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.

Cowen divides his complacent classes into the privileged, who have won and want to keep their winnings; the middle, who haven’t really won but want to make sure they don’t lose, either; those who are stuck, and can’t see any way to win but can see lots of ways to lose. And he sees stasis manifesting in the lack of change in U.S. physical infrastructure (both public and private), dropping rates of personal mobility, and even the limitation of micro-choices about movement.

Throughout the work, Cowen stresses the importance of physicality for social and economic processes.In general, the complacent classes–and here he must mean the privileged and the middle–are “more comfortable with the world of information” than they are with the actual, physical world (p. 9). And it really is amazing that the United States has “gone in relatively short order from a time when the physical world and its infrastructure were vital, ever-changing, and all we had, to one in which, at least for younger people, they increasingly play second fiddle.” Ready Player One was, in the end, a terrible book, but it perfectly captured the lived experience of my generation: Online is getting ‘better’–slicker, more central to our lives, and more respectable–but The Real World, in its American release, is awful: gray, crumbling, beset by wires (the physical shadow of Online!), and, of course, simply old. Some of that old stuff is antique or refurbished, but much more of it is just aging and crummy. Even in the past decade, U.S. housing stocks have gotten noticeably older, and Census figures reveal that the median housing unit was built in 1976 (!). Yes, the housing boom of the 2000s was a bubble, but it’s also clear that the United States needs to build lots more housing to meet increased demand, both from smaller households and from the fact that the US has more than 100 million additional people!

I care about housing and land-use a lot, and Cowen is on his strongest ground when he talks about how entrenched interests (both NIMBYs and rent-seekers) have made it harder to move or to stay put for all but the richest Americans. It really is a national scandal that local governments, most of which are beholden to a vanishingly small number of attentive voters and interest groups, are in charge of zoning policy. The clamor of critics assailing Houstonians for land-use policy would be easier to bear if established cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston made it possible for anyone but the rich (and, in SF’s case, increasingly the super-rich) to move and live there. People have to live somewhere, after all, and every apartment not built in the more classically sustainable and desirable cities is one that will be built in the Sunbelt. Those who insist on the character or the uniqueness of their towns as reasons to prevent building are playing more or less the same tune as Southern segregationists–and with more or less the same effect on the poor and racial minorities.

Cowen’s book continues with a recognizable, if not altogether surprising, portrait of how the development of the service economy has made life nicer for the members of the complacent class. The soma that the complacent classes drink comes in many flavors, from marijuana to lifestyle customization to ever-more-precise matching algorithms for love, life, and … pets. And Cowen (rightly) singles out enclaves of supposedly progressive individuals for acting in ways that preserve bastions of local privilege:

If we look at all metropolitan areas, not just the large ones, Durham-Chapel Hill, Bloomington [Ind.], and Ann Arbor–all college towns–climb into the top five for segregation of the working class away from the non-working class. That is again the somewhat incestuous self-clustering of the complacent class rearing its head. Due to their major universities, those towns all have lots of people proficient in IT or biotech, lots of skilled labor, lots of creativity, and people working hard to get ahead–all features that, it turns out, correlate with residential segregation by education and social class. (p. 55)

This dynamic is perfectly obvious to anyone who has ever driven through a college town or any other knowledge-working enclave. It’s not new, of course; there’s a great line in Breaking Away in which the quarry-working father talks about how he felt alienated from his labor building Indiana University: “I was proud of my work. And the buildings went up. When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. It just felt uncomfortable, that’s all.” But the subtle mechanisms of social segregation prove no less pernicious for their guises of “respectability”, “authenticity”, and “local character”; the sorts of diversity that such communities tend to select for range in the more fashionable types, which leads to the absurdities of towns like Amherst and Northampton, Massachusetts, festooned with signs proclaiming “Refugees are Welcome Here” but devoid of any sort of large-scale housing projects that might welcome any other sort of migration.

