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The Complacent Intellectual Class

Who needs more books from authors who can’t maintain even basic standards of rigor?

I would like to coin a phrase, the complacent intellectual class, to describe the overwhelming number of pundits, thought leaders, and policy wonks who accept, welcome, or even enforce slovenly scholarship. These people might, in the abstract, like research that maintains the highest standards, they might even consider themselves academics or bona fide researchers, when in fact they have lost the capacity of maintaining even the most basic standards of rigor.

I am motivated to do so after reading Tyler Cowen’s new book The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. I propose the term with some trepidation. Cowen—a George Mason University economist, libertarian theorist, and “legendary blogger” (to quote the book’s inset)—is often a smart commentator who puts his finger on a lot of interesting social phenomena, introduces novel ideas, and proves worth reading from time to time.

But books are different from blog posts and op-eds. And this book fails so glaringly that it makes me despair for this country’s literary culture and intellectual life in general. So let me use Cowen’s latest venture to illustrate what we should all demand from the work of our intellectual class, lest our nation continue to vegetate in the pretend-thinking of #AspenIdeas pseudo-academia.

I am not an economist; I was trained as a philosopher. But I think we all can, or at least should, agree to some basic standards for all fields of scholarship: Specialized terms should be defined clearly and used consistently. Accounts ought to be coherent. Care should be taken to avoid confusing cause and effect. And bold assertions, even opinionated ones, ought to be supported by evidence or argument. It is on this basis that I find Cowen’s book a dismal failure.

The Complacent Class begins by marshalling a host of remarkable statistics and anecdotes to argue persuasively that the United States is suffering from economic, social, and cultural stagnation. There is far less social mobility now in the United States than in other decades. Fewer business start-ups are launching than in previous periods, despite the mythology of Silicon Valley. More than ever before, people tend to marry spouses from the same economic and social class. Americans travel less, depriving them of opportunities to experience different ways of living. They move residences less than they used to, and move across state lines and regions less, which is a problem for the economy, since people should ideally move to where the jobs are. The country has also undergone re-segregation along class, racial, and ethnic lines, which extends not just into housing and neighborhood demographics, but also into the workplace, vacation destinations, and online lives. Thanks to digitally powered social networks, people are able to “sort” themselves so that they interact mostly with people who share the same tastes, education level, and social standing, thereby insulating themselves from mixing with people of different backgrounds.

But while the evidence Cowen gathers certainly motivates interest in his project, it is not particularly fresh. Cowen’s 2011 book, The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, went over some of the same ground. Whatever uniqueness the book offers rests in Cowen’s diagnosis of how we fell into our current malaise and how we can recover.

Cowen blames this American stasis—paradoxically for a libertarian—on our free choices and on how successfully our society has enabled us to satisfy those preferences. “People are making decisions that are rational and appear in their best interests,” Cowen writes, “but the effects of these decisions at a societal level are significant, unintended, and not always good.” Dating apps and digital social networks have enabled us to sort and find mates, but at the expense of the social mixing from previous eras of serendipitous dating. And we may enjoy living in our current digs, thanks to surfing our lives away on the Net, but this comes at the expense of exploring the world, meeting new people, and perhaps moving to another part of the country with better opportunities.

So, even though no one intends this result, the consequences of our decisions have created a society that is static, rather than dynamic. “In an age when it is easier than ever before to dig in, the psychological resistance to change has become progressively stronger.” Cowen says. And because our choices collectively satisfy our preferences and please us, Cowen argues, we tend to be complacent about the stagnation that result from them.

How these three classes form a unity is as mysterious as the Holy Trinity.

To capture this idea, Cowen coins the term “the complacent class.” It serves “to describe the growing number of people in our society who accept, welcome, or even enforce a resistance to things new, different, or challenging.” The singular “class” here, Cowen explains, is an abstraction meant to capture the unifying tendency toward complacency that he observes in several different classes and American society in general. The “complacent class” is, confoundingly, actually made up of at least three different classes from vastly different economic and social strata. They are (1) the “privileged class,” who are generally educated, affluent, and immune from hardship; (2) “those who dig in,” who are middle and upper-middle class but feel threatened by economic pressures and so worry about protecting their current lot; and (3) “those who get stuck,” who are low-income, poorly educated, face poor prospects, and are “not happy about their situations.”

