*The Complacent Class*

I had high hopes for The Complacent Class,(Hereafter, TCC) the recently released book by Tyler Cowen. The book might be seen as the third in a series of books by Cowen beginning with The Great Stagnation, which is about the technological slowdown, and Average is Over, which is about labor markets in an age of “smart machines,” both of which were very good books. The thesis of TCC is hard to summarize, but my attempt, in one long sentence, is this: Cowen makes a distinction between dynamism, moving, making changes, getting out of your comfort zone, and stasis, staying in one location and one profession and one job, staying within your comfort zone, meeting and marrying people like yourself, and claims Americans are less dynamic, or more “complacent,” today. Ultimately, I give TCC three stars out of five. While there are some gems, in other chapters, I thought Cowen missed the point, perhaps intentionally. TCC lacks a common theme. The chapters are about different things, and the connection between them is quite superficial, an observation of “less change” which fails to identity a common cause, or many common effects, of these various trends.

TCC  is written in a cryptic style that will be familiar to readers of his blog and his previous books. You have to read between the lines, and Cowen, I’ll note, endorses this approach. In a blog post, Cowen notes that reviewer Dan Wang is “of course is an excellent reader” and then cites the following:

By introducing little oddities in the text, Cowen makes room for claims that are too difficult to baldly state; in other cases, watch for occasions in which he’s offering commentary on something other than what he’s directly writing about.[1]

The book is divided into 9 chapters, the first is an introduction, the next seven are summaries of various developments in America’s “complacency,” and the last is a prediction that this complacency will not hold.

Chapters 2 and 4

These chapters are the best in the book, about the decline of geographic mobility, job switching, and entrepreneurship and the lower rate of turnover among firms. They focus mostly on economic rather than cultural factors. For the decline in geographic mobility, Cowen cites the fact that regions of America are less different, with the decline of manufacturing based only in certain areas, such as automobile manufacturing in Detroit, and the rises in services where employment is scattered throughout the country. Another cause of the decline is the fact that NIMBYism keeps rents high, preventing people from moving into economically booming communities. Job switching, has, in part, declined because “the hiring rate has declined faster than the firing rate.”[2]

Cowen attributes the decline in entrepreneurship, partially, to the increasing dominance of chain stores:

Some of the largest declines in dynamism, as identified by the rate of business turnover have come in the construction, mining, retail, wholesale, and services sectors. In other words, the shops in the town square don’t turn over as rapidly as they used to; some of this slowdown stems from the ongoing supplanting of mom-and-pop stores by major chains, which keep dominant market positions for longer periods of time. The dynamism declines are much smaller in transportation, communications, utilities, and manufacturing, which were more static to begin with. Overall dynamism rates seem to be converging, as the previously more-dynamic sectors in the American economy are failing to change rates of less-dynamic sectors. Just as people have traditionally expected their electricity company to be around for a long time, now a lot of retail chains seem to have taken on the same sacrosanct status.[3]

Cowen next covers the rise of monopoly power. He writes that America “has only two major cell phone carriers, and American cell phone markets are less competitive and more expensive than those in most of Western Europe” and cites the fact that “by federal antitrust standards, there is a high degree of concentration in nearly a third of all industries, compared to about a quarter of all industries in 1996.”[4]

Cowen is pessimistic about the increase in productivity, believing that the figures convey an accurate trend. It’s often claimed that GDP figures don’t account for “free” websites like Google and Facebook, but Cowen points out that that is a misconception, as people pay for computers and internet connections because they include such “free” services.[5] Productivity increases, in fact, may be overestimated, part of the productivity increase has come because less productive workers have dropped out of the workforce or been fired, which raises the productivity of the average worker without increasing any individual worker’s productivity. Furthermore, Cowen believes that in areas where measuring productivity is difficult, health care, education, the nonprofit sector, or government projects, productivity increases have been lower than average.[6]

Cowen, who many including myself believe to be a covert immigration restrictionist, gives some hints of this in chapter 4:

Similarly, American businesses decrease labor costs by outsourcing work for foreign nations with lower labor costs. Such decisions are sometimes necessary elements of running a business, and I don’t mean to portray them as pure cold-hearted corporate villainy. Still, cost-cutting developments build America’s productive future less than coming up with neat and new ways of doing things, such as harnessing electricity, developing antibiotics, or inventing automobiles. Firing lesser-skilled workers, or replacing productive but expensive workers with cheaper foreign workers, is, taken alone, basically a way of keeping the status quo in place – for some, that is – at a lower cost to owners of capital and privileged workers who have kept their incumbent status.[6]

