Fresh Ideas: America: The complacent class?
Ever since the presidential election, I’ve paid attention to what people, especially those who voted for President Trump, think about jobs. The ones I’ve heard interviewed on the radio or television inevitably say they believe they will now get their former, well-paying factory or coal mining jobs “back.” It would be wonderful if they could. If we could roll back the clock to 1950 or 1960 when my own daddy, an immigrant, worked at Gibson Refrigerator Company, had a decent salary and excellent health benefits for the entire family because he belonged to the UAW union. But those times, sadly for many, are gone, and gone forever. It’s delusion to think otherwise.
To get a better perspective, I’ve been reading. You might consider doing the same — in particular reading Tyler Cowen, a cultural economist and professor at George Mason University, whose latest book is “The Complacent Class: The Self-defeating Quest for the American Dream.”
Cowen defines “complacent” as resisting things new, different, or challenging, and he sees this stasis occurring across the board, no matter the difference in income, education, or opportunity. As a society, we’ve become this way because, in general, we have “peace” and compared to many in the world, “high incomes.”
Cowen sees evidence of this acceptance of the status quo by pointing out that Americans are more likely to stay physically put: they’re less likely to switch jobs, move around the country, or even leave the house. He points out there has been a decline in start-ups since the 1990s; there are fewer unicorn miracle growth firms, less corporate churn and turnovers.
There’s much more pairing, also, of like with like, especially in terms of income, and here he points to segregation by income as a huge problem in our most influential cities. In other words, rents in cities are so high only the upwardly mobile and well-to-do can afford to live there, thus making it no longer the place where poor, rural people used to flee in order to “get ahead” in the world. Urban progress isn’t “transformational” but gentrification.
We’re complacent about our physical world and its infrastructure as well. Traffic clogs freeways; airplane travel is slower; passenger trains aren’t increasing and bus lines are being shut down. We want to stay at home and bring whatever we want in via the Internet: buy books, clothes, food, anything without leaving our computers. Symbolically, we see the truth of our passivity in the demise of car culture. Only about half of the Millennial generation bothers to get a driver’s license by age 18, whereas in 1983, 69 percent of 17 year olds had a license. Teens today express themselves through their phones: different brands, covers, and apps. Cowen concludes rhetorically, “The driver of the American car used to drive an entire economy, but now the driver will be passive, and what will the culture become?”
The fact is only about 8 percent of the American workforce is employed in manufacturing and virtually all analysts, Cowen says, expect this percentage to decline even more because of automation. Most research and development in manufacturing focuses on innovations in tech devices which displaces many workers.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but Cowen says America can’t grow at 10 percent a year, or 5 percent, (or even Trump’s espoused 4 percent) no matter what policies it may adopt, because as a nation we’re at the “technological frontier” — we can’t borrow from more advanced nations in technology because there are none. So we’re stymied as well as static.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.