How these three classes form a unity is as mysterious as the Holy Trinity. In what I consider to be the worst sentence of the book, Cowen tries to explain:

Despite the divergences in their situations, what these groups have in common is a certain level of social and emotional and indeed ideological acceptance—a presupposition—of slower change. More and more, America consists of people who belong to one of these three groups and are more or less OK with this division of the spoils. 

There are several problems with this crucial sentence. The antecedent of “this” goes unspecified; I assume he means the current distribution of goods. It is also hard to interpret what a social, emotional, and ideological acceptance of slower change amounts to. “Those who dig in,” for example, sound like people who do not “accept” slower change; they are, in fact, actively trying to maintain their status, in the face of accelerating change that they don’t like. But the most troubling sentence is the last: how can those in the “stuck” class, who are (by definition) not happy with their situations, be “more or less OK with this division of the spoils”?

Cowen anticipates this objection and responds immediately by arguing that the “stuck” class’s behavior confirms his diagnosis:

They have been committing much less crime, engaging in much less social unrest, and embracing extreme ideologies such as communism to a smaller degree; if anything, they have been more disillusioned that politically engaged.

In other words, they accept the distribution of wealth and income in the sense that they do not rebel against it—though they are disillusioned by it. Cowen does acknowledge that there has been a recent uptick in protests, but argues, reasonably, that they have yet to reach the fever pitch of previous eras of social unrest, such as the civil rights movement. The stasis of our current epoch persists, he claims.

To take members of three different social and economic classes and identify them as members of the same class is a mistake, since the concept of class is typically used to explain the preferences and beliefs of the group in question, not vice versa in the way Cowen uses it here. And so, as these tensions in Cowen’s blithe account of the complacent class show, the title idea does not hang together.

Why not think of them as frustrated, disempowered, hopeless, resigned, desperate, and exhausted, rather than “complacent”?

Then there’s the question whether the preferences of the three groups can really be unified under the rubric “complacent.” The privileged class, for example, has reason to prefer the status quo, but does this make it “complacent”? We have no reason to think a class that makes choices whose unintended consequence is stasis is complacent if it is benefiting from the results. In fact, you might suspect that it is far from complacent—that its members are actively making choices that uphold the status quo in which they are the winners, such as devoting a lot of money to political lobbying and supporting candidates who favor lower taxes. A similar point holds for the “digging in” class: Does “digging in” sound like “complacency” even if we grant that the result contributes to inertia? And as for the “stuck” class—whose “complacency” is attributed to their lack of rebellion—“disillusioned” seems more apt. Why not think of them as frustrated, disempowered, hopeless, resigned, desperate, and exhausted, rather than “complacent”? Because on Cowen’s view, their choices, like those of their higher ups in the class hierarchy, are making America less dynamic and more static.

Cowen’s confusion over complacency is the lynchpin of the book’s argument. Specifically, he trades on two different senses of “complacency.” The first defines the unifying outlook of a class of people (which is actually at least three different classes with divergent outlooks leading them to make choices that, in one way or another, allegedly promote stasis and stagnation). The second is as an antonym for economic, social, and cultural dynamism. For example, Cowen writes “Societies that initially are dynamic, by the very nature of their ongoing successes, become less dynamic and more complacent over time.”  Replace “complacent” with “static” and the sentence becomes easier to comprehend. But if the two terms really meant the same thing, then Cowen’s whole argument would be trivial, even tautological: a society dominated by classes that favor stasis produces . . . stasis. What is going on here? What sort of magic trick is Cowen attempting to pull off?

