Countersignaling Today Through Clothing

I’m a big fan of stoicism and I also try to think about the recommendations from The Minimalists in my daily life. I try not to let material goods control me, and I try to stay away from overtly status seeking behavior. I try to be pretty content with an average used car and try not to feel a need to have very expensive clothing. I think these are meaningful ways to live and approach life, but part of what I might be doing is a substantial amount of countersignaling.

 

Tyler Cowen writes about this kind of countersignaling in his book The Complacent Class. He writes, “American’s at the top have become the experts in countersignaling, because they don’t feel they have to impress anyone. Everything is now casual, because the new aristocracy of talent enforces all the conformity that is needed.”

 

I started at a Bay Area tech company after college. We all wore hoodies and only a couple of our top sales executives ever wore slacks or a suite. The emphasis was never on what you owned or how you dressed, but on how smart you were and how many impressive ideas you could come up with. This came pretty natural to me, and it aligns with the stoic and minimalist ideas I frequently engage with.

 

At the same time, I think it is valuable to pull everything apart to look at my behaviors more closely. I hate the time and energy that goes into dress clothes. I like the relaxed feel of casual wear and the fact that I can easily pack casual clothes in a gym bag without them becoming a wrinkly mess. I’m uncomfortable with expensive clothing, knowing that I could use the $140 for a solid pair of dress slacks on more meaningful causes than just me looking good. From many standpoints, I think the shift toward casual dress is a good thing, for worker health, comfort, and for how we use resources.

 

Simultaneously, there is still a lot of signaling that is going on with the way we dress, even when we are dressing casually. It says, “I’m so good I don’t have to worry about looking the part—my work speaks for itself.” Dressing casually says, “The older generation that set the rules is irrelevant, we are defining things how we want.” In some senses these signals are direct attacks against the generations that came before us and built the business world and culture that allowed my generation to come along and invent innovative tech. There is something dismissive in the attitude presented and something that might be more inclusive for younger more diverse workforces, but simultaneously prejudiced against older workers. In the end, I think the trend is a good one, at least if it can live up to its inclusive potential. Slacks, dress shirts/shoes, and ties are terrible, and we shouldn’t have to suffer through them and spend all our free time and money hassling over our clothes. We should be comfortable with a minimal set of clothing, and focus on doing great work. Simultaneously, we should be respectful of the business culture that helps us be professional and get good work done. Somewhere in the middle lies a reasonable blend of both, and all along the spectrum is a lot of signaling and countersignaling.

Prioritizing Complacency

I studied political science during my Masters degree at the University of Nevada, and an important thing that we discussed in our classes early on is to think of a country by thinking of its voting constituents. Governments are ideally representative of all people in a society, but in reality, they are representative mostly of the people who vote for them. If you want to understand a society, think of its most likely voting groups, and their preferences and values are the ones you are most likely to see expressed in public policy.

 

Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University understands this and writes about it in his book The Complacent Class. Cowen recognizes that the voters matter because they influence the elected officials who make decisions, and voters are more likely to elect people who are like themselves. The class of voters in our country now, and the class of elected officials, Cowen argues, is relatively homogeneous, especially in regards to complacency. He writes,

 

“So overall, America is building its core culture and norms and politics more and more around people and families who just aren’t that mobile across the generations and who have a relatively static and stratified sense of how things work, which indeed is a pattern they see in their own lives. In other words, we are building our core norms and culture around the complacent class, even though some very different tendencies exist in the America of today.”

 

Our biggest voting block in the US is older, whiter, wealthier, more likely to be retired, and less likely to move across state borders in a given year than the general public. Those who can vote consistently, participate in town halls, and write letters to elected officials are the ones who have more time to spend tracking politics and attending events. They are more likely to have been rooted in a specific community for a longer period of time, and are more likely to have more wealth, equating to more vested interests in maintaining a status quo.

 

Our key electorate, is not a very dynamic group.

 

Cowen contrasts this group with immigrants, who have less free time, are likely to be working more to earn more, and are more likely to have dynamic lives that include moving from one place to another, starting a new business, or trying a new approach to something that has existed before. Additionally, younger generations show similar patterns of more dynamic lifestyles than our main electorate.

