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"Tyler Cowen's blog, Marginal Revolution, is the first thing I read every morning. And his brilliant new book, The Complacent Class, has been on my nightstand after I devoured it in one sitting. I am at round-the-clock Cowen saturation right now."--Malcolm Gladwell
Since Alexis de Tocqueville, restlessness has been accepted as a signature American trait. Our willingness to move, take risks, and adapt to change have produced a dynamic economy and a tradition of innovation from Ben Franklin to Steve Jobs.
The problem, according to legendary blogger, economist and best selling author Tyler Cowen, is that Americans today have broken from this tradition—we’re working harder than ever to avoid change. We're moving residences less, marrying people more like ourselves and choosing our music and our mates based on algorithms that wall us off from anything that might be too new or too different. Match.com matches us in love. Spotify and Pandora match us in music. Facebook matches us to just about everything else.
Of course, this “matching culture” brings tremendous positives: music we like, partners who make us happy, neighbors who want the same things. We’re more comfortable. But, according to Cowen, there are significant collateral downsides attending this comfort, among them heightened inequality and segregation and decreased incentives to innovate and create.
The Complacent Class argues that this cannot go on forever. We are postponing change, due to our near-sightedness and extreme desire for comfort, but ultimately this will make change, when it comes, harder. The forces unleashed by the Great Stagnation will eventually lead to a major fiscal and budgetary crisis: impossibly expensive rentals for our most attractive cities, worsening of residential segregation, and a decline in our work ethic. The only way to avoid this difficult future is for Americans to force themselves out of their comfortable slumber—to embrace their restless tradition again.
In recent decades, the U.S. has been overtaken by complacency, declares economics professor Cowen (The Great Stagnation). He categorizes complacent Americans into three classes: the privileged, "those who dig in," and "those who are stuck"; all three may want to change their lives in the abstract, but the will to do so has been replaced by acceptance of the status quo. He cites a "not in my backyard" mentality for why the revolutionary tendencies of the 1960s gave way to stasis. A society that once thrived on "Big Projects" such as going to the moon and constructing the interstate highway system has slowed down. Even the booming tech sector has become focused on convenience rather than ambition; Cowen contrasts Spotify with the 1970s' supersonic Concorde. He also takes a (de rigueur) page from Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America to analyze current American indifference. He concludes that such otherwise very different phenomena as the protests in Ferguson, Mo., and the rise of Donald Trump threaten this complacency and suggest that societal change is on the way. Cowan's predictions take on a different coloring with the results of the 2016 presidential election, and it will be fascinating to see whether and how they come true.