It is this aspect of the book, about entrepreneurship and geographic mobility, which has been most commented on by reviewers. Cowen mostly analyzes the shifts in “dynamism” as being due to wider economic and technological factors rather than to any cultural decline. But passages such as “the villain is us”[7] will allow readers to use the book to put the blame on ordinary Americans, as, for example, this article by David “Dying Goy America” Brooks,[8] which was linked, without comment, by Cowen.[9] Brooks writes:

Cowen shows that in sphere after sphere, Americans have become less adventurous and more static. For example, Americans used to move a lot to seize opportunities and transform their lives. But the rate of Americans who are migrating across state lines has plummeted by 51 percent from the levels of the 1950s and 1960s.

Americans used to be entrepreneurial, but there has been a decline in start-ups as a share of all business activity over the last generation. Millennials may be the least entrepreneurial generation in American history. The share of Americans under 30 who own a business has fallen 65 percent since the 1980s.

Americans tell themselves the old job-for-life model is over. But in fact Americans are switching jobs less than a generation ago, not more. The job reallocation rate — which measures employment turnover — is down by more than a quarter since 1990.

There are signs that America is less innovative. Accounting for population growth, Americans create 25 percent fewer major international patents than in 1999. There’s even less hunger to hit the open road. In 1983, 69 percent of 17-year-olds had driver’s licenses. Now only half of Americans get a license by age 18.

I see it primarily in economic terms, millennials start fewer businesses because they can’t compete with Wal-Mart. Is there some shortage of small businesses? In that case, it would be advantageous to start one, but it sure doesn’t look that way. About start-ups, Cowen tells us that “Not only are there fewer start-ups, but a smaller percentage of them are succeeding.”[10] This tells me that it’s not a shortage of start-ups themselves that are the problem.

Cowen doesn’t discuss education very much in the book, except to note that it’s a sector that experiences especially little turnover, all the best universities are the same as they were 30 years ago, and no one expects that to change.[11] But if millennials are less likely to own businesses or move across the country, one thing they do more of is acquire education. With credential inflation, more education has occurred across the board, with more people going to community college and more going to graduate school. If Cowen shared the common liberal worldview of people like, say, David Brooks, he would cite this as a major positive for the economy, for productivity, and for American “dynamism.” But Cowen does not share their worldview. When I asked him how education fit into the theme of “complacency,” he replied:

So much of that education is a form of consumption. Nothing wrong with that, but a lot of it isn’t leading to higher productivity at all, if anything the opposite. so many colleges and universities are incredibly conformist places these days. They give the faculty tenure, and then those people don’t really take many chances with that remarkable privilege. Sad![12]

That’s all true, but I do think that, for many of the ambitious young people who in the past would have sought greater wealth in a small business or moved to a higher wage area, today attend college. This illustrates why I think “complacency” is a very slippery concept. It applies the same word toward the bum who lives with mom and spends his days playing video games and the undoubtedly conformist teacher’s pet, when they are, in terms of personality, polar opposites.

The major question people will be lead to ask themselves by TCC is, does this new generation lack ambition? Are they lazy, as Michael Rees of the Wall Street Journal writes in his review of TCC?[13] I’m pretty certain that there has been a decline in ambition among the less intelligent third of the population, but among the smartest third, I don’t think so. People are just responding to differing incentives, and, for the smartest third, that incentive is toward conformism. With credentialism, education is much more necessary, with Wal-Mart, the opportunity to start one’s own business is lessened, instead, you must go get a job at one of the (increasingly concentrated) firms.

Cowen, I’ll note, does not share the irrational bias common among the intelligentsia toward “entrepreneurship.” In Average is Over he wrote:

(…) Starting your own business may seem like praise-worthy creative entrepreneurship, but often it is a sign that labor markets are not absorbing everyone at a reasonable wage.

