Have Americans Given Up?

A new book by Tyler Cowen argues that when it comes to innovation and dynamism, the country is all talk.

A man sleeps on a couch with his cell phone plugged into a nearby outlet
Rick Wilking / Reuters

Americans have fallen in love with the idea of their entrepreneurial spirit. Silicon Valley seems to have replaced New York City as the country’s metropolitan mascot of dynamism. Innovation is the unofficial buzzword of corporate America, and news organizations heap praise on the zillionaire startup heroes of the Millennial generation.

But this is a mirage, according to the economist and popular writer Tyler Cowen, whose new book is The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. In fact, the nation's dynamism is in the dumps. Americans move less than they used to. They start fewer companies. Caught in the hypnotic undertow of TV and video games, they are less likely to go outside. Even the federal government itself has transformed from an investment vehicle, which once spent a large share of its money on infrastructure and research, to an insurance conglomerate, which spends more than half its money on health care and Social Security. A nation of risk-takers has become a nation of risk-mitigation experts.

So, what happened? Cowen’s thought-provoking book emphasizes several causes, including geographic immobility, housing prices, and monopolization.

First, Americans move much less than they used to, and economic mobility has declined along with geographic mobility. The share of Americans moving between states fell by more than half since 1970, from 3.5 percent per year to 1.4 percent. Moreover, as recently as the middle of the 20th century, Americans used to move toward productivity and jobs. In the 1920s, “the creation of a single automobile plant … boosted Michigan’s population by creating more than 100,000 workers,” Tim Noah wrote. But today, the most popular destinations for movers aren’t productive cities, but rather cheap sunny suburbs.

This has to do with the second cause. High housing costs in the most productive metro areas have turned places like Silicon Valley and Manhattan into playgrounds for plutocrats. Tighter land-use regulations in rich metros pushed up housing values, as the Harvard economists Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag have written. That means that lower-income families, who would benefit from living near these bustling job centers, can’t afford to move there. As a result, rich young college graduates have clustered in a handful of cities while the rest of American movers are going to sunbelt suburbs with cheap housing. Moving toward affordability has replaced moving to opportunity.

Third, the growth of large companies has clearly sapped some of the dynamism from the U.S. economy. As I've reported, the decline in entrepreneurship has coincided with the rise of new monopolies—across retail, healthcare, and tech—that make it harder to start a new successful firm in these industries. Starting in the late 1970s, antitrust regulators stopped cracking down on large companies as long as they provided cheap products for consumers. Since 1978, the share of U.S. firms that are startups has fallen by 50 percent.

At an event this week at Politics & Prose, a bookstore in Washington, D.C., I asked Cowen whether he regarded Trump as the outcome of American complacency or as a kind of vaccine that would cure Americans of their indolence. He sided with the former, explaining that he had long thought that a constitutional crisis or a figure like Trump becoming president might happen in the distant future. He also said that in many ways, Trump is the perfect manifestation of a country that has lost interest in new ideas. “Make America Great Again” is an appeal to nostalgia, a promise to bring back the economics and culture of the 1950s, not to do anything new.

Cowen’s book performs the trick of all successful idea-driven non-fiction. It provides an open invitation for the reader to think deeply, even when deep thinking leads to some disagreement. At Politics & Prose, Cowen and I discussed a thesis common to his book and mine. Today’s algorithmic media, like Facebook, Pandora, and dating apps, specializes in offering users content that is “optimally new”—familiar, yet surprising. Cowen argues that these technologies wall off anything that is too novel, which feeds complacency. It’s a fair point. But dating apps also increase the supply of potentially discoverable partners, which leads to more dating. I wonder: Does waiting until your late 20s to settle down with a partner signal complacency, or the opposite?

Elite complacency is a complicated idea, too. Cowen is right that American elites have clearly sorted themselves into like-minded, high-income communities that pass rules against new housing construction, which isolates them from the rest of the country. But they are also restless strivers. Americans work longer hours than almost any similarly rich country in the world, and rich Americans work more than they did 30 years ago. As their leisure time has declined, affluent couples spend significantly more money on their children than they used to, providing for an expensive portfolio of tutoring, music lessons, and summer camps.

You might say that this obsession with status—not only obtaining it in one generation, but also devoting one’s life to protect it for the next generation—is the perfect example of Cowen’s thesis that American parents are obsessed with mitigating risk and avoiding change. But children of the elite are more likely to move multiple times between cities, live in multicultural metros, start companies, and experiment with different jobs. How complacent can a class be if it’s producing tens of thousands of anxious, restless maximizers?

The sign of a good book is that it helps readers see the world through a useful lens. Cowen’s book is a full of “huh, I hadn’t thought about it like that” moments, even on topics that I’ve spent years thinking about. For example, in the last few years, many people, like myself, have argued that the American Dream is dying in America, while it seems to be flourishing more in Canada and northern Europe. But Cowen argues persuasively that many international comparisons fail to account for the fact that lots of people are achieving the American Dream—they just weren’t born in America. “When there is mobility in the American labor market, it comes disproportionately from Mexicans and Mexican Americans,” he writes. “Denmark hasn’t elevated nearly as many immigrants, in either absolute or percentage terms, as America.” In other words, America didn’t completely lose the dream. Rather, the only dreamers left are immigrants.

A good economy—and, perhaps, a good society—requires a measure of both security and restlessness; a safety net and an entrepreneurial streak. Clearly, government spending has shifted in the last half century from investments to insurance. But I think that’s okay, because a large and dependable welfare state is not only a moral necessity, but also a potential boon to innovation. For example, several studies have shown that many U.S. workers don’t start new companies because they’re afraid of losing their employer-sponsored health insurance. A single-payer system might increase overall entrepreneurial activity. As I read Cowen’s book, I thought of an acrobat show. No circus performer wants to leap between swings without a net to catch them as they fall. The trick is to design for safety without designing for complacency.

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