 

However, many immigrants cannot vote if they have not obtained citizenship, and younger people are less likely to vote and less likely to have a strong sense of what is happening in government, especially local government in a new region they have moved to.

 

So in the end, the strongest voice in our politics is likely the most risk averse, homogeneous, and complacent segment of our population. The dynamic people that our country relies upon in order to push the economy forward and deliver new innovations is not prioritized in our government and public policy. The voices of those who benefit from the status quo are usually the loudest. Cowen is concerned, and I think rightfully so, that we may be headed in the wrong direction by deprioritizing the most dynamic segment of our population and over-representing the least dynamic people in our country. We will have to make big changes to address the challenges we face in our new globalized world economy, and that will require thinking dynamically about growth, the future, and life in general.

We Should Give Our Desire for Normalcy and Incrementalism More Attention

I think the idea of political stability is generally underrated and under-explored in the context of current American political discussions. We are in the midst of deep demographic changes in our country, we seem to be at a real inflection point in jobs and automation, and inaction on several major policies have driven support for massive upheavals in some aspects of American public policy. Boring incrementalism seems to be very out of favor within both Republican and Democratic sides of the political divide, and the likelihood of clicking a news article with a headline applauding an incremental approach to a policy solution or a marginal change in anything is laughable.

 

But incrementalism is probably what most Americans would actually prefer. Many of us would just like a stable equilibrium, rather than a wholesale confusing and controversial change. The candidacy and relatively strong polling from Joe Biden seems to support the idea that a lot of people, despite news coverage of big events and potential systematic changes, really just want normalcy. The idea that stability itself could be a good thing and a desired political outcome feels undervalued to me.

 

This idea of incrementalism and normalcy isn’t 100% related to the quote that got my mind working in this direction this morning, but I think I can tie things together. In his book The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen writes that the idea that increasing economic growth and equity will reduce social tensions is wrong. He writes,

 

“The 1950s and 1960s are considered a golden age for middle-class income growth in the United States. The same is true for black income growth, as the decades leading up to the 1960’s saw the greatest gains in African American income in the history of the republic. Yet many of the 1960s riots were motivated by race, and many African Americans were prominent participants. In short, income gains are no guarantee of peace.”

 

In the 1950s and 60s, inequality sparked outrage and action by those who were excluded and those who felt a visceral sense of injustice. Rising wages gave people the belief that they could strive for more and reach a better future. People didn’t simply enjoy a rising tide, but used a surge in income to demand that the tide rise equitably for all.

 

Today, in contrast, we have flattening wages and a sense of complacency around most things for most people. I think the majority of American’s would say they are not happy with the status quo, but most are simultaneously too complacent to take action. Some small-ish groups are extremely upset and outraged over the current political and economic dynamics of our country, but their voice is likely overplayed relative to their size and influence. While some energy is swelling for massive changes, as can be seen by the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, an equal mass is pushing for boring incrementalism and stability.

 

Cowen continues, “In the 1960s, Americans expected more, they didn’t quite get what they had set their eyes on, and so they became more restless.”  In a sense, we have just accepted that we won’t get what we have our eyes set on. Five years ago it was common to hear people lament, “we were promised flying cars, and what we got was 140 characters,” in reference to Twitter being our best innovation as of late when we all wanted flying cars. In 2020, we seem to have just given up, and we are waiting for our electric cars, which won’t really have any cataclysmic shifts in our auto industry. Perhaps it is stagnant wages, perhaps it is something else, but I think that Cowen is correct in stating that we have lost our restless spirit. I think the desire for normalcy and incrementalism should be more explored and receive more focus than it does in our current media environment.

An Illusion of Security, Stability, and Control

The online world is a very interesting place. While we frequently say that we have concerns about privacy, about how our data is being used, and about what information is publicly available to us, very few people delete their social media accounts or take real action when a data breach occurs. We have been moving more and more of our life online, and we have been more accepting of devices connected to the internet that can either be hacked or be used to tacitly spy on us than we would expect given the amount of time we spend expressing concern for our privacy.

 

A quick line from Tyler Cowen’s book The Complacent Class may explain the contradiction. “A lot of our contentment or even enthrallment with online practices may be based on an illusion of security, stability, and control.”