Rona Economou, age thirty three at the time, is a typical story. She was laid off her well-paying job at a large Manhattan law firm and the market for lawyers proved tough to crack. After some soul searching, he responded by opening Boubouki, a small Greej food stall on the Lower East Side, at Essex Street Market. These days she wakes up at 5:30 A.M., lifts a lot of heavy bags, and can’t afford to miss a day of work. It’s not clear her project will succeed financially, much less bring her riches, and it also doesn’t seem that her life is freer. (…) Sometimes economists glorify the dynamism of “petty entrepreneurship” in developing nations, but in reality most of those people would be better off with steady factory jobs, if only such jobs were to be had.[14]

I agree with Cowen here, I’m don’t think that the decline of entrepreneurship is  such a bad thing. I prefer the lower prices at Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart will be better able to adopt the latest technology, and one should note that it will be big companies like Wal-Mart which can afford to pay higher wages if the government demands it. And when mom and pop shops constantly fail, their employees are constantly put out of work. Ultimately, the trends outlined in the two chapters, the decline in entrepreneurship and the decline in geographic mobility, seem to me much more a consequence than a cause of the stagnation in growth rates.(Monopolism is much more complicated, I don’t have an opinion there.) I fear that the alleged “complacency” of American workers will become a cliche, a cop-out to avoid hard questions such as why inequality is up and growth is down. But I’ll note that Cowen is not guilty of it, his two previous books The Great Stagnation and Average is Over covered those questions well. Cowen doesn’t spend much ink in TCC on the underlying cause of the decline in growth, probably because he already wrote a book about it.

The Rest of the Book(Or, Why I Give it 3 Stars)

Chapter 3 is about “The Reemergence of Segregation.” Cowen reviews data on the lack of Black-White income convergence and the increase in racial segregation. This should not surprise any Steve Sailer readers. Cowen writes that “most forms of segregation ultimately corrode the basis of prosperity and innovation and eat into the trust and seed capital of society.”[15] There is no mention of why Whites might want segregation, nor of where Cowen himself lives and sends his children to school. He writes that wealthy Blacks are also relatively segregated:

(….)For whatever embedded cultural reasons, even America’s hip and trendy neighborhoods just aren’t that welcoming, including for wealthier Africa Americans, as welll as in more detail below. In a lot of different parts of America, the older culture seems to have been welcoming of racial integration, and mixing in general, even if direct racial prejudice has gone down.

I found this silicon valley ancedote striking:

She [Lena Alston, an African American woman] could see that Google wanted to foster a diverse culture, but, as the only African American on her team, she didn’t feel she had much in common with her colleagues. “When I went out to lunch or something with my team, it was sort of like, `Soon, what are you guys talking about?” she says. “It could be something as simple as, like, what they watch on TV or what kind of books they like to read. And those are just not TV shows that I watch or books that I read.”

“Back in the civil rights period, it used to be that lighter-skinned people were able to pass and be more acceptable, so they were able to get into organizations or get into companies,” [Legend] Burge says. “Now it’s a little bit different. It’s about cultural fit. Do you laugh at the same jokes? Do you Rollerblade or whatever?”[16]

The Straussian reading of this is that, among the wealthy, it’s the Blacks, not the Whites, who are more racialist. The “older culture more welcoming of integration” is not referring to the White culture!

Most of the focus is on Blacks, but Cowen also writes that “the broader data for trends in Latino segregation also are not entirely encouraging, as, for instance, in 1990 Latinos had more residential proximity with whites than they did in the period 2005 through 2009.”[17] It apparently doesn’t occur to him that it might have something to do with the fact that there are proportionally a lot less Whites in 2009 in areas like California than there were in 1990. Displacing Whites has some side effects such as there not being as many Whites around.

Chapter 5 is about matching, in music and mating. Cowen describes himself as a “happiness optimist and a revenue pessimist” and seems to think that certain matching algorithms, in terms of music, TV, and dating, are making people happier. I think the internet, music, and video games do make people happier, but I’m much more pessimistic about online dating websites. Aren’t they mostly used by the bottom half of the sexual market? Having a lot of options isn’t that great if you don’t particularly like any of them. Cowen writes that “we need to seriously entertain the hypothesis that, on average, our sex and love lives are considerably better off than they were a few decades ago.”[18] As far as data goes, this statement, like it’s inverse, is essentially unfalsifiable. Data can be interpreted any way you want, if you find that the marriage rate has gone up up, you can say it’s because people found better matches, if it goes down, you can say some people are happier playing the field and those people are now more able to do so. But if sex is getting better for people, the data indicates it must be in its’ quality and not its’ quantity, neither in America or Britain.[19][20] My own biased, again unfalsafiable, feeling is that, no, it’s not better, it’s worse. The men are less social, the women are less feminine, both genders are fatter, and both genders receive unrealistic expectations about the opposite sex from the media.