With such smoke and mirrors, Cowen shrouds his core thesis, which is a causal claim: America’s stasis and stagnation is caused by the complacent class. It is because people make the choices and behave the way they do that our society lacks dynamism. Is this causal claim true?

I believe that it is false. In fact, I would maintain the converse is true: It is because our society is suffering from stagnation—a stagnation upheld by vast inequalities of wealth and income that empower the preferences of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else’s power—that people behave in ways that Cowen labels “complacent” but which are more accurately described in different ways, depending on the class of people in question. People who are in the “stuck” class are people who lack money; they tend to “choose” not to move to more economically robust parts of the country, for example, because they don’t have the money or social capital to move. “Dug in” people don’t launch new businesses, for example, because the risk of failure in a society without an adequate safety net and an economy dominated by powerful monopolies is too great. “Privileged” people actively make choices that uphold the status quo. They may be overlooking the social upheaval that may result from stagnation, but they may be betting—like so many elites before them in history—that their money and power can keep such upheaval at bay.

Perhaps I am wrong about the causality here. But I haven’t written a book on it. The important point for Cowen is that he needs to argue for his causal claim, rather than rhetorically confuse his basic terms in ways that make his bold thesis seem intuitive when it actually goes unargued—and laughably so. On a superficial read, Cowen’s book may seem like a substantive bit of economic, social and cultural criticism, but it really amounts to the worst form of sophistry.

My criticisms of Cowen’s book have focused on the core of his argument. But what is true of the center is also true of the periphery. Cowen delights in making bold claims without argument or evidence that are transparently ridiculous. And shockingly for an economist, they often involve what I have elsewhere labelled “sentimentalism”: the tendency to attribute structural economic and social problems to moral and psychological causes—in this case, complacency. Here are some samples:

“The end of complacency is inevitable” is a fittingly complacent thesis for a policy-making thought leader to hold.

(1) His prejudice against antidepressants:

“The debate over the propriety of antidepressants seems to be largely over, and tens of millions of Americans are continuing to enjoy their medicated sense of calm.”

And again, in imagining a less complacent society fifteen to twenty years from now: “Antidepressants as we know them have fallen out of favor; they have been replaced by alternative medical processes that address problems of depression without ‘tranquilizing’ Americans so much.”

The truth: Antidepressants empower the depressed to function normally. I can’t imagine anything more complacent than a depressed person who doesn’t seek treatment.

(2) His millennial bashing:

“Millennials as a generation just don’t seem that interested in grand projects, unless of course you count wired interconnectivity, at which they excel.”

(3) His coastal-culture bashing:

“The culprit, however, is the NIMBY mentality and related anti-growth obstacles. Residents in Manhattan, San Francisco, and many other high-productivity locales just don’t want all of those new people moving in.”

These cities, notorious for their constant churn of new arrivals, and for their fondness for immigrants and diversity, have serious housing problems, an economic issue worth more careful analysis.

(4) His love of dynamism for its own sake:

“As I see it, the complacent class has ceased to outline a truly compelling reason to believe in the dynamic properties of the status quo.”

Unlike Cowen, the “complacent class” may not care about the “dynamic properties of the status quo,” whatever those mystical qualities happen to be.

(5) His absurd trolling of basic consumer pleasures, a bedrock of the American economy:

“It never occurred to [Tocqueville] that you could sit at home for a week, read the internet, watch Netflix streaming, and have groceries delivered to your door, all in lieu of striving for greatness.”

On the contrary, Tocqueville would have had a lot of smart things to say about such a remarkable achievement.

The book ends with a curious embrace of a cyclical view of history. Cowen holds that societies oscillate between periods of stasis and outbreaks of dynamism. So, on his view, the current era of stasis and complacency cannot last; it will be disrupted by an outbreak of social unrest, economic upheaval, and new cultural forms. In other words, the end of complacency is inevitable—a fittingly complacent thesis for a policy-making thought leader to hold. Never mind the policies that maintain our current era of economic and social rigidity and stagnation: they will inevitably fall to a new epoch of disruption. Behold the intellectual of the complacent class!