Gen Z reads The Complacent Class

One of my undergraduate students has written a review of The Complacent Class. Her name is Hannah Florence and she’s going on to great things.

In his speech at Rice University about the United States’ intention to reach the moon, President Kennedy declared these iconic words: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…the challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.

 I am struck by how out of touch his words are with the current political environment. Is there a challenge that we are currently not unwilling to postpone? Never mind reaching new frontiers; Congress has been unable to address issues in its direct purview for decades.

The ambition and boldness of Kennedy’s speech directly contrasts with the lack of urgency that characterizes the public square and American life in general. On a societal level, the current political class has not taken the initiative to exercise creative problem-solving with substantial nationwide issues. Yet on an individual level, Americans are more risk-averse in all areas. Despite the perception of increasing American dynamism due to information technologies, Tyler Cowen details the “zeitgeist of community-enforced social stasis” in The Complacent Class (Cowen 7). 

Americans used to be inventive and imaginative. Now Americans are less mobile, less innovative, and more reluctant to sacrifice comfort and safety for the chance at a better life. Cowen discusses how the restlessness of the 1960s – as evidenced in Kennedy’s speech – converged with the trends of the proceeding decades to create the foundation for the rise of The Complacent Class (5).

Cowen’s thesis is that people are less willing to disrupt the status quo, which is making us, writ large, worse off. More Americans don’t want to move or start a new business because the uncertainty of a better future is not worth risking the comfort of their current circumstances.

This thesis takes a different angle on a claim that has often been repeated in various social commentaries: many Americans, willfully or not, are stuck in a cultural and economic malaise. In The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat argues that following the Apollo mission, Americans underwent a period of economic stagnation, demographic decline, and intellectual and cultural repetition (Douthat). In a more dated, but highly prescient argument, Robert Putnam empirically chronicles the decline in volunteerism, political participation, church attendance, and associational involvement. He poignantly illustrates the decline of communal life of many American communities—we used to join bowling leagues, and now we bowl alone (Putnam).

The common thread among these views is that something is amiss with the status quo and yet we are unwilling to challenge it. Across these different writings, there is a common cultural pivot point in the 1980s. Cowen argues that following the social and political turmoil of the 1960s, the Reagan era was a period of newfound wealth and prestige. The safety, prosperity, and stasis of the 1980s provided the means for Americans to dig in (Cowen 11). Douthat pinpoints the Challenger explosion in 1986 as the end of the era of space exploration (2). Putnam attributes a significant part of the decrease in civic involvement to the generational transition from the silent generation to the baby-boomers.

The three authors discuss a variety of different cultural phenomena – increasing income segregation, declines in political participation, institutional sclerosis to name a few – but they utilize the same vocabulary of stagnation, complacency, and resignation. Across all the texts, there is a sense that the grit, audacity, and optimism that characterized the generation that was raised during the Great Depression and served their community through WWII has been lost. If the Space Age represented the idea that tomorrow might hold something new; the ethos of our current era is the fear that it actually will.

The effect of these developments can be seen in the toxicity of our politics. During an ugly election in a strenuous year, we ultimately are the victims of our own complacency. We look to national elections to address our issues, with neither the grit nor audacity to serve our communities or change our circumstances. The high ideals espoused in decades past of service, mutual self-sacrifice, and courage seem beyond our reach.

Although comfortable (for some) in the short-run, Americans will be hindered in their abilities to meet the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly interconnected world without new ideas and people willing to spearhead them. This message is particularly relevant for current students (myself included) who are well-placed to take up this mantle but epitomize many elements of the Complacent Class. Our ambitions are tempered by our anxieties, and our resources are too often used as means of distraction rather than improvement.

In order for my generation to challenge the bulwark of economic and cultural stasis, we need to push against the guardrails we have grown up with. This won’t be an easy for a cohort that has long perfected their test scores and resumes. As I talk to other classmates about The Complacent Class, there is a general consensus that our generation won’t settle for the status quo we have inherited.

