgent presidential candidates as symptoms of a broken system. He quotes (p. 11) the conservative Utah senator Bob Bennett, unseated in a Tea Party insurrection:

The moral for that story is–if people will read responsible publications and commentators–and they have a sense of respect for institutions and those of us who labor in those institutions, then were OK. But if you get all of your information from the blogs, then you’re just angry because were lying to you.

And Obama’s 2008 campaign sounds downright Trumpian:

Obama only had a fighting chance at the nomination because of the credibility bestowed by his appearance at a 2002 rally opposing the invasion of Iraq, where he referred to the impending invasion as a dumb war. When all the smart people got it wrong, including his many rivals for the nomination, he got it right. He, alone among the leading contenders, was able to see that the emperor had no clothes.

Indeed, despite Trump and Obamas mutual hatred, it is plain to see that Trumps tenor–his, shall I say it, audacitypays the ultimate compliment to Obamas political skills.

Hayes goes beyond politics to discern elite failings in the Catholic Church, Major League Baseball, Enron, and elsewhere. Like many books in this genre, Hayes, I think, goes both too far and not far enough. He goes too far because elites behaving badly isn’t a symptom but a recurrent fact of social life in every society. (Hayes could have stood some historical perspective here: are the elites of the early 21st century really that much worse behaved than the elites who caused the Johnstown Flood or engaged in systematic racial, religious, and gender discrimination?)

He goes insufficiently far because his viewpoint is relentlessly parochial: this is another fable of American exceptionalism in which American failures are analytically incomparable to failures–or successes–in other societies. (Can the American trahison des elites really have been worse than the failures of enarques or Etonians?) And, most profoundly, his analytical framing is deeply nationalist, when, as Chrystia Freeland and others have shown, there really does exist a global super-elite who only perch in the United States when convenient but whose movements and preferences shape US politics more profoundly than do JD Vance’s kin?

But Hayes’s redeeming grace is that he almost squarely recognizes the implications of his diagnosis:

Together, the discrediting of our old sources of authority and the exponential proliferation of new ones has almost completely annihilated our social ability to reach consensus on just what the facts of the matter are. When our most central institutions are no longer trusted, we each take refuge in smaller, balkanized epistemic encampments, aided by the unprecedented information technology at our disposal. As some of these encampments build higher and higher fences, walling themselves off from science and empiricism, we approach a terrifying prospect: a society that may no longer be capable of reaching the kind of basic agreement necessary for social progress. And this is happening at just the moment when we face the threat of catastrophic climate change, what is likely the single largest governing challenge that human beings have ever faced in the history of life on the planet.

A longer and broader perspective on the matter might have led Hayes to the next step: the possibility that the economics of media and culture–of the noosphere itself–have been so fragmented that the possibility of elite consensus governing a vertically integrated society, as more or less all developed and Communist bloc countries had attained ca. 1945-1975, has disappeared. That period was as ephemeral and epiphenomenal as trench warfare or mass aerial bombing raids.

The combination of the omnipresent human drive for levelling and of broadly disseminated access to the means of producing ideas will not prove fertile ground for persuasion over the desirability of re-submitting ourselves to elites who are–and let us be honest–worn out and barely competent at best. Re-forming the conditions for unified governance will likely require the same sorts of fundamental ordering as the Second World War provided globally and the Civil War provided domestically.