 

I just read Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow and in it he writes about a common logical fallacy, the substitution principle. When we are asked difficult questions, we often substitute a simpler question that we can answer. However, we rarely realize that we do this. Cowen’s insight suggests that we are using this substitution fallacy when we are evaluating online practices.

 

Instead of thinking deeply and critically about our privacy, safety, and the security of our personal or financial information in a given context, we substitute. We ask ourselves, does this website intuitively feel legitimate and well put together? If the answer is yes, we are more likely to enter our personal information, allow our online movements to be tracked, enter our preferences, and save our credit card number.

 

If matching technology works well, if our order is fulfilled, and if we are provided with more content that we can continue to enjoy, we will again substitute. Instead of asking whether our data is safe or whether the value we receive exceeds the risk of having our information available, we will ask if we are satisfied with what was provided to us and if we liked the look and feel of what we received. We can pretend to answer the hard questions with illusory answers to easier questions.

 

In the end, we land in a place where the companies and organizations operating on the internet have little incentive to improve their systems, to innovate in ways that create disruptive changes, or to pursue big leaps forward. We are already content and we are not actually asking the hard questions which may push innovation forward. This contentment builds stagnation and prevents us from seeing the risks that exist behind the curtain. We live in our illusion that we control our information online, that we know how the internet works, and that things are stable and will continue to work, even if the outside world is chaotic. This could be a recipe for a long-term disaster that we won’t see coming because we believe we are safely in control when we are not.

Everything Matches

Tyler Cowen is worried about our matching technology. We have algorithms which tell us what TV shows to watch, which books to read, what wine to drink, and what shoes to wear. We can be matched with romantic partners and music, and very often our matching gives us exactly what we wanted and were hoping for. But, in the eyes of Cowen, all this matching has a dark side. It can make us complacent and can lead to greater segregation between people with different backgrounds, experiences, and interests.

 

In his book The Complacent Class Cowen writes, “Better matching for all its pleasures and virtues, is also in some regards uncomfortably close to the concept of more segregation … Very often we match to what we already like, or what is already like us. Matching brings many new and varied delights into our lives, but in a lot of spheres, the like-to-like effects of matching outweigh the ability of matching to shake us up. That is partly why matching can make us so happy.”

 

We like matching. We like knowing that other people like us already like the restaurant we are going to, or the show that is on tv, or the song that is about to play. We like when things are similar to what we already know. It reduces our cognitive burden and eliminates the stress of picking something and spending money on something we ultimately do not like. We are all risk averse to losing money, and hate the feeling of sunk costs. Matching makes us happy by making decisions more simple and helping us avoid the feeling of loss. It reduces our worries and in many instances, such as auto-playing shows online, we don’t even have to make a decision at all.

 

At the same time, matching technology reduces the chances for us to find something new. Up-and-coming artists with a new take on an old style can have trouble breaking through if the algorithms don’t match them with our tastes. We might miss out on great new content because our matching technology put us in a certain silo. When we reduce opportunities for new experiences, we stagnate, leading to the complacency that Cowen feared as we lose a belief that we could be something better than what we are and currently have.

 

A further downside to the matching technology we use is the potential for extreme segregation. If we really like one sport, then we can be pushed ever further into the specifics of that sport. Our algorithms can provide more and more specific content, advertisements, and connections to that single sport, eliminating things unrelated to the sport from our orbit. As we get further along, we might find that all the people we interact with are also obsessed with our particular team from one particular sport, and we will lose some ability to be with people who are not also living in the same bubble.

 

The sports example is a relatively harmless side of segregation, but it can be worse. Racial, political, and religious segregation are also possible with our matching technology. As we burrow down in our own communities, in real life or online, we may alienate those who do not look, think, and hold the same preferences that we do, leading to situations where we cannot have meaningful interactions with diverse people. This type of segregation is not healthy in a democracy because it makes shared visions and understandings of society and culture impossible across different isolated bubbles.

 

Our matching might make us happy and reduce our cognitive load, but it certainly comes with dangerous downsides. We can embrace the matching technology we have, but we should also be aware of what can happen if we let it make too many decisions in our lives. We should also find ways, times, and spaces where we can get beyond the matching to try something new and experience something beyond our typical bubble.

