Cowen On Complacency

A week ago I summarized and critiqued five books wherein Peter Turchin tries to document and explain two key historical cycles: a several century cycle of empires rising and falling, and a fifty year alternating-generations cycle of instability during empire low points. In his latest book, Turchin tentatively tries to apply his theories to predict the U.S. near future.

In his new book The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen also takes a bigger-than-usual historical perspective, invokes cycles, and predicts the U.S. near future. But instead of applying a theory abstracted from thousands of years of data, Cowen mainly just details many particular trends in the U.S. over the last half century. David Brooks summarizes:

Cowen shows that in sphere after sphere, Americans have become less adventurous and more static.

The book page summarizes:

Our willingness to move, take risks, and adapt to change have produced a dynamic economy. .. [But] Americans today .. are 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. .. This cannot go on forever. We are postponing change,.. but ultimately this will make change, when it comes, harder. .. eventually lead to a major fiscal and budgetary crisis.

In each particular area, Cowen documents specific trends, and he often offers specific local theories that could have led one to expect such trends. For example, he says fewer geographic moves are predicted from fewer job moves, and fewer job moves are predicted by workers being older. But when it comes to the question of why all these particular trends with their particular causes happen to create a consistent overall trend toward complacency, Cowen seems to me coy. Let me discuss three passages where I find that he at least touches on general accounts.

In the first chapter, Cowen seems to identify a core theory:

The forces behind the rise of the complacent class are quite general. For better or worse, the truth is that peace and high incomes tend to drain the restlessness out of people (p.6). .. These more complacent dynamics in American life started, in their most general terms, in the early to mid-1980s. .. This added social stasis came roughly at the same time as a slowdown in the rate of technological progress, starting in the 1970s. .. You can think of this book as detailing the social roots of the resulting slow growth outcome and explaining why that economic and technological stagnation has lasted so long. (pp.11-12).

The problem here is that the phenomena Cowen seeks to explain, complacency in the US since the mid 1980s, is much more specific than his explanation, peace and high incomes. For the last few centuries incomes have been rising world wide, and most places are at peace most of the time. (And people are older everywhere.) Yet even though in this period most times and places have had peace and rising income (and older ages), most have not suffered the increasing complacency that Cowen documents in the U.S. lately.

The second general account is found in the last chapter, in a section on “The Return of Instability At Every Level, Including the Global”.

We’ve learned about the business cycle, but only now is it starting to sink in that such patterns have a lot of power to explain cycles in other realms as well. .. The biggest domestic and social question of the next few decades will be this: When it comes to ordinary, everyday American life, how quickly will matters turn chaotic or disorderly again, and what forms will that implosion take? .. The biggest story of the last fifteen years, both nationally and globally, is the growing likelihood that a cyclical model of history will be a better predictor then a model of ongoing progress. .. All of this can happen even if you think the majority response will be a great and greater love of peace. (pp.199-200.)

As these are the only boldface sentences in the entire book, Cowen is clear that we should take cycles seriously. Except he doesn’t favor any particular theory of cycles, identifying neither key timescales nor key driving parameters, nor offering specific historical cases he considers analogous. Instead he’s more like the creepy older man in The Graduate, who said just one word, “plastics.” Cowen’s one word: “cycles.”

The third passage that touches on a general account is in the chapter on politics:

While the dynamism, egalitarianism, and democratic spirit of America provided the foundations of Tocqueville’s book, .. he understood that current historical trends were by no means guaranteed to be permanent, and America’s restlessness might contain the seeds of its own demise. Tocqueville feared that human beings, including Americans, would, precisely through the process of their sluggish satisfaction, fall “into a complete and brutish indifference about the future.” Rather than being too restless, a future American might be too complacent, too self-satisfied, and above all too unwilling to regenerate the energies that once made it great, and thereby fall into mediocrity. (p.168)

This talk of a fall from greatness to mediocrity sounds to me like regression to the mean, the theory I favored over Turchin’s inequality account to explain falling cohesion in empire cycles. A society that finds itself at an extreme along some parameter should expect, all else equal, to soon slowly drift back to the middle of the distribution. Yet, when I asked him in front of large group recently, Cowen explicitly rejected both this mean-regression story, and also Turchin’s fifty year instability cycle, as accounts of the changes he sees. Cowen insisted that the U.S. will retake its role as the world’s top innovator.

So, bottom line: compared to most times and places, the U.S. has been especially complacent lately in many areas, for many specific reasons but for no identifiable general reason, except maybe in part for peace, wealth, aging, and Tocquevillian satisfaction (whatever that is). But these changes will soon revert, because “cycles.”

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