Economist and blogger Tyler Cowen claims that Americans have become complacent. By all the evidence, he is right. Americans have become averse to taking risks; they lack energy and drive and initiative; they prefer to keep things as they are and to live off the proverbial fat of the land.
I would humbly suggest that the term complacency is too gracious and generous. Isn’t Cowen describing a culture of sloth, of laziness, of entitlement? Isn’t he thinking of a culture that values decadence and effeminacy? And does not care whether it wins or loses, as long as it feels good?
Haven’t we all learned that a society embroiled in culture wars over transgendered locker rooms is going to squander its energy on absurdities, leaving none to innovate and to grow.
More and more Americans seem to have decided that they can live off of the wealth of other people, and that they do not need to generate very much themselves. It’s a world where wealth is redistributed, not created. We look in wonderment at countries like China where people actually create wealth. But, we do not understand why we can no longer do the same.
Reviewing Cowen’s book The Complacent Class in the Wall Street Journal, Matthew Rees summarizes its argument:
The Census Bureau made a startling disclosure in November: During a recent 12-month period, the percentage of Americans who moved from one dwelling to another was at its lowest point since 1948, when such data began to be collected. While the reasons for depressed mobility are varied, it may be emblematic of a broader lethargy that’s set in across the country. Is the “land of opportunity,” with dynamic labor markets and fresh sources of renewal, a thing of the past?
That’s the fear of Tyler Cowen, who argues in “The Complacent Class” that America is increasingly defined by an aversion to risk as well as to anything that is unfamiliar or different. He sees a broad swath of the American population losing “the capacity to imagine or embrace a world where things do change rapidly for most if not all people.” This mind-set, he says, has “sapped us of the pioneer spirit that made America the world’s most productive and innovative economy.”
How did it happen? Enquiring minds want to know.
Cowen suggests that it has been happening over the past five decades. Thus, the new American lethargy began at around the time that President Lyndon Johnson inaugurated his Great Society program. Johnson wanted to eliminate poverty and racial injustice with a series of big government programs. His policy helped expand the influence and reach of what is now called the administrative state, a federal bureaucracy that intends to do good for the less fortunate but that stifles initiative and entrepreneurship? Who can afford the compliance costs? Who can afford the compliance costs and potential lawsuits that can easily accompany any business initiative?
One should note that Johnson's War in Vietnam managed to discredit the military and to devalue the martial values that it embodies. No institution represents competition and risk-taking more than the military. When it is diminished the nation turns more toward inner concerns, whether by nesting or by introspective voyages of therapeutic self-discovery.
On the simplest level, as we saw with the Dodd-Frank bill, legislative and bureaucratic overreach tends to make it far too expensive to start a business or even to sustain a small business or a small bank. Dodd-Frank, in particular, has also made it increasingly difficult for banks to lend to any but the most solvent borrowers.
Obviously, the administrative state has become bigger and more powerful over time. It has crept into all corners of the economy, to stifle innovation and growth. Consider that in the late 1970s, when its hold on banking was far less powerful than it is today, three guys went to a bank to borrow $5 million to start a business. They did not have collateral. They had a plan, an idea. The bank took a risk and loaned the money. Their company became The Home Depot. As one of the founders, Bernard Marcus said recently, today, given Dodd Frank, the bank would never have been allowed to loan the money to such a dubious group.
There’s more to it than the administrative state. Consider the influence of the self-esteem movement and what Christina Hoff Sommers calls the war on boys in America’s public schools. If everyone gets a trophy, regardless of competitive prowess, why bother to work hard to compete. It is not an accident that America’s schoolchildren are seriously lagging their peers in so many foreign countries.
If we are willing to take a serious intellectual risk, we might ask whether risk-taking behavior is more endemic to boys than to girls, to men than to women. If boys are beaten down in schools and if girl power is being exalted, has this produced a generation of men who are less able to take risks and initiatives? Have today’s young men become more interested in behaviors that had in the past been associated with females: like nesting. As in, staying home, not moving around in the outside world, and living off of someone else’s wealth.
Could it be that we have inadvertently shown that men and women are not the same, that male and female are not social constructs, and that if you feminize a generation or two of men, they are going to become slugs. If men become slothful, women will not pick up the slack by taking risks and initiatives.
It is not surprising that today’s young people, especially the millennial generation seems attracted to socialism, to a society and a system of government where creature comforts are more important than risks and rewards, and where the government is supposed to care for people, to nurture them, from cradle to grave.
According to Cowen, we are more interested in “rearranging the pieces in the world we already have,” than in “building a new and freer world.”
In another context this is called rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.