Chapter 6 is TCC’s strangest chapter, entitled “why Americans stopped rioting and legalized marijuana.” Cowen sees modern Americans’ reluctance to riot and set off bombs for political reasons as part of America’s complacency. He writes(emphasis in original):

One of the great ironies of the situation is that those most likely to
complain about the complacent class are themselves the prime and often
most influential members of that class themselves, namely what I call the
privileged class. When we hear Progressives criticizing high income
inequality or conservatives bemoaning America’s fall in global stature,
you might wonder, If they are complaining, what makes them so

The defining feature of these groups of people is, most of all, the lack
of a sense of urgency. Our current decade can be understood by
comparing it to the 1960s and early 1970s. The Watts riots of 1965 put
4,000 people in jail and led to thirty-four killed and hundreds injured;
during an eighteen-month period in 1971—1972, there were more than
2,500 domestic bombings reported, averaging out to more than five a
day. I’m not advocating these tactics, of course. My point is that, today,
there is an entirely different mentality, a far more complacent one, and
one that finds it hard to grasp that change might proceed on such a basis.
Yet in the 1960s and 1970s, not only did riots and bombings happen, but
large numbers of influential intellectuals endorsed them, defended them,
and maybe led them to some degree. Back then the privileged class was
not always so complacent because a large number of those individuals
were far more willing to disrupt the social order. Today the critique is
penned, and the enemies of reason and progress are condemned, but then
the page is turned and the complacent class turns its attention back to the
very appealing comforts of everyday life.[21]

What are we to make of this point? I’m not exactly sure. The question we should be asking is why did the bombings and riots start, but Cowen does not ask this question. In connection with the riots and bombings, the word “communism” never appears. The rioters are said to be plain old “Americans,” one ignorant of history might assume it was the residents of Lake Wobegon, MN, who were burning cities and setting off bombs. Cowen writes as if that decade was the historical norm, with us moderns as aberrations. A simple explanation is generational, every generation takes the time in which they were young children to be the historical norm, with the change they witnessed during adulthood being the dramatic turn. It used to be the fifties that was the Past, but the 50-somethings are from a new generation. Cowen is 55 years old, born in 1962. I do not think that is the right explanation, however, Cowen surely has extensive knowledge of American history.

Why did the bombings stop? The Bill Ayers’ of the world got tired of it, realizing that they could do much more damage to “the system” as college professors than bombers. The history of communism in America is long, but the history of violent “revolutionary” actions is short, two periods, roughly 1919-1920 and 1968-1974, when they convinced themselves the revolution was around the corner. Perhaps the “Straussian” reading of Cowen’s point is that Americans lack the cojones to fight for their beliefs, whatever they are?

Cowen makes much of the “bureaucratization of protest.” He cites increasing restrictions on people’s ability to publicly protest, noting that the Selma-to-Montgomery march could never happen today because the “NIMBY mentality” wouldn’t allow the shutting down of a highway for a march. Indeed, these laws have restricted protest somewhat,(and for good reason, “freedom of religion” doesn’t give you the right to hold prayer services on I-75) the question is, how much would the protesters/rioters care? There have been numerous instances of “Black lives matter” protesters blocking highways, but it makes sense that Cowen doesn’t mention it, as he couldn’t bring himself to defend or condemn it.

In connection with rioting, Cowen cites something called “management science,” and claims that these allegedly scientific tactics prevent protests from turning into riots. He uses this cop-out to explain the Baltimore and Ferguson riots, in this bit of not-even-wrong virtue signalling:

In both cases, the intial police behavior was violent, and the subsequent police response induced crowd violence, which then spread out of control, especially in Fergusson…Management science did not govern the processes.[22]

Thank God management science was applied at those Tea Party protests!

In reality, I’d say that if modern “management science” faced off against 1960s-style protesters, you’d see even more destruction as “management science” leads to the rioters being given their “space to destroy.” Perhaps fewer homicides, because more people would survive gunshots wounds, but just as much destruction of property. We don’t face 1960s style-protests, riots, and bombings because the modern descendants of the 1960s communists, the cultural marxists, realize that such tactics are counterproductive.

If your explanation for “why don’t people commit crime X anymore” is “they passed a few laws against it,” I would advise you to seriously rethink your theory.

