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.

Lets Consider Our Standards for Life

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve.”

 

On an initial quick read, this quote seems to be saying, live better than the masses but don’t act like you are better than everyone else. That’s good advice that has been said so many times that it is basically useless. We already all believe that we are morally superior to other people and we are especially likely, according to Robin Hanson in an interview he gave on Conversations with Tyler, to say that our group or tribe is morally  superior to others. If you give the quote a second thought however, you see that there is a deeper meaning within the idea being conveyed.

 

The first thing we should consider is what it would look like to maintain a high standard of life. In his same letter, Seneca advises that a high standard of life does not mean that one wears the nicest possible toga or that one has silver dishes laced with pure gold. A high standard of life is not about maintaining exorbitant material possessions. Advertising in the United States would make you think differently. A high standard of life is advertised to us as driving the finest sports car, demanding the best possible wrist watch, and having exquisitely crafted faucets. Seneca would argue that these things don’t create a high standard of living, but just show off our wealth. I would agree.

 

A high standard of life, Seneca suggests and I would argue, is a well ordered life in which we can live comfortably but don’t embrace the mindset that it is our possessions that define our success and value. A high standard for life means that we cultivate habits which help us be more kind and considerate. We pursue activities and possessions that help us be more effective, less impulsive, and allow us to better use our resources and intelligence.

 

Maintaining this version of a high standard of life can have the same pitfalls we may associate with the Real Housewives of LA if we don’t give thought to the second part of Seneca’s advice. Maintaining high living standards can lead us to selfishness and self-serving decisions if we don’t think about other people and how we operate as a society. Seneca’s advice is about becoming a model for other people and helping become a force that improves lives by encouraging and inspiring others. This idea was echoed in Peter Singer’s book about effective altruism, The Most Good You Can Do. Effective altruists want to direct their efforts, donations, and resources in the direction where they can have the greatest possible positive impact on the world to help the most people possible. One of the ways to do that is to inspire others to also strive to do the most good they can do. No one would follow an effective altruist who gave away all their money and lived a miserable life. But someone would follow an effective altruist who gave a substantial amount of their money to an effective and meaningful charity and still lived an enjoyable and happy life.

 

Our high standard of living in the end should be one that drives us toward continual improvement. A life that makes us more considerate, more thoughtful, less judgmental, and less impulsive. It should encourage others to live in a way that helps them be happier and healthier, rather than living in a way that suggests that having expensive things and showing off is what life is all about.

What Race Are You Running?

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday helps us look at competition in a more meaningful way. It is hard, at least in the United States, to feel as though one can be successful without comparing oneself to everyone else. Our entire society is based around consumption and markets, creating daily competitions and providing us with a million opportunities to purchase shiny new trophies as emblems of our success. The markets we live within have driven human ingenuity forward, given us phones that replace a thousand products in a 2.5 X 5 inch rectangle in our pocket, and have risen the living standards for people across the globe, but our markets have also put us in a place where purchasing power and wealth are the standards we use to measure the value and success of people. This can be very dangerous, especially since competition is not always the best way to unify a society or bring meaning to most individuals. Holiday writes,

 

“Only you know the race you’re running. That is, unless your ego decides the only way you have value is if you’re better than, have more than, everyone everywhere. More urgently, each one of us has a unique potential and purpose; that means that we’re the only ones who can evaluate and set the terms of our lives. Far too often, we look at other people and make their approval the standard we feel compelled to meet, and as a result, squander our very potential and purpose.”

 

The competition of the markets in our lives make it seem like we are all racing against each other all  the time. I feel this when I check the stats for my blog, when I post a run to Strava, and when someone I know pulls up next to me in a brand new car. I often feel that I am doing well or not doing well based on how I look relative to others, which is dangerous because it is something I do not control. I cannot compare my blog to people who are professional bloggers and have the time and energy to put all of their focus into their blog. I cannot compare my running to friends of mine who have the time to do multiple workouts every day with a coach who can help them run really fast. And I do not know if the person in the new car next to me is just borrowing the car from a family member, paid for it outright, or is leasing a new car they really can’t afford. In my examples above, each of us is in a different race, and it is a mistake to think that I am somehow competing against all of them in these areas that really do not matter at the end of the day.

 

A while back I wrote about the pitfalls of using money and wealth as our default measurement for success. Financial success does not always translate into a well rounded and truly successful life. There are many factors that contribute to someone’s wealth, and very often those factors don’t really have anything to do with the hard work, value, or skills of a person. Trying to outrun that person and achieve greater wealth than them might be a mistake, because you are running a different race, and you might be competing in an entirely different sport. Assuming that everyone is just like us, that they have had the same experience as us, the same advantages and obstacles in their lives, and experience the same desires and goals as us is a mistake if we are trying to compete with them to have more things or more of what ever it is we decide makes someone successful. At the end of the day we can use elements of competition to encourage us to make good decisions like eating healthy, writing every day, and working hard to be productive, but we should not do these things simply to be better than everyone else and show our dominance over them.