Book review: The Complacent Class


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"The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity."

--W. B. Yeats

The idea that things aren't going great these days is pretty widespread; there's a glut of books pointing out various problems. Cowen's achievement in this one is in weaving together disparate strands of evidence to identify the zeitgeist which summarises the overall trend - in a word, complacency. There are at least two ways in which people can be complacent. Either they're living pretty good lives, and want to solidify their positions as much as possible. Or they're unsatisfied with their lives, but unwilling to mobilise or take the risks which could improve their situations. (People in the middle of the economic spectrum showcase aspects of both). What's the opposite of complacency? Dynamism and risk-taking - traits which have always been associated with immigrants, and with America, the land of immigrants. Such traits aren't always expressed in positive ways, of course. Says Cowen: "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." In comparison to this, even people who are passionate about social change lack anywhere near the same sense of urgency today.

Cowen identifies many metrics which support the narrative of increasing complacency. Over the last few decades, interstate migration has gone down, job mobility has gone down, startup formation has gone down, and business churn and turnover have gone down. What's gone up? Market concentration and "matching": our ability to tailor our lives so that we're only exposed to things we're already comfortable with, whether that be music and movies similar to those we've seen before, or partners from the same class background as us. One particularly perverse result of better matching is increasing racial, economic and political segregation, reversing the progress made in the first half of the 20th century. A particularly notable cause of this is NIMBY movements, many of which have succeeded in ossifying their neighbourhoods by stifling new development. Segregation is also very pronounced in the incarceration industry.

In our personal lives, complacency involves prioritising comfort and security above all: physical security, with games like dodgeball and even tag being banned in schools; emotional security, via safe spaces and trigger warnings; and even corporate security, with companies hyper-focused on protecting their brands and other intangible assets (which have gone from less than 20% to over 80% of the value of the S&P 500 over the last 40 years). LGBT activists have moved from pushing the boundaries of societal norms to pursuing the most traditional of institutions, marriage. Nobody really has a bold vision for the future. (Relatedly, the portion of the federal budget allocated for discretionary spending has been falling sharply.)

But, Cowen says, this mindset can't keep limping along indefinitely, and will eventually face a crisis. In fact, we can think of it as a cyclic process: our current appetite for calm was whetted in the riotous and violent 70s and 80s - but as people become more disillusioned, it will eventually give way to similar turmoil, the start of which we're already seeing.

Causes and complacencies

It's instructive to evaluate The Complacent Class with reference to Cowen's last two books. In The Great Stagnation, he argues that America's growth has slowed down because it ran out of "low-hanging fruit" like the technological advances of the early 20th century. Further, the problem is even worse than it seems, because growth in sectors like healthcare, finance and government spending contributes less to people's welfare than it used to. In Average is Over, he predicts the effects of the next low-hanging fruit: AI. He argues that those who can work well with technology - in broad strokes, the smart and the conscientious - will be able to replace dozens of less-skilled workers, and will be richly rewarded for it (which contributes to increasing credentialism). We should expect to see even more middle-class jobs crowded out, and even more wealth captured by a smaller proportion of people. Returns to being based in a good location are also increasing, driving the clustering of university graduates into relatively few cities. Meanwhile, Cowen predicts that the poor will be squeezed into places with much lower housing costs, even if they end up resembling "shantytowns". He notes that America's population is ageing, and that the elderly voting demographic usually gets what it wants, even at the cost of society overall.

Okay, so how does this relate to complacency? I think that's very unclear. If many of the trends cited in The Complacent Class can be explained by the ideas that we're in a "great stagnation" and that "average is over", without reference to individual attitudes, then they're not really evidence for complacency in the psychological sense. In fact, how do we know that there aren't other explanations for all of them? The ageing population comes to mind as a major possibility (although I'm not sure how many of Cowen's statistics already control for age). Perhaps it's useful to identify an overall pattern of "complacent" behaviour even if different changes have different causes, some psychological and some from technological and international shifts - but this sort of pattern has very little predictive power, since we don't know which other domains we can apply it to.

This lack of clarity around what complacency actually means makes it somewhat unfalsifiable. For Cowen, complacency is demonstrated both by the rich erecting barriers to the advancement of the poor, and by the poor not breaking through those barriers. But what if the rich did nothing while their social and financial dominance eroded away - wouldn't that also count as complacency? What if the poor are actually willing to take more risks now (like the financial risk of going to university) but it's just paying off less - would that really make them "complacent"? Cowen claims that more relaxed codes of dress and manners display "a culture of the static and the settled", but don't they also lower implicit class barriers and therefore promote dynamism? There's a case that doing graduate degrees is ambitious and valuable, but there's a similarly strong case that it's a complacent replacement for making things happen in the real world. The very same companies which match us with our preferred options also allow us to sample more variety - whether that's in songs, shopping, or sexual partners. And so on. More generally, I think we should be biased against claims of the form "it's a big problem that the next generation have the wrong attitude towards X", because they have occurred so commonly throughout history, usually sounded convincing, and were usually wrong.

Nevertheless, there's undeniably some truth to Cowen's core argument. Almost none of the physical technologies around us (buildings, cars, trains, rockets, household appliances) have seen significant progress over the last half-century; nor have systems like healthcare, law, politics or education. But more importantly, people aren't even surprised by this stasis: the radical expectations of the mid-20th century have given way to doubt that our lives will be any better than our parents', plus a generous helping of political disillusionment. It's true that IT has made massive leaps, but as Cowen notes, "a lot of the internet’s biggest benefits are distributed in proportion to our cognitive abilities to exploit them". People who don't highly value near-unlimited access to information or niche communities may even find that the downsides of the internet (addiction to games or porn, mental health problems exacerbated by social media, news media's race to the bottom) outweigh its upsides. So I do believe that westerners today are, psychologically, more complacent than they were a few decades ago, and that this shows through in attitudes towards risk and expectations for the future. It's also likely that increasingly complacent behaviour which isn't caused by a complacent mentality still leads to an overall culture of complacency, although disentangling cause and effect here is tricky. Either way, Cowen's ideas are as thought-provoking as usual and should be taken into account by anyone interested in understanding America.