Chapter 7 is about “how a dynamic society looks and feels” and compares America to China, where there is much inter-generational mobility; Cowen gives examples of people who start off as the children of peasants and become billionaire industrialists. Cowen cites the heritability of intelligence, which he estimates as being between .40 and .60.(The true value, by adulthood, seems to be closer to .6-.8)[23] With this, Cowen points out that a meritocratic society leads to less mobility over time, as intelligent individuals sort themselves, and their intelligence-causing genes, into the various classes. This is notable only for who is saying it.

Chapter 8 is about “political stagnation.” Cowen reviews the increasing proportion of the American budget which is “locked” in a few programs, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the Military, and paying interest on the national debt. This leaves less available for grand projects. He sees this as a lessening of American dynamism. I think the increasing “locking in” of federal spending is a good thing, leaving less for bridges-to-nowhere, midnight basketball, and bureaucratic pencil-pushers. My ideal government would include significant redistribution but little in the way of grand projects.(See this very good article critical of federal infrastructure spending.[24]) Given that Cowen is a libertarian-leaning economist, I would expect him to agree with me. Yet Cowen appears to desire a stronger government, with more power to address, perhaps, the segregation covered in chapter 3. This will be a delight to liberal readers. However, I suspect the Straussian reading is that this is a good thing.

In the final chapter, Cowen predicts that the complacency will end, with “dynamism” returning at some point. Change may return in the realms of government, crime, and foreign affairs.

There will be a crisis that, Cowen thinks, will shake the government out of it’s stasis:

No matter what you may think of the content of current policy, America’s government has been run pretty stably for the last few decades, as I discussed in chapter 8. Nonetheless, a problem will arise as more and more funds are preallocated and locked into preordained uses. At some point this country will face an immediate crisis, and there won’t quite be the resources, or more fundamentally the flexibility, to handle it. Imagine, for instance, military crises in the Baltics and the South China Sea at the same time. To resolve such a messy situation, America probably would need more resources, more cooperation across government, and more public support for involvement than we currently have. 

Of course, that is just an example. I don’t know what this crisis will be or when it will come. If not a foreign policy problem from a two- or three-front conflict, it could be an environmental catastrophe requiring immediate attention, a major terrorist attack, or perhaps something entirely unexpected, a true “Black Swan,” so to speak, in Nassim Taleb’s use of that term.

Ramping up government spending to respond to that crisis won’t be so simple. It could require higher tax rates and higher government spending—and bigger cutbacks elsewhere—than the American economy could sustain or the American people would be willing to support. In any case, it is not just a question of raising money; institutions for handling the problem have to be built as well—how long has it taken to turn the Department of Homeland Security into a well-run organization? Are we there yet? Building good institutions and capabilities very quickly is no longer something the American public sector is very good at, perhaps not since the days of the moon-landing program, which from announcement to fruition took well under a decade.[25]

Perhaps the Straussian interpretation of this is that such a megaproject, to address an over-hyped “environmental catastrophe” or a foreign intervention that we JUST NEED to do, will not be affordable for the government, no matter how much the Clinton Administration(TCC was mostly written before the election) wants to do so. The problem with that claim is that it isn’t really true. With interest rates on government debt being what they are, the government could just borrow more money. But perhaps there is a shortage, not of money, but of trust:

This erosion of trust eventually will limit the effectiveness of American government; indeed, in many ways it already does. As long as the feds are just sending checks through the mail and making electronic deposits, through transfer programs such as Medicare and Social Security, lower levels of trust may be manageable. But as soon as Americans have to rely on their government to do something new and concrete—whether at home or in the realm of foreign policy or public health or the environment—low levels of trust will make that more difficult. Americans are not just all going to get behind new initiatives the way they did with the moon program or the interstate highway system or even the Reagan military buildup. The better-run governments in the world tend to be trusted by their people. They can announce what they want to do, be believed, proceed with concrete steps, and at the end of the process be evaluated by voters in a more or less fair way.[26]

Yet, how will this dissuade politicians from acting is unclear. For every Republican who opposed Obamacare solely because it  came from Obama, there was a Democrat who supported it for the exact same reason. But perhaps this is a clever strategic move from Cowen, directed against the Left. In much of politics, perception can become reality. If everyone can be convinced that to do X is impossible, that X becomes impossible.