Stagnation

Tyler Cowen’s book The Complacent Class challenged my thinking on a moral level that I had not expected. He argues in the book that it is morally imperative that we make efforts to increase global GDP and encourage economic productivity and development because it will raise living standards and improve people’s lives at a level that individual interventions cannot. After reading his book and listening to him discuss his ideas, I think he is correct, and I think his concerns about a lack of innovation and a general stagnation in the United States has a solid foundation.

 

In the book, Cowen writes about his main area of focus and consideration regarding progress and development. He writes, “The ultimate measure of technological progress is not the number of gadgets we own, but rather how much better are lives are.” Complacency, in Cowen’s view, doesn’t care if our lives are getting any better. Complacency says that what we have satisfices. We are not really maximizing our lives along any particular dimension, but we are generally content with the status quo, and not pushing new frontiers. To Cowen, this is a dangerous place to find ourselves.

 

“The income of the median or typical American household is down since 2000, and unless wage gains are very strong in the next few years,” writes Cowen, “this country essentially will have gone twenty years with wage stagnation or near wage stagnation for median earners.”

 

Stagnation might not just be bad, it might be a moral failure. If we can improve the standards of living for people across the globe, free up time, increase productivity and efficiency, we can help lift more people out of destitute poverty. Increases in technology can bring increases in living standards that help people get away from indoor wood-fire cooking, access healthy drinking water, and generally avoid unsanitary conditions that lead to preventable health conditions. Increasing productivity and global GDP might just be the best way to help reduce suffering across the planet.

 

The statistics on stagnation suggest that we are not moving forward but instead sitting where we are in a state of complacency. Stagnation likely describes part of the opioid crisis and the anti-immigrant sentiment that fuels right-wing government coalitions across the globe. Stagnation projects a fixed pie that we all get a small share of. Each slice is just enough for us to be content, but any dreams of enlarging the pie are gone. This is Cowen’s fear, and the statistics on wage stagnation seem to suggest that it is the reality we are facing in our country today, and that complacency could have dramatic impacts for global development and the lives of billions of people beyond the borders of the United States.

Chaos and Innovation

The last few weeks I have been thinking quite a bit about chain restaurants. At some point in the recent past, I started to really dislike your typical chain restaurant. Perhaps my wife and I were gifted too many gift cards to Darden Restaurants, but I find myself feeling slightly disdainful toward chains and longing for the uniqueness of small locally owned restaurants. I’ve had trouble keeping chain restaurants off my mind, and I have been asking why they become so popular, why people get so excited when they spread, and why they have such staying power.

 

In his book The Complacent Class, George Mason economist Tyler Cowen offers an answer. He describes chains as being popular because they make the choices easier for the consumer. They standardize their products and environments, making decisions for consumers easy and automatic. They are also easily recognizable and expensive chains can be a simple way to signal wealth. Their products and services in general probably won’t blow anyone away, but things will always be predictably decent.

 

Cowen offers this as an explanation for why chains dominate markets, but also cautions against this market domination. He writes:

 

“As chain stores rise, there is also a loss of dynamism, competition, and market entry for new ideas and products. Keep in mind that today’s major chain was once a small individual store on a street somewhere. A bit more economic chaos, even if it is inconvenient in the short run, actually tends to be correlated with higher rates of innovation.”

 

When you go to a chain restaurant, you can be pretty confident that you will get a decent meal. You can be sure that the menu won’t have anything too strange on it, so you can almost throw a dart and select something generally in line with your usual tastes.

 

Go to a street corner food vendor, a locally owned ethnic restaurant, or that fusion joint that recently popped up, and the guarantee that you will know what you want to order is gone. Ordering is more difficult and you won’t have the certainty that you will enjoy whatever you order. This is great if you want something unique and new, but if you don’t feel like making more tough choices at the end of the day, this is another obstacle to a full belly.

 

The problem, however, with chain restaurants is that once they become dominant, and once they have a menu where everything generally appeals to the median customer’s pallet, there is little incentive for new innovations in the food space. Marginal gains won’t be found in new menu items and unique flavors, but rather in smaller portions and new ways of cutting costs or managing the supply chain. We might get some efficiency gains in this model, but the innovation has nothing to do with the product or service we receive, it is entirely focused on further back-end standardization.