Cowen’s book seeks to influence policy and opinion through two ways. First, he wants to rekindle American passions for living in a dynamic society. It has been a long time since I lived in China, but his observation (p. 143) that “China has a culture of ambition and dynamism and a pace of change that hearken back to a much earlier America” feels exactly right. The pathologies of Chinese growth are immense: the skyscrapers are largely bubble-driven, infrastructure is over-invested, rights are under-protected, and migrant laborers really are ground underfoot. But so, too, the United States of a hundred years ago (and in many cases today, with lower growth and worse wealth inequality). The strengthening of the Chinese state has led to improvements in (still awful) environmental quality, and the real human gains from Chinese development are awesome. In contrast, the United States feels … well, in its physical sense, pretty much the same as it did when I was a child, modulo a few starchitects’ erections in financial districts. I will note that the Sunbelt also retains some of this dynamism, albeit more diffused because of policies favoring sprawl over density.

Second, Cowen wants to avoid a collapse. “[I]n the longer term, social change will boil over once again, in uncontrollable ways,” Cowen writes (p. 21):

For all of our interest in controlling and often thwarting change, this stagnation cannot and will not last forever. In all systems, pressures build for change, and the more we shunt aside or postpone those pressures, whether through segregation, poor mobility, political dysfunctionality, sluggish productivity, and debt-financed economic growth, or a general disengagement and misasma of spirit, the stronger they become. Eventually, we will see the latent tensions building and begin to understand that changes can be postponed but not avoided. Ultimately that means that our current dilemmas will continue until they reach their breaking points.

This fear explains Cowen’s preoccupation with the threats to masculine living standards, not (I am confident) because Cowen has any interest in returning to an earlier age of social mobility but because the dynamics of social performance render it difficult for those who are (justly) targeted as possessing privilege to adapt or counter those pressures without turning toward anti-systemic strategies. Indeed, Cowen is trapped between a dilemma: he approves of the greater ranges of individual choice that the last four decades of social contestation have created, but he fears that the compression of social space, the limiting of economic growth, and the (perceived) zero-sum nature of many such encounters will concentrate grievances. This is, I think, a complicated topic, but one that does deserve more consideration than it has gotten: a pro-growth, pro-justice coalition would, in principle, likely prove more sustainable and attractive than current alignments. Indeed, my greatest fear is that this path is already blocked off: that Trump and polarization have made rapprochement and realignment in this manner impossible.

Yet I think that Cowen falls short on his prescriptions because his diagnosis is incomplete. Cowen is a subtle thinker, but his account of the rise of the complacent class slights the concentration of wealth and power that the past forty years have also witnessed. Income inequality isn’t absent from the book, but it receives far less attention than (just to take the next entry in the index) information technology. Much of what Cowen is describing isn’t exactly the result of societal shifts in preferences for stasis; those desires have always been with us. Rather, I think it’s better understood as a combination of Mancur Olson’s rent-seeking story and Jonathan Rauch’s demosclerosis notion. Many of the collective-action failures Cowen identifies used to be addressed by intermediary institutions–a Tocquevillian concept also not foregrounded in the book!–such as institutions, universities, religious networks, and media organizations that had both coordinate interests in growth, fairness, and the public good and some institutional autonomy to allow them to pursue such agendas against the interest of government and private wealth.

These days, however, institutions that seek the public interest are under siege–underfunded, discredited by scandal, and subtly eroded by resource-seeking. That process has many sources, but among them surely has to be counted the influence of individuals and corporations with access to truly stunning amounts of money–and a willingness to employ them in ways that subvert the public interest. Cowen’s refusal to grapple with these underlying trends leads him to spend more time picking on professors (a group of which I’m a member, like Cowen) who have some influence but probably less than, say, Mark Zuckerberg as a corporate person. If you seek the roots of complacency, seek those who benefit most from the discrediting of protest and the weakening of intermediate bodies–and when you come to that origin, you’re more likely to find a clique of oligarchs than a group of intellectuals. Cowen’s work gives a great cudgel to use against enemies of liberty and growth, but we need to identify them correctly to use it properly.