            However, the irony of reading The Complacent Class in an international pandemic is that everyone has been forced to adapt to the ‘new normal.’ The coronavirus—and not gen z or millennials– has proved to be the ultimate killer of complacency.  This means that the post-pandemic future may provide the needed margin to create a more dynamic economy and society. One that can bring those on the periphery into the fold and create opportunities for those who had been told to play it safe.

Works Cited

“John F. Kennedy Moon Speech – Rice Stadium.”, Accessed 12 Oct. 2020.

Cowen, Tyler. The complacent class: The self-defeating quest for the American dream. St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

Douthat, Ross. “The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.” (2020).

Putnam, Robert. “Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community.” (1991).

Joy on Books for 2020 Holiday

I have, I’ll have you know, bought some adult books and read some of them in 2020. Two that I hope to eventually review properly here are One Billion Americans and The Property Species. For now, I’ll just say that I recommend them if your interests overlap with mine.

The books that I read are usually children’s books. I read them out loud, every night.

These are some classics that my 2-year-old is currently asking for on a nightly basis. She is in the repetition stage and also edging into the stage of development where she will flip through a book and “narrate” from the bits that she remembers. “Cow jumpin’ da moon!” is one of the lines she will use when flipping through Goodnight Moon.

Two classic books that are a little more complex for 2 are Make Way for Ducklings and The Little Engine That Could. Sometimes I’ll only read half of the words to keep the pages flipping faster for her.

I’ve got another classic recommendation. I don’t think it’s bad to recommend classics that you have already heard of. At this point, there are so many classics that people still need to choose between them. The Narnia series is really great. The plots are good. Kids are always being told to “be nice”, but children are going to see a portrait of goodness in these books that will serve them well. What does it mean to be good and why do we bother? We just got to the part where King Caspian abolishes the slave trade on an island.

Even though I’m currently reading through the series with my 5-year-old, I would recommend a different strategy to most parents. Wait until age 6. Start off with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe just one page before Lucy goes into the wardrobe. That way your kid will immediately start meeting magical creatures. Once your child is invested in Narnia, they can probably sit through the entire first chapter on a second read-through.

Two more random kid’s recommendation: (1) We got Germs out of the public library last year. When my son was 4 (well before Covid), he asked for that book every night for months. We checked it out over and over. In the time of Covid, I think this is a great intro to the immune system.

(2) Aunt Flossie’s Hats is a good way to sneak in some history without it feeling like school. The story involves a woman relating memories to her granddaughters. (bonus points for being anti-racist)

Review of: “How the Scots Invented the Modern World”, by Arthur Herman

This book describes the development of intellectual life and related events in Scotland from about 1700 onward. Scotland in 1700 was a small, poor, largely agrarian independent nation, still characterized in large part by feudalism. In much of the country, clansmen in their kilts constantly robbed and fought each other. By 1800, it was an economically thriving section of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, and a huge contributor to modern thought on many levels. The subtitle on the front jacket of the book expansively portrays its contents as: “The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It”.

A key event which helped launch this flowering was an economic one. The 1690’s were an unusually cold decade, leading to famine and poverty in the more northern European countries like Scotland. Scottish trade and industry were constricted by the policies of England, their more powerful neighbor to the south. Other nations of Western Europe in the 1600’s had colonies in the Americas, which seemed to be a source of national wealth and influence. Scotland tried to found her own colony, called Darien, on the coast of the Isthmus of Panama. A huge fraction of the wealth of Scotland was invested in this venture. It failed, for various reasons, which was an economic disaster for the country.

This led to a willingness on the part of the Scottish elite to surrender their independence in return for the chance to participate in commerce on the same terms as the English and under the protection of the Royal Navy. An Act of Union between the two kingdoms was approved in 1707. This led to a rise in prosperity and helped set in motion various influences of modernization.

A lively intellectual life in the burgeoning cities of the Scottish lowlands put Scotland at the forefront of the 18th century enlightenment. The Scottish Enlightenment was more practical and aligned with common sense than was the Enlightenment of the French philosophes.  David Hume and Adam Smith are just two of the significant Scottish thinkers of this era. The works of Hume and of Smith (e.g. The Wealth of Nations) are still required reading today in the fields of philosophy and of economics.