 

We may all be happy and get what we want from this type of model, but we might also be foregoing greater gains from new innovations to the actual products and services themselves. More competition between restaurants might lead to even more new fusion joints, and we might get to experience new irresistible flavors that far surpass the standardized food options at chain restaurants.  It may be chaotic and hard to sort through at times, but settling for easy products and services might make us worse off in the end than if we made more of an effort to find something interesting and excellent.

To Wear a Sweater or Not?

There is a story that I hear from time to time in different contexts. Depending on the context, it is framed as either positive or negative, with different ideas about what our future holds and how we should behave. The story manages to hit political and social identities, aspirations and fears for the future, and concerns over self-sufficiency and parochialism. The story is about a president who encouraged us to wear sweaters during the winter.

 

I’ll start off with the negative view, one perspective of which Tyler Cowen expresses in his book The Complacent Class. He writes, “Jimmy Carter put on a sweater and urged Americans to turn down the thermostat, representing a new era of lowered aspirations. In other words, the American response to economic adversity was to seek to restore comfort more than dynamism, and Americans pushed their culture in this direction all the more in the 1980s.”

 

Cowen’s critique is that as a response to inflation and oil insecurity from foreign oil dependence, Carter suggested we accept limitations and lower expectations. Our president at the time did not encouraging Americans to find new ways to make the world the way they want it. I think this critique is fair. Instead of imagining that the world could be better, that we could be comfortably warm and energy independent through new technology, the story suggest we should just deal with some level of discomfort.

 

I’ve heard others reflect on this story in a similar way. They criticize Carter for a defeatist attitude and for thinking small. People don’t like the parochial feeling of having an elitist person tell them to be tougher and to put on another layer rather than be comfortable but use more resources. Its easy to understand why someone might have the mindset that they deserve to run the heat, even if it is wasteful, because they worked hard to be comfortable and they can afford it.

 

I also think there is value to having our top political leaders signal that we can be more and that we can use science, technology, innovations, and a sense of purpose to make the world a better place. Perhaps encouraging us to keep the thermostats where they were, but also encouraging us to, as the line from the movie The Martian says, “science the shit out of this” would have landed us in a better place than where we are now.

 

But on the other hand, perhaps Carter was right. I have heard people praise Carter for being honest and realistic with the American public. I have heard people criticize Reagan, Carter’s successor, as being an out of touch elitist wearing a suit 24/7. I think people today desire a president like Carter who would signal that they were more in touch with America by turning down the temperature in the White House, making a personal sacrifice themselves before asking others to do the same.

 

Carter’s statement that we need to conserve resources and think critically suggest that we should not just use resources in a wanton fashion. This is a sentiment that climate activists today are trying to mainstream, and perhaps if we had listened more carefully to Carter, we could have shifted our technology to be more green, less resource demanding, and less polluting. After all, who are we to decide that the world should perfectly suit us for every moment of our existence? Isn’t a little discomfort OK, and isn’t it a good thing for us to recognize that the world doesn’t revolve around us? Is it better if we turn the thermostat down, put on a sweater, and pull out a board game to play with friends and family rather than crank up the heat and stare at our screens?

 

My takeaway from this story almost has nothing to do with the story itself. Whether we decide Carter was right probably has more to do with who we want to be, who we want the world to see us as, and what is in our self-interest than it does with whether we truly believe his attitude reflected and encouraged complacency. My takeaway is that events happen in this world, and we attach stories and meanings to the events that can be understood in different ways depending on our background and context. The narrative we create and attach to an event matters, and it shapes what we see, what we believe, and in some ways how we feel about the things that happen in the world. Think deeply about your goals, what you want to achieve, and how a narrative can help you reach those goals, and you will find the ways to tie that narrative into an event. At the same time, watch for how others do the same thing, and when you have discussions with others and want to change their mind, be cognizant of the narratives at play before you go about throwing statistics and facts at someone. Maybe a new narrative will be more effective than a bunch of economics and math.

Segregation of Trust and Opportunity

“Very often the United States deals with its problems by sending them away to a different part of the country or a different part of town or, saddest of all, by sending them to jail,” writes Tyler Cowen in The Complacent Class. Cowen addresses our problems of segregation and incarceration in his book and looks at the strange reality in the United States where we have several booming metropolitan economies across the country and regions with high trust, cooperation, and philanthropy, but nevertheless we lead the world in the number of people incarcerated. Cowen sees our incarceration problem and this split between productivity and apparent moral/social failure as a consequence of American complacency in our modern age.

