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Immobility in America

by David French

The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, by Tyler Cowen (St. Martin’s, 256 pp., $28.99)

It’s the end of the world as we knew it, and the rich feel fine. The rest of us? We’re stuck and stagnant, and can’t quite figure out whether we’re okay.

Tyler Cowen’s new book is a challenging read. It’s one of several important books in recent years — Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (2012) and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids (2015) also come to mind — that describe why America is not what it used to be and why, in general, this is a very bad thing.

Cowen is focused on the question of dynamism and, more precisely, why we lost it. Americans relocate less, start fewer businesses, develop fewer truly revolutionary inventions (outside the tech sector), and are increasingly clustering in like-minded communities segregated by race and class.

It’s a system that works to the immense satisfaction and enjoyment of America’s wealthiest cohort. Increasingly, they live and work in urban Disneylands that feature extraordinary access to the best food, the best educations, and the best neighbors. High rents and mortgages segregate communities as effectively as any gate or wall. Make it into this income class (and the good news is, many Americans still do) and you’ll likely find that nothing needs to change. Life is very, very good.

This development, by itself, is hardly surprising. After all, the rich tend to like the status quo. But Cowen notes that other American social classes are either “stuck” or “digging in.” Those who dig in are the middle-income Americans who “hope to hang on to what is a pretty decent life.” At the bottom are the “stuck” Americans, people whose life choices or circumstances have left them with few options; rather than fight for something better, they’re more apt to try to get on disability.

In Cowen’s words, “what these groups have in common is a certain level of social and emotional and indeed ideological acceptance — a presupposition — of slower change.” Refreshingly, Cowen pays far less attention to politics to explain the loss in American dynamism and far more to much larger cultural changes. The America that emerged, scarred, from the hyper-violent (and, he’d also argue, hyper-dynamic) 1960s and early 1970s raced to introduce a degree of peace, comfort, and safety to daily life. In Cowen’s words, Americans “stopped rioting and legalized marijuana.” The result is a potentially unsustainable new national reality. Cowen effectively shows how rational self-interest again and again pushes Americans into complacency and thereby limits the options of Americans in lower social classes.

Particularly interesting is his discussion of “matching” — how modern technology makes it extraordinarily easy to match you to the neighborhood, music, and even mate that are perfectly suited for you. Matching brings contentment. Matching makes the status quo all the more enjoyable. Matching breeds complacency.

Or, if you’d like to consider another driver of complacency and stagnation, consider the high cost of housing in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Silicon Valley. The parts of the United States with arguably the greatest level of entrepreneurial energy and potential for job creation have artificially inflated costs of entry. Rampant NIMBYism (“NIMBY” is short for “not in my back yard”) means that the residents frown on new development. The law of supply and demand takes over, and a large number of people (often including the international elite) seeking housing, combined with a very slowly increasing supply, means that rents are so stratospheric that a person could sell a nice house in, say, Tennessee, and the equity left over would barely put a dent in the purchase of a dwelling a fraction of the size in San Francisco. Even if you wanted to live in a matchbox (after enjoying the large dwelling and open surroundings in rural and suburban America), the resulting mortgage payment might be three or four times greater.

In the real world, this means that rich people live with rich people, and the housing in Silicon Valley is so far out of reach that the ordinary American doesn’t even think about it as a viable destination. National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson has written at length about the need for economically distressed American families to move (and of the need for more building and lower housing prices in such places as New York and San Francisco). He has an ally in Cowen, a man who longs for the increased economic dynamism and cultural energy that would come with fuller racial, political, and socioeconomic integration.

And don’t be misled, Cowen argues, by the flashy advances in the tech sector. In many other industries, innovation is slowing down. Owing to increased congestion and outdated infrastructure, we travel more slowly than we did in the past. While an iPhone would be fantastically futuristic to a man of the 1960s, our cars are recognizable, our planes are very much the same, and our space program is decidedly earthbound. Snapchat is great, but wouldn’t supersonic transport be more impressive?

I must confess that it was refreshing to read a book that comprehensively described a deeply rooted social phenomenon and then refrained from “solving” or transforming that social order with a handy four-point plan. Cowen is more realistic and pessimistic than that. Instead, he argues that chaos is in our future, that the “complacent class cannot hold.”

His reasoning, rooted in history and economic reality, is that the “beneficial features of peace and calm cannot stay in place forever; rather, eventually they will trickle away with the dynamism.” In other words, “if relatively high mobility goes away for too many Americans, perspectives will turn against the established order, and, furthermore, there won’t be the money to pay for it.” As Cowen says, Americans “are borrowing against the future to pay our bills.”

Past dynamism is helping pay for present comfort, but present comfort won’t pay for future peace. Cowen sees not just the 2016 campaign but also the Ferguson riots, campus unrest, and recent increases in crime as signs of underlying restlessness. He rejects the notion that history is inevitably on the side of progress, and writes in bold letters, “The biggest story of the last 15 years, both nationally and globally, is the growing likelihood that a cyclical model of history will be a better predictor than a model of ongoing progress.”

Cowen tells it like it is, and highlights a factor that bolsters considerably his prediction of future instability. Who are the “big losers” when the complacent class takes control? Unskilled male workers, including those who are naturally more aggressive. He notes how rigorously corporations police their cultures and that a world of “service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a ‘feminized’ culture allergic to many forms of conflict, postfeminist gender relations, and egalitarian sociocosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many men.”

I’m reminded of the story of one of my friends — actually a very highly skilled man, an officer and combat veteran from Iraq — who was ushered out the door at Google largely because, as his supervisor told him, “You’re just not Googly enough.”

Lots of men (and women, for that matter) aren’t “Googly” at all, and a nation and culture has to find a place for them, or they will — as history has demonstrated time and again — find a place for themselves. Read Cowen’s book and wonder: How much longer can our complacency last?

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