Cowen next writes that “I’d say we are on the cusp of another big crime wave.”[27] With this, he is referring to crime committed over the internet. This crime wave “is going to break the internet, or at least significant parts of it.”[28] What kind of crime is he thinking of? There’s serious stuff, identity theft, data theft, and phishing attacks. There are serious but technically victimless crimes, like darknet drug dealing. And then there’s the “many internet “activities” that may or may not translate into formal legal crimes but that distress people nonetheless.” In this, Cowen is referring to “the threats, the stalking, the insults, the harassment, the social media campaigns, the shaming, and the wrecking of reputations that go on every day.”[29] Cowen seems to think these activities can be compared to crime. I disagree. “Online stalking” and “online harassment” cannot at all be compared to the real-life equivalents. In real life stalking and harassment, there is an implied possibility of violence, the target can’t just push a few buttons and make the offender disappear from view. For the online equivalent, one can. “Online harassment” most of the time means “criticism” and those most likely to complain about it are political activists who aren’t trying to live as private citizens, and who are entirely willing to throw “harassing” insults at those they disagree with. That said, I do agree that online trolling, along video game violence, griefing, and cheating, has diverted vandalist tendencies toward a relatively benign area, one in which they will not be counted in the crime rate.

As far as the serious stuff, I think internet crimes have peaked. The current and future generations will be smarter about software. Over time, there will be less John Podestas in the world, people who are intelligent in general but can be clueless about the online world. Phishing will continue to victimize people, but they will be the stupider half of the population, with less ability to garner media attention to their victimization and less juicy stuff to steal.

Cowen claims that, after parts of the internet are “broken:”

(…)most people will not think of the open internet as a safe space. It will be viewed as a place to be abused, insulted, and harassed and have one’s identity stolen. We will move more and more to walled-off, regulated apps, and the former utopian dream of the internet as a true intellectual and commercial free-for-all won’t come to realization.[30]

I disagree strongly with this prediction. If you’re a teenage guy, you don’t care about being “insulted” or “harassed.”(Well, you do, but you don’t think you do) The idea of having a big corporation full of old people “protecting” you from that, you oppose that in principal. Indeed, teenagers dislike the very presence of old people on their sites, see the fact that there has been some movement of teenagers away from Facebook to websites like Twitter and Instagram, now that their parents are on Facebook. This constant churn will be a permanent feature of the internet. Perhaps this description of a “walled off” internet is a covert prediction of censorship of the internet by the Left in the future.

Following this discussion of internet crime, Cowen writes that “most generally, we should not expect that peaceful or low-crime periods will continue.” Stating that the decline in crime in the 1990s remains fundamentally unexplained, he hypothesizes that it was the result of changes in “social mood.” About it he says that “we don’t understand it, we can’t measure it except as a residual, and most likely we can’t predict it.”[31] About this I agree.

Cowen concludes the book by comparing the “cyclical theories” of history, with regular ups and downs, to the more commonly accepted “constant progress” conception of the world. He considers recent world history:

During the 1990s, the degree of optimism in the United States and around the world was extreme. Productivity growth was high, information technology seemed to hold all kinds of promise, and in some years real wages grew by 3 percent or more, including for the middle class. Everything seemed to be moving in the right direction. The attacks of 9/11 had not yet happened, and terror attacks did not dominate the news. Just about every country seemed to be embracing good liberalizing reforms, including India and Russia and China; there was even talk that Russia might join the European Union in due time, and it seemed Russia was now a democracy, albeit an imperfect one. The Middle East was hardly ideal, but it was nothing like its current conflagration. Overall, it was an age of reform, democratization, and rapid economic growth. And, in the United States in particular, life was stable too, unless you happened to be one of the many black people ensnared by our criminal justice system. It was as if we had the best of all possible worlds, dynamic growth and stability all rolled into one happy picture. [32]

In terms of foreign affairs, the level of optimism has decreased since the 1990s, but much of that is a reflection of Western elite biases rather than reality on the ground. For instance, the 1990s in Russia saw the 1993 constitutional crisis and the 1996 Russian Presidential Election, which conducted in the same corrupt manner as they have been conducted under Putin. But in those cases, the Right People won, so, it was liberal, in a way. And Cowen apparently forgets the massive looting of the Russian economy by the oligarchs, which will go down in history as probably the most massive economic collapse not caused by war since the Great Depression. About the Middle East, unrest has been a continuous game of whack-a-mole. Algeria had a very violent civil war in the 1990s but is relatively quiet now, whereas Syria and Libya, quiet in the 1990s, are in shambles now. Iraq and Afghanistan have been in a continual mess ever since ~1980. In sum, it was better in the 1990s, but not by very much. In other areas, things are definitely better now, see the former Yugoslavia. So it doesn’t look like things are going downhill to me. The main difference is that, with the West’s immigration policies, we’ve brought the war home.

