The Complacent Class


Tyler Cowen, St. Martin’s Press, 241 pages, $28.99. America is the land of opportunity, they say. Americans embrace change and reinvention, and this, they like to think, sets their country apart from Europe or Asia. Economist and George Mason University Prof. Tyler Cowen believes that this ideal is self-indulgent nonsense. America is losing its vim, he says, and Americans are settling into stagnation. In his new book, “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream,” Cowen says Americans move less now, crossing state lines at around half the average rate that they did between 1948 and 1971, and stay longer in their jobs. Markets are becoming more concentrated. Fewer new companies are being started, and many struggle to grow, he writes. Sluggish growth in productivity and living standards is making America more like Europe and Japan. He says segregation — both by race and income — shuts off growth and stymies innovation. That’s where Cowen’s assertions become tricky: It is unclear who he thinks the complacent class really is, and thus who is responsible for the mess. Still, there is some truth to Cowen’s diagnosis that America’s strength is undermined by its divisions and by a willingness to protect the powerful. The main question Cowen raises is whether a dose of disorderliness will jolt America back to strength. He offers an optimistic scenario based on technology like self-driving cars and clean energy, but the chaos his pessimistic analysis lays out will likely take a longer and rockier path to restore a vibrant America.