Scots likewise made great contributions to science and technology. Today we measure power in terms of “watts”, a tribute to James Watt, whose improvements to steam engines made them finally practical for widespread use. We drive on “macadam” roads, initially developed by John McAdam.

How the Scots Invented the Modern World weaves all these themes together, going into enough detail with key actors to make them come alive as real persons. Since there are so many books and so little time, I rarely go back and reread a book. Also, I ruthlessly pruned my collection as part of our recent household interstate move. But I have found myself picking up this volume from time to time, and so it survived the cut. I recommend it as an entertaining and enlightening read.

C. S. Lewis on the Medieval Mind

I recently read C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature for a Zoom reading club at Samford University. It is based on his course lectures given at Oxford. I had expected a somewhat boring discussion of one obscure manuscript after another. But the book went in a different, highly engaging direction.

The Medieval Model

Lewis spends much of his time in describing the general mindset and methodology of the medieval writers, what Lewis terms their “Model”, to give us the necessary background for understanding and appreciating medieval literature. This helped me to better understand how people were thinking back in the Middle Ages (c. 500-1500 A.D.). Obviously, the particulars of their model of the universe were incorrect. But having a comprehensive model of reality which worked at the time helped to ground them, so they did not experience the sort of alienation which characterizes our age. 

Medieval and early Renaissance authors did not generally just make things up. They very much relied on whatever Greek and Roman texts they had from pre-Middle Ages or early Middle Ages, which included a mix of philosophical/scientific (e.g. Platonic, Aristotelean, neo-Platonic), historical, and mythological treatises. In the medieval model of the universe (which was pieced together from readings of pre-500 A.D. authors), things below the orbit of the moon were contingent and corruptible and somewhat unpredictable. This was the realm of which we would call “nature”.

From the moon upward, was a more exalted realm, where the seven visible “planets”, which included the moon and sun, was each carried on its own transparent sphere. And also there was a sphere holding the stars. All these concentric spheres moved regularly (with some complications) and predictably.  Beyond that was the “prime mobile” sphere, invisible to us, which gave motion to all the other spheres within it.  God is the “Unmoved Mover” who gives motion to everything else.

Above the moon the space was filled with rarefied “aether”, instead of the thick, sometimes noxious air down closer to earth. Up there, it was always light, not dark, as we now think of “space”. (They understood the darkness seen when we look up at night as simply the relatively narrow shadow cast by the earth; everyplace else in the heavens was bathed in light).  The heavens rang with the beautiful “music of the spheres”, and was inhabited only by good, incorruptible beings such as angels and the stars and planets, and, of course, God. Any daemons or other evil spirits were down in the thick air closer to earth, below the level of the moon.

The planets (which included the sun and moon) and the stars were perhaps not fully conscious beings, but they were not dead lumps of rock and gas. They were, in some sense, intelligent beings who were happy doing what they were made for as they danced their patterns in the heavens over and over again. They had effects or “influences” on the affairs of men. The moon could make people a little crazy, Venus called forth romance, Mars promoted warring passions, and so on. This influencing was not some kind of creepy, occult operation, but just the way things are, a more or less natural principle like gravity. 

Some people could take this to a fatalistic determinism. The more judicious thinkers held that, while the planets and stars did indeed exert such influences, humans could and should exercise their reason and free will to resist being driven solely by such propensities. This nuanced notion carries down into Shakespeare, writing around 1600: “Men are at some time master of our fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Julius Caesar)

Feeling at Home in the Universe

Medieval folks were aware that the universe was really, really huge. The earth was a tiny speck compared to the whole universe. However, the universe was finite, not infinite. That meant when they looked up, it was like looking up into a huge towering cathedral, not into empty space. So they would not experience what Pascal referred to as the frightening infinite dark empty silences of space. Also, they were looking up at a realm which was essentially happy and orderly, with each planet and star fulfilling its proper destiny.