Cowen is on better ground when he cites the cyclical theory of stock market recession of Hyman Minsky, that periods of good times lead to investors letting their collective guard down, making bad investments, and suffering the consequences. Minsky was mostly ignored until after the Great Recession, before that, many economists were convinced that such a major crisis could no longer happen in so rational a market. But the 2008 financial crisis did not wash away the apparent “complacency.” Why should another one do so? Is there a possibility of another Great Depression, as bad as it was in the 1930s? I don’t think so, due to structural differences between the current economy and the economy of the 1930s, see this post by Lion of the Blogosphere.[33]

Ultimately, Cowen makes a rather poor argument that the trends he laid out in the previous chapters will end anytime soon.


Cowen drops a few Red Pills which may shock his liberal readers, such as the part about the heritability of intelligence and his noting that the most segregated parts of the country are big, liberal cities, and the fact that, by 1970 “57 percent of Black male college graduates worked for the government, as did 72 percent of Black female college graduates.”[34] But those are mere facts, I didn’t see much insight in TCC apart from in chapters 2 and 4. In combination with the not-too-infrequent virtue signalling, for instance, there is a reference to the bad behavior of “males” “at a Trump rally,”(Cowen is well aware where the vast majority of political violence in this cycle has originated)[35] I would be hesitant to recommend TCC. Cowen likes to use the word “mood affiliation” and I perceived a lot of it in the book. What’s so bad about being resistant to change? He just doesn’t like it, and that’s just the mood he’s in.


  1. Tyler Cowen, Open-minded vs. hungry-minded, Marginal Revolution, February 27 2017 http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2017/02/open-minded-vs-hungry-minded.html
  2. Tyler Cowen, The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest For The American Dream, St. Martn’s Press, 2017, pg 31
  3. Cowen, pg 76
  4. Cowen, pg 77
  5. Cowen, pg 95
  6. Cowen, pg 84
  7. Cowen, pg 12
  8. David Brooks, This Century is Broken, New York Times, February 21 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/21/opinion/this-century-is-broken.html?ref=opinion&_r=1
  9. Tyler Cowen, David Brooks on *The Complacent Class*, Marginal Revolution, February 21 201 http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2017/02/david-brooks-complacent-class.html
  10. Cowen, pg 74
  11. Cowen, pg 77
  12. Tyler Cowen, I am Tyler Cowen, blogger at Marginal Revolution, George Mason Economics Professor, and author of “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.” Ask Me Anything!, Reddit, March 6 2017 https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/5xv3am/i_am_tyler_cowen_blogger_at_marginal_revolution/del36rq/
  13. Matthew Rees, How American Workers Got Lazy, Wall Street Journal, Febuary 27 2017 https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-american-workers-got-lazy-1488240716
  14. Tyler Cowen, Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, Dutton, 2013, pg 61
  15. Cowen, pg 48
  16. Cowen, pg 65
  17. Cowen, pg 61
  18. Cowen, pg 106
  19. Cambridge professor’s in-depth analysis of sex survey reveals couples’ secrets beneath the sheets, Cambrige News, March 29 2015 http://web.archive.org/web/20150402124809/http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/Cambridge-professor-s-depth-sex-survey-reveals/story-26249577-detail/story.html
  20. Twenge, J.M., Sherman, R.A. & Wells, B.E. Arch Sex Behav (2017). https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10508-017-0953-1
  21. Cowen, pg 5
  22. Cowen, pg 134
  23. Cowen, pg 147
  24. Edward L. Glasser, If You Build It . . ., City Journal, Summer 2016 https://www.city-journal.org/html/if-you-build-it-14606.html
  25. Cowen, pg 189
  26. Cowen, pg 191
  27. Cowen, pg 184
  28. Cowen, pg 187
  29. Cowen, pg 186
  30. Cowen, pg 187
  31. Cowen, pg 188
  32. Cowen, pg 197
  33. Lion of the Blogosphere, About the current invisible depression, October 8 2013 https://lionoftheblogosphere.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/about-the-current-invisible-depression/
  34. Cowen, pg 27
  35. Cowen, pg 20
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4 Responses to *The Complacent Class*

  1. Pingback: Wednesday assorted links - Marginal REVOLUTION

  2. Perhaps the work suffers from the obvious self censorship over “hot” topics.


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