My Review of Tyler Cowen’s Complacent Class

I conclude,

there is an important category of people who are dissatisfied with the status quo and at the same time are averse to risk and to change. It is an interesting pathology, but I think it is misleading to term it complacency.

A few more thoughts.

1. There is a lot to the book. You should read it. Even though it is getting a lot of coverage, don’t just assume that you can pick up its contents by osmosis. But prepare to disagree with him at times.

2. I wrote the review in a hurry. I can imagine re-reading the book and writing a different review.

3. I am still not happy with Tyler’s use of the term “complacency.” I can think of three senses of the word that are floating around in the book.

a. Complacency is “a general sense of satisfaction with the status quo.”

b. Complacency is a desire to avoid risk and resist change.

c. Complacency is a belief that the current social order is stable, that we will not suffer from a sharp increase in violence or a major breakdown of norms and institutions that maintain order.

Tyler explicitly writes (a), but I don’t think he really means it. The first three-quarters of the book are about (b), amassing evidence that modern Americans suffer from (b) much more than our forefathers. The last quarter of the book is about (c) and why Tyler believes it is wrong. He wants to claim that a big reason that (c) is wrong is that (b) has become so prevalent. Think of a Minsky model of social change: stability leads to instability.

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13 Responses to My Review of Tyler Cowen’s Complacent Class

  1. Todd Kreider says:

    So can you explain why we should read a book that changes a critical definition three times? That is intellectual slop.

    Thanks, but I’ll stick with the free interviews.

    • Andrew' says:

      Don’t judge a book by its coverage. According to Cowen it is self-recommending.

      • Todd Kreider says:

        I should have written “Intellectually sloppy.” In interviews Cowen makes good points but are unfortunately interspersed with too much inconsistency.

  2. B. Reynolds says:

    I’m looking forward to reading this book. I have read several reviews of it over the past couple of weeks. What I’ve seen so far has given me a similar uneasiness with the use of the word complacent.

    One summary I read also discussed the book’s use of the terms “strivers” and “matchers”. The ideas are interesting, but the terms don’t quit seem to fit.

    I think Dr. Cowen needs to find someone like a John Naisbitt or Alvin Toffler to help him find with better labels for his intriguing thoughts.

  3. MichaelG says:

    I’ve just started the book, but the “a” definition of complacency pretty accurately describes the Silicon Valley mindset. They can’t even get too upset about housing prices making it impossible for low income people to live anywhere within an hour of the valley.

  4. Handle says:

    I note with interest that the only sources of any real criticism of the book so far are from Cowen’s closest colleagues. That’s ravealing.

    One can’t herd the cats of a collection of the kind of genuinely independent thinkers who are likely to have a few contrarian judgments; it’s much easier with followers of the mainstream orthodoxy. That means his friends aren’t part of some mutual promotion canal, cheerleading society, or unconditionally loyal fan club. That’s admirable.

    But it also tells us a lot about the way the book was written, since it has somehow avoided any serious critical attention from the prestige media, despite their likely distaste for many of the book’s implications and Cowen’s policy recommendations.

  5. R Richard Schweitzer says:

    I’m in the process of reading the book (pre-ordered-slow reader), but read your “review” (not your usual).

    In reading “Violence and Social Orders” as well as the originating NBER Working Paper 12795 and others by North, Wallis & Weingast, we note that in “Open Access” societies such as ours became (which may now be becoming more constrained – less open) more and more relationships necessary to individual functioning became “impersonal” displacing what had been the previously more common interpersonal relationships.

    That has had an effect on individual and group relationships; and on the way in which groupings come to be formed.

    In the same period (and more recently) we have probably been experiencing one of those historic periods of “recessions” of individuality that Oakeshott noted in his studies. That too could produce many of the effects Cowen notes.

  6. TR5749 says:

    maybe Complacent Classes would have suited his definitional infidelity better

  7. charles w abbott says:

    Started reading it today in a hard copy checked out from our pretty good Monroe County Library system here in great upstate New York.

    My first impression is that it’s a set of observations without a clear coherent unifying theme–a lot of insightful observations, but I’m not clear how it adds up to any sort of unified whole.

    Oddly for a book written by an economist, he doesn’t seem to much utilize the concept of risk aversion. I cannot find an entry for it in the index. Professor Kling, in fact I started to make this observation before reading your review. You are I are in agreement on this essay. Sometimes he is talking about risk aversion, but the word “complacent” is what often is leading the charge. Why? IDK.

    i might go out on a limb and say

    “The privileged class” is complacent and self-congratulatory, smug, isolated, and probably optimistic about more change in the future. Sometimes they are causing it.

    “Those who dig in” are anxious and risk averse, determined to hold on to their current assets, incomes, and economic niches while not optimistic about the future, and throwing up barriers to entry and various schemes to protect what they have.

    “Those who get stuck” are passive, or beaten down, or lacking a vision of how to improve their position / income / household welfare. They may be full of effort pessimism (hard work won’t be rewarded) and hoping for a need based entitlement they can retire on, if old enough. They don’t seem to have a lot of agency or options in his presentation.

    = – = – = – =

    I was markedly disappointed by his comments on the riots and urban upheavals of late. I don’t have any great expertise, but I’m not convinced that Cowen does either. You could learn more reading half crazed bloggers and niche criminologists.

    • Charles W. Abbott says:

      Regarding the “long hot summer of 2015″ with riots in Baltimore, you could learn a lot about urban race riots in 20th century USA by reading the following blog post by Philip Jenkins (not a crazed blogger but a respected scholar) in the American conservative archives.

      However, I’m not sure what you would learn about that topic based on what Tyler Cowen says about it in his recent book. Cowen seemd motivated to mention his thoughts on the topic anyway. This is not surprising. It’s newsworthy, recent, and one of America’s more obvious problems, and we are supposed to have something to say about it, especially if we are smart and articulate.

      But it makes me wonder–how many other things does he discuss in the book where he has opinions to share but no particularly well informed and objectively superior insight? .

      • asdf says:

        The whole country will be a Baltimore one day. Imagine what Baltimore would be like if moving across a magic line at the city limits didn’t completely change the government you lived under. White flight is the only thing holding back an already reprehensible black city government.

        What happens when there is nowhere left for us to run?

        • charles w abbott says:

          Not a bad question–I don’t think it will get that bad. Baltimore is not the country’s future. The fact that it is Baltimore’s future is bad enough, however.

          Occasionally I read James LaFond (truly a half-crazed blogger) and he is full of dour predictions that Baltimore’s chaos is getting exported to the county by Section 8 and I forget what else. Total lack of initiative by police, in LaFond’s account.

          But in many parts of the country that’s not happening.

          My guess is that Baltimore is the exception more than the rule. New York City (decrease in crime) is also the exception, rather than the rule.

          The middle trend is not great, but it’s also not an apocalyptic wasteland. It’s just a “new normal” of dysfunction that most people can manage to live away from.

          I’m agnostic about it, and also not competent to say anything profound. At least I know that.

  8. Jamie Ward says:

    Then where can I get this book to get full thought of the term “complacency”?

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