I will close with a set of excerpts which convey their sense of being at home within a well-functioning universe and also their feeling of relatively seamless continuity with many previous centuries of interesting and often honorable human history. Their technology of plows drawn by oxen and of wars fought with swords and shields was not too different from the physical world of ancient Greece and Rome, and their culture of honor was likewise similar. I italicized some phrases which seemed particularly illuminating:

“Because the medieval universe is finite, it has a shape, the perfect spherical shape, containing within itself an ordered variety. Hence to look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist, or looking about one and a trackless forest – trees forever and no horizon. To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building. The great ‘space’ of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony.
…This explains why all sense of the pathless, the baffling, and the utterly alien – all agoraphobia – is so markedly absent from medieval poetry when it leads us, as so often, into the sky. ”  

“Thanks to his deficiency in the sense of period, that packed and gorgeous past [i.e. of classical myth and history] was [i.e. seemed or felt] far more immediate to him in the dark and bestial past could ever be to a Lecky or a Wells [i.e. modern science or science fiction of cave men, etc.]. It differed from the present only by being better. Hector was like any other knight, only braver. The saints looked down on one’s spiritual life, the kings, sages, and warriors on one’s secular life, the great lovers of old on one’s own armours, to foster, encourage, and instruct. There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age. One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need to be neither proud nor lonely.”

“Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination…. Every particular fact and story became more interesting and more pleasurable if, by being properly fitted in, it carried one’s mind back to the Model as a whole.”

     “If I am right, the man of genius then found himself in a situation very different from that of his modern successor. Such a man today often, perhaps usually, feels himself confronted with a reality whose significance he cannot know, or a reality that has no significance… It is for him, by his own sensibility, to discover a meaning, or, out of his own subjectivity, to give a meaning – or at least a shape – to what in itself had neither. But the Model universe of our ancestors had a built-in significance.”

“I doubt they would have understood our demand for originality… [Why would one want to] spin something out of one’s own head when the world teems with so many noble deeds, wholesome examples, pitiful tragedies, strange adventures, and merry jests which have never yet been set forth quite so well as they deserve? The originality which we regard as a sign of wealth might have seemed to them a confession of property. Why make things for oneself like the lonely Robinson Crusoe when there is riches all about you to be had for the taking? The modern artist often does not think the riches is there. He is the alchemist who must turn base metal into gold.”

[Abridged from  C. S. Lewis on the Medieval Mind , which includes literature references]

Yglesias ‘One Billion Americans’ CWT podcast

I have been looking forward to this podcast. It dropped today. I was too busy “at work” (I work from home on Wednesdays) to listen. Then in the evening I wanted to tell my kids that I could not sing “Wheels on the Bus” another time for them because I had a podcast I really wanted to listen to. Of course that doesn’t really work with a toddler. The upshot is that I’ve only listened to half of it.

Here’s a quote that I thought was interesting

There could be a lot of benefits to that. I went to Ireland. It was the last international trip I took. It’s a beautiful country, very successful in a lot of ways, but obviously, a really empty country. If you’re working on a book about a billion Americans while going across from Dublin to Galway, I could not help but be struck. It’s like, “Where is everybody here? Couldn’t we do more?”

Matt Yglasias

One of the interesting questions when you think about packing more people into prosperous countries is why must we focus on making congested cities larger. There really is a lot of land around.

I know of “blighted” neighborhoods near me that already have streets and ample parking and just everything that you could want except rich neighbors. The shrinking cities in cold places seem like the ideal candidates for where more people could go.

I haven’t read Matt’s new book. I do not endorse it, since I don’t know what is in it. However, I like the fact that he has a vision, and I’m excited to read it.

Philosophy from a POW: Wittgenstein via Keynes

For now, I will not write blog posts on the weekend. This weekend I made a little progress reading through (500+ page) The Price of Peace about John Maynard Keynes. This is not an economics textbook, although you will come away from it with a better understanding of “Keynesian economics”. The author presents the most intriguing parts of a life that could fill both a salacious tabloid and a respectable financial newspaper.

Here’s a story that surprised me:

Previous chapters describes Keynes’ involvement in winning World War I. He had a literal seat at the table for negotiating resulting peace and reparations agreements. Before the war, intellectuals from central Europe were exchanging ideas with Keynes at Cambridge University.

The horrific WWI pitted some of these Cambridge friends against each other, since some were British and others happened to be born in Hungary or Austria. Some died and never got to re-join the conversation. Brilliant Ludwig Wