What is Behind America’s Complacency?

DSC_0047-300x199 What is Behind America’s Complacency?

“Rarely have I read a book with which I have so thoroughly disagreed”

A Review of The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream by Tyler Cowen

Rarely have I read a book with which I have so thoroughly disagreed as Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. I had hoped for a perspective on what is behind American decadence. However, at every chapter, I bristled with objections. Racing through the book about complacency, I felt I could not be complacent by simply reading it uncritically.

Not everything in the book is flawed. I do agree with Cowan’s main point. America is losing its dynamism. The author is a well-known economist who knows his field. In his slightly over 200-page text, he does provide plenty of evidence of American decline. However, beyond these conclusions, we do not agree about much more.

RTO-mini2 What is Behind America’s Complacency?Free Book: Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society—Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here, and Where We Need to Go

Values-Neutral Assessment

His conclusions are not the problem. After all, they are evident to any observer of the American scene. The problem is his list of causes of American complacency. The reader might expect some nod to morality. What the reader gets instead is narrow economics. Far from being dynamic, his book is a rather staid restatement of old economic theory and recycled business cycle models.

Thus, I felt exasperated by the 800-pound moral values gorillas ignored in the book. The more the gorillas waved their hands, the more the author seemed to focus on materialist sacred cows. Of course, Cowen is free to disagree about the causes of complacency. But what bothered me is that he simply ignores even the remote possibility that moral choices might be part of the story. The gorillas are ignored. The sacred cows steal the show.

Not Enough Babies

For example, Cowen concludes that America is losing its dynamism due to an aging population. That makes sense. His analysis of the cause doesn’t. Cowan treats the aging population as if it’s an individual. But a population only ages if it does not have enough babies to replace old people. If you don’t want an aging population, then have more babies. This isn’t rocket science.

Alas, Cowen fails to mention contraception, broken families, and a disdain for large families. The fact that some 59 million young people have gone missing due to abortion makes not a blip. Instead, Cowen acts as if nations simply age and we need to figure out how to overcome the complacency that results.

The cures he considers are mostly economic. Perhaps more wealth, automation and customs might bring back slightly larger families.

Segregation Caused by Structures

In a similar way, the author is obsessed with segregation. America is indeed polarized and voluntarily segregated now more than ever. Ironically, the most segregated places are often the most politically liberal. Think San Francisco, Austin or New York.

However, much as he does with demographics, the author assumes such segregation must be caused by income, education, social class and algorithm-driven “matching.” Again, moral questions play no role — even though he knows about contrary data. He even cites Charles Murray and Robert Putnam, authors who have shown that social and family breakdown are key causes of segregation.

Rather than ponder how moral choices affect our economy, he treats morality as just the tail wagged by an economic dog. Wealthy and educated people, he thinks, adopt a “high-stability set of norms” of marriage and stable families. Their counterparts of “less-educated lower earners” adopt “less-stable social and marriage norms.” Now that we can use matching services to find like-minded people, we become even more complacent and segregated. For Cowen, economics and technology, not the moral choices of real people, are always the driving forces.

China is Our Model?

If America is now sluggish, then what might a dynamic society look and feel like? For Cowen, the model, “for all of its flaws,” is China.

Given Cowen’s tin ear for morality, this is not surprising. If dynamism isn’t based on our desire to create value and provide for our families, but rather on restless ambition, then China certainly fits the bill. A few million human rights violations should not be held against this corrupt communist regime. At least it’s dynamic.

Change Becomes an Absolute

The thesis of The Complacent Class is that Americans have broken with their tradition of “restlessness.” We no longer take risks and seek change. Americans now move less and seek like-minded people and niche markets. Even liberals have “stopped rioting and legalized marijuana.”

What Does Saint Thomas Say About Immigration?

Cowan thus makes restless change itself a good. To him, a kind of frenetic intemperance is thus the antidote. In place of a moral core that provides the stable basis for real progress, this restlessness becomes that core. He ends with an uninspiring rallying call to re-embrace restlessness to avoid a major fiscal and budget crisis.

The complacent class needs much more than an economic pep talk. It needs a renewed moral commitment to family, faith and community.


As seen on The Stream

  • Chris Lilly

    It sounds like the author avoids culture and moral crisis for economic determinism. The ghost of Karl Marx still haunts the earth!

  • Values are being defined by those who want to destroy Christianity. There is complacency because people resist moving away from their sin nature. Many have bought into relativist morality. Man is back to being the measure of all things. The problem with that is that humanity is too weak to create the humanist utopia that it seeks. Humanity, without God, can only create a hell on earth, as we are experiencing today.

  • Mike Knife

    Drugs and lack of a real education are some of the real reasons people do badly. People in the older generations know they did not need or have a pill for everything the new pill pushers say is wrong with us. People lived better and did better back then, could think clearly and work to get the job done. Drugs have taken over our people. Street drugs, medical drugs, dope and psychiatric drugs that are addictive have taken over the minds and bodies of people. People on drugs and dope do not think or work as they could with out them. The doctors and drugs companies are making too much money off of suckers who are told to take the drugs that they are told will “help” them but in fact most drugs today are killing men, women and children slowly.

    • Heather Fleming

      Very true. The cultural focus on self has diverted everyone’s attention to an unrealistic approach to wellbeing. Nobody is ever quite good enough, and responsibility is hard to identify. Jesus said you are the slave of the one you obey …who are children being brought up to think of as the final authority for their consciences? A set of regulations when it comes to behaviour (being changed all the time with increasing emphasis upon the sexual aspects), an advertising barrage that urges them to look better, enjoy themselves more, and talk about each other (the mainstream media might as well be a cheap magazine at least partly). Where is God seen in all of this? Confusion abounds. Ony within the Bible’s pages do we find the fresh air of purity, the security of God’s perfect precepts, and the hope of harmony and love for everyone – and ourselves – in that order, because of who we can be in CHRIST. the pressure is growing to abandon the faith. The shaking is happening . God’s pillars who know Him through Jesus will be able to stand firm, and this is going to be evident to those who do not know Him in the UK and the US, even as it already is evident in Asia and Africa and – thank God – in Poland, where an estimated 150,000 marched last November, in a peaceful parade stating that Jesus is their King.