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The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream Hardcover – February 28, 2017
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“[The Complacent Class] provides an open invitation for the reader to think deeply.” ―Derek Thompson, The Atlantic
“‘The Complacent Class' is refreshingly nonideological, filled with observations that will resonate with conservatives, liberals and libertarians. ... a useful corrective to the conventional wisdom that American ingenuity, sooner or later, will revive a low-growth economy.” ―The Wall Street Journal
“One of the most important reads of the new year.” ―National Review
"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
"Tyler Cowen is an international treasure. Endlessly inventive and uniquely wide-ranging, he has produced a novel account of what ails us: undue complacency. No one but Cowen would ask, 'Why Americans stopped rioting and instead legalized marijuana.' He admires risk-taking, and he likes restlessness, and he thinks the United States needs lots more of both. Don't be complacent: Read this book!"--Cass R. Sunstein, Harvard University, and author of #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
"A book that will undoubtedly stir discussion"--Kirkus
Praise for The Great Stagnation:
"Cowen’s book… will have a profound impact on the way people think about the last thirty years."―Ryan Avent, Economist.com
"Tyler Cowen may very well turn out to be this decade's Thomas Friedman."--Kelly Evans, The Wall Street Journal
About the Author
TYLER COWEN (Ph.D.) holds the Holbert L. Harris chair in economics at George Mason University. He is the author of a number of explanatory and text books, including The Complacent Class, as well as writing the most read economics blog worldwide, marginalrevolution.com. He has written regularly for The New York Times and contributes to a wide number of newspapers and periodicals.
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Tyler thinks we're too complacent and too sheltered in our cocoons. He thinks our society is becoming too averse to change. This shows up as NIMBY zoning ordinances, few job switches, less entrepreneurship, and greater willingness to accept the established order. Safe spaces at colleges can be seen as a manifestation of this phenomenon.
As complementary reading for this book I would recommend Peter Turchin's War & Peace & War as an excellent intro to recurring patterns in history. I would also recommend Bill Bishop's The Big Sort about how Americans are migrating to live near people who think like them and live like them.
Cowen does a fairly good job of bringing up many contemporary political issues while not betraying a strong partisan bias. Though it's clear he's trying to pitch his ideas more to appeal to a left-leaning readership. At points his own willingness to stay within the boundaries of politically correct thought places limits on his ability to find and explain patterns. But keep reading through those sections. He gets back to very worthwhile insights in later sections.
What disturbs me about this book is that Tyler has reached a number of conclusions similar to mine about cyclical history but by his own different intellectual path. This unfortunately increases my own assessment of the odds that I'm right to expect a bumpier and possibly much more tragic future.
That said, the book is a useful collection of a lot of interesting trends, especially on declining mobility. And the overall argument is very important -- speaking as someone in the business world where there's still too much talk about the supposed extreme dynamism of the internet age.
I also found the book unnecessarily pessimistic. It's almost as though the author thinks complacency is bad in itself, so he wants to scare us into thinking terrible things are on the horizon. Most of the book is about good news -- we're complacent for a reason -- but the book keeps trying to suggest a dark side. Surely there is a dark side to all these developments (and the opioid etc crisis is a real problem), but we've handled far worse and still achieved a society that's amazingly better than what we had in previous centuries on just about every dimension. The very end of the book briefly takes up Stephen Pinker's Better Angels book, but doesn't take that powerful argument for social progress seriously. There's also no mention of Gregory Clark's Farewell to Alms, which makes a similar if less obvious argument about economics.
The book almost bizarrely suggests that the current violence in the Middle East and Ukraine is strong evidence of cyclicality in world affairs, not progress -- and cites the ancient Greek view that true progress is an illusion. I think what the book really means is that progress is often a matter of two steps forward and one step back, and we might be in for an extended period of stepping back.
Finally, the book has almost nothing to say about how we might be developing new kinds of restlessness that might be more positive, less disruptive than the restlessness it predicts. It doesn't look at how people have been exploring all sorts of new dimensions in culture and religion -- all of which makes sense simply on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Affluence really does change how we deal with the world.