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.

Implementation Matters

One party in the United States seems to continually chide any public sector misstep and only seems to be able to complain about the problems and waste of public sector projects and programs when discussing what the government actually does. While there are undoubtedly challenges and problems in public administration, continually complaining about and criticizing any public agency operation can have further costs to society. Good implementation in public policy matters, and one fear that seems reasonable to me, is that the constant denigration of public service will drive out creative and hard-working individuals, and worsen the very situations being criticized.

 

In The New Localism, authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write about the importance of implementation, and how they view it differently in their system of New Localism. They write,

 

“At a Brookings Institution forum in 2000, [Richard] Shatten stated that, ‘being right is irrelevant to the growth of cities and metropolitan areas. Good ideas are critical, but they have impact only when they are implemented thoughtfully and effectively. And sound implementation only happens when a community develops a civic, corporate, and political culture that can translate good ideas into action and execute with discipline and imagination.'”

 

Two things really stand out from this quote to me. The first is that good implementation is everything. Public agencies need to think about and study what will make the implementation of a program successful and need to be thoughtful of how they do the things they have been tasked with doing. Poor implementation of the perfect solution can ruin public support for that solution and can create even worse problems and greater barriers to achieving the outcomes society wants to see.

 

Second, good implementation relies on a strong political culture that accepts government action and helps align non-governmental actors to make implementation successful. It is not enough for private sector organizations and thought leaders to say that a policy needs to be put in place or run a certain way, they actually need to use their resources, skills, and expertise to be part of implementation. Good ideas require community efforts to become successful policy, and if a group simply stands apart, refuses to help, and cries foul at every opportunity, then implementation will of course fail, as if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy of ineptitude. There is room for criticism of government and the failures of implementation should be discussed, but we should not hinder the implementation of a program out of a prejudice against public action. Ultimately, the public action on its own, as the quote suggests, is not enough. We can’t just criticize from the sidelines, we actually need to find ways for more organizations and groups to be involved in the implementation of new programs, specifically tailored to meet the local needs of populations, businesses, and environments. Standing apart and criticizing only snowballs problems. Collaboration and cooperation among civic, private, and public organizations is the only way governance and development will be possible in the future.

Institutional Vehicles

In a public policy class, I had a professor once ask, “What is an institution?” One student responded that another professor once answered that question by stating that an institution was something you could kick. That’s true for some institutions (you can kick the supreme court, the city hall, and the local police department), but not all. We recognize marriage as an institution but you can’t kick it, and you certainly can’t kick equal protection under the law even though you theoretically could kick the actual paper on which the 14th amendment was written. Our institutions are sometimes physical buildings (or housed in them), but they are often processes, ideas, and systemic structures that guide our interactions, thoughts, and societies.

 

Our institutions only exist and function because we chose to place both trust and authority in our institutions. They can only operate when those within them and those who recognize them from the outside are aligned and coordinated together to recognize and legitimize action and outcomes from our institutions. In the book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak explain what this means as problem-solving and initiative-taking move from Federal levels of governance to local levels of governance. They write, “New Localism refers to multi-sectoral networks that work together to solve problems, as well as the institutional vehicles they invent to get things done.”

 

Coalition building is an important part of politics, but it is also just an important part of life in general. If you want your family to go to Tahiti for the holidays instead of Grandma’s house, then you need to build the right family coalition to get everyone to agree. If you want to work on a specific project in the office, if you want to do a job a certain way, and if you want to reorganize the workplace, you need to build coalitions to get people on board to follow your direction. Coalition building is super complex at the national level, but at the local level where a smaller handful of actors can generate a bigger (relative) push, then coalition building is possible and creating or inventing institutional vehicles to move policy can be a powerful tool.

 

Networks are key in new localism because they open the possible avenues for movement via new institutional vehicles. Connections and shared goals behind key stakeholders make new localism possible with coalitions created through networks of like-minded community leaders. Those who have an interest in seeing reinvention, seeing successful policy development, and seeing adaptable and resilient communities can come together to form new coalitions, pulling people from varying public, civic, and private sector organizations. These groups can then think about the structures shaping our lives, our decisions, and our interactions, and how new institutions can alter the status quo to solve problems in new ways that are unique to a given city, metro, or region.

The Challenge of Trying to Enlarge the Pie

I often feel that we are moving so fast toward the future that we are advancing beyond our means. I think we are in some ways exceeding the capacity that we have evolved to fit, and this is creating great challenges for humans across the globe. We have new technologies, new social structures, and new understandings of our places in the world and in the universe more broadly that exceed the type of living that we evolved to succeed within.

 

A passage from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain highlighted this for me. They write, “Despite the fact that it’s possible to cooperate, politically, in ways that “enlarge the pie” for everyone, this is the exception rather than the rule – especially for our distant ancestors. In most contexts, for one coalition to succeed, others must fail. Importantly, however, members within a coalition can earn themselves a larger slice of the pie by cooperating – a fact that makes politics such an intoxicating game.”

 

The line about our ancestors being incapable of expanding the pie for everyone is important. Without much technology, without shared languages and translation, and in a state of constant threat from nature, it is easy to see why our early ancestors were limited to a state of competition with each other for social status, sex, and resources. There simply were too few humans, too few easily accessible resources, and too few scalable technologies for everyone to be sufficiently comfortable and connected.

 

We now live in a new world, where literally 7.5 million people in the San Francisco metropolitan statistical area are constantly thinking about ways to build new technology to scale to improve the lives of all people, not just the people they are connected with. We understand that our actions can have global manifestations, and that we need global solutions to address climate change and other existential threats. Our technology and ways of thinking have surpassed the world our ancestors lived in, and have created a new game for us to play, however, we are still stuck in the zero-sum mindset of our ancestors, asking what we can do to get a bigger share of the pie for our narrow coalition.

 

Understanding why we fall into thinking about narrow coalitions is important. Recognizing the way our brains work and why they are limited helps us see new potentials. Understanding how we can change our thoughts and how we and others will react in a world that offers so much more is key to actually living up to our new potential as a global species.

A Close Look at Individuals

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander finds a common ground between Republicans and Democrats when looking at who we consider change agents in our system. Both groups look at the power of the individual as the driving force of America and see the individual as the mechanism through which change and a better future are possible. The two camps may see the actions of the individual a bit differently, but nevertheless both focus on the individual.

 

Throughout her book however, Alexander is critical of the idea that the individual is capable of creating and instigating the changes in America that are necessary to overcome enormous challenges. There are too many structural barriers for individuals to overcome, and even if the individual does rise to the top, the idea that they can lift an entire group is unrealistic. The individual may play an incredible role, and in America the strength of the individual may be fantasized by popular culture, but the individual exists in a complex society that can only truly change and advance through the mobilization of entire social groups. I agree with Alexander that the structural barriers are too great for us to address on our own, and I want to look at how we think about the individual versus the collective, and examine the ways that Alexander believes this plays out in our criminal justice system.

 

Since our founding, the idea of the individual has been a palpable force in shaping our democracy. Protestant settlers tended to believe that their hard work would be rewarded with great riches from above, and success was (and still is) viewed as an individual’s divine blessing, given by a greater power to those who are hard working, virtuous, and special. If one was successful it was because a divine being had recognized and rewarded them, and through this same view, those who were not successful were in their position due to individual moral failures. On this foundation we built a nation and a constitution that centered around the strength and responsibility of the individual for personal gain. Our primary responsibility was to be a good Christian so that God would bestow great bounty upon us, and if we all focused on this goal as individuals, collectively we would all find an everlasting success. Failure was a result of individuals not living up to the contract from above, and within this lens we developed the idea of the deserving and undeserving.

 

From this foundation our nation has developed to where we are today. Describing the role of the individual in The New Jim Crow, Alexander writes, “Here we see both liberals and conservatives endorsing the same meta-narrative of American individualism: When individuals get ahead, the group triumphs. When individuals succeed, American democracy prevails.” Alexander is critical of this theory and I think she is right to criticize the focus on individualism. I do not believe there is a liberal and a conservative America, because when we use those terms we mean different things in different contexts, so I will drop her terms and simply use Republican and Democrat because party identification is more consistent and to me seems to be more causal than liberal or conservative ideology.

 

Alexander describes the Republican Party as being focused on individuals changing the system through entrepreneurship and insight. The individual can create great innovations if they are not constrained and limited by the system within which they operate. The Democratic party sees the individual as the flagship leader, raising up and pulling the status of the group and the fortunes of others up with them. Both of these views see power as resting with great individuals and leaders, and see exceptional leaders as the key to growth, progress, development, and a better future. Alexander finds this narrative lacking and dangerous, and I agree with her that it is an incomplete view.

 

To me, this focus on individuals is misplaced. What we get from our focus on individualism is instability, delays, and stagnation as often than we get flashes of brilliance, advancement, and progress. An incredible leader and voice may come along to lift up an entire group, as Dr. King Jr. did during the Civil Rights movement, but expecting a great leader to instigate meaningful change causes delays in achieving justice, making scientific advances, and solving substantial problems that impact people’s every day lives. This focus also creates instability since people change and die, and pinning all of our hopes on an individual leaves movements of change and advancement  vulnerable, as the assassination of Dr. King Jr. demonstrated.

 

The real power of the individual is not in change and progress as both Democrats and Republicans would hope. The true power of the individual is in the status quo. It is the power to defend the injustices that exist, the power to delay advancement and equality, and the power to be a barrier that limits other individuals. The reason why an individual has greater power to be a pest and not a hero is because we live in a society that requires collective action. The Republican Party has demonstrated that a few high minded individuals with great influence can derail the ideas of societal responsiveness and democratic representation. As an example, Grover Norquest’s anti-tax pledge is a commitment to abandon the collective more than it is a commitment to improve society. The Koch brother’s campaign against moderate candidates (candidates who more accurately reflect the majority of the country) is a demonstration that a few individuals can block progress and block the strength of our social groups while upholding structural barriers. President Donald Trump clearly shows us that a single individual can reverse and hold up equality and group advancement, while President Barack Obama showed us that even the best among us can only make so much of a dent without the support of broader communities.

 

In America we love our superheroes that pull the world back from the brink of destruction and manage to triumph in the face of adversity. We focus on what the individual can achieve and use material and financial success to demonstrate our value as individuals. What hides below the surface of our love for the individual is the fact that no one can be a superhero without some form of support from a larger group. What we hide in our past is that those who became incredibly wealthy in the early days of our society did so by exploiting the black body, justifying their actions as divinely ordained and rightful by biology and manifest white destiny. This attitude continued and the white individual was able to achieve their own success while holding the entirety of black society back. If we focus on individualism we allow such evils to persist. We must find a new way to be individuals and be successful on our own, but with the understanding that our individual success in terms of wealth, possessions, jobs, and family has as much  to do with with us as individuals as it has to do with the stability and protection offered by the larger society in which we live.

Don’t Spend Too Much Time Talking and Too Little Time Doing

One of the aspects of Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy that I really like is the way that Holiday helps us with strategies and advice for achieving our goals. His main focus in the book is on our ego, and how our ego can trip us up and prevent us from reach the destinations we want. As he explains the pitfalls of living for our ego, he indirectly shows us what he thinks is a good life and what we can do to live a good life. The strategies and ideas he present are simple and help build habit which I have found very helpful.

 

One piece of advice from the book is to talk a lot less, especially about our goals and projects. “Research shows that while goal visualization is important,” Holiday writes, “after a certain point our mind begins to confuse it with actual progress. The same goes for verbalization.” Our brains seem to confuse actual action on a project with thoughts about and talk about a project or goal. Our mental resources get used up in talking through and explaining our goal before we ever put any mental energy into the necessary steps to achieve our goal.

 

“After spending so much time thinking, explaining, and talking about a task, we start to feel that we’ve gotten closer to achieving it … although of course we haven’t.”

 

Actual action requires that we stop talking and planning. We have to stop telling people about the great thing we want to do and put forward the energy to make that thing a reality. Planning in our mind, getting excited about a project or goal, and  thinking through all things we could do to either achieve or heighten the goal is at some point just as much of a distraction for us as social media, the next Marvel movie, or that box of girl-scout cookies. We must get moving, even if the action is small and seems insignificant at first. Talking and over thinking a goal will lead to inaction and will not actually help us do the things to reach our goal.

 

Holiday adds a rhetorical question (italics his), “I just spent four hours talking about this. Doesn’t that count for something? The answer is no.”