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.

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.

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.