 

He writes, “Alexis de Tocqueville originally visited the United States to study its prison system, noting that [i]n no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States. That has not been the case for some time.” We arrest a large number of people, many of whom have had high exposures to lead, have mental illnesses that have not been diagnosed, or have been implicated in implicit bias. Rather than confronting difficult realities and striving to improve society for those of us who are the worst off, there are some senses in which we have chosen to jail those of us who fall short rather than striving toward a better society.

 

“Cooperation is very often furthered by segregating those who do not fit in. That creates some superclusters of cooperation among the quality cooperators and a fair amount of chaos and dysfunctionality elsewhere.”

 

Complacency is taking the challenges and the hard parts of life and society and putting them in a box. We take the people who have failed, those who were not brought along through progress and development (often due to explicit exclusion), and set them aside. We physically locate them in prisons, run away from them to suburbs, or push them out of the downtown spaces we want to revitalize. Rather than working with these individuals and figuring out how we can help them connect with our globalized economy to find a way to be productive and engaged in the world, we shut them out and ignore them.

 

Cowen complains that we have lost a sense of betterment. We don’t believe we can solve big problems anymore, and instead of trying, we burrow into our own niches and push aside those who don’t fit with the narrow vision we want to realize. To get beyond this complacency requires inclusionary thinking that asks big questions about making the world better for everyone as opposed to just making ourselves better. Complacency segregates and ignores while the ambition we need to jump-start productivity acknowledges, innovates, and includes.

Why Tyler Cowen is Worried About Segregation and Selectionism

Tyler Cowen’s book The Complacent Class could have been called The Catered Class, and he takes a critical look at the ways we settle for simplicity and comfort in our lives rather than strive for greatness. In the book, Cowen makes the argument that the American Middle-Class (but really all of American culture) has become complacent in our approaches to life, relationships, careers, entertainment, and more. He suggest that we are seeing a slowdown in our economic advances and in productivity because we are creating tools that make us more complacent as opposed to creating tools that fuel an ambition to grow and make the world something better than what we can imagine right now. What is worse, these complacent tools cater to our desires for homogeneity, make inaction easier than action, deplete our sense of agency, and have serious long-term consequences.

 

Much of our technology today includes an algorithm to help us select more of things that we have already selected in the past. Amazon tells us to buy shoes that are similar to the shoes we previously bought, TV streaming services auto-play the next episode of the show we just watched or start a new show that is similar to the last, real estate sites help us navigate to neighborhoods based on our preferences and the characteristics of other buyers like us. These algorithms make us complacent.

 

Rather than take a chance with a title we have never heard of, we are directed to a show or book that people like us also buy if they have similar consumption patterns. Rather than try something new, Amazon pops up with available purchase options for the same things we have always had. Instead of wandering into and exploring new parts of town (maybe this isn’t so different than having a human being show you a part of town based on your race) we scope out the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood online. We have in some ways given our decision-making abilities to machines and a result is that we are actually becoming more segregated today than we have been in the past. We don’t have to interact with people who are not like us, don’t have to experience something new if we want to avoid it, and don’t have to see headlines that don’t correspond with what we want to believe.

 

Cowen writes about the dangers of this segregation in his book, “Segregation has yet another negative consequence: It leads to more intense sorting along political lines, so that both Democrats and Republicans will be more likely to live in communities of politically like-minded individuals. That would lead to more polarization in Congress and to some extent governmental gridlock.”

 

With technology that sorts us so efficiently, we become complacent and are catered to by our devices. This allows us to become more narrow minded as our catered news sources, entertainment options, and food delivery reinforce the idea that complacency is the ideal standard that everyone else should live up to. The idea that we would actively participate in making the world a better place has disappeared behind the veil that the world should be catered to our desires. Rather than working to understand things that are different from our own preferences and rather than working with others to create a world that actually improves our happiness and well-being, we prefer a world that tells us we are special and delivers the safe and comfortable things we want directly to our homes. Our complacency is catered to us, and it has serious consequences as we segregate ourselves and our interests, and as we give up a willingness to dream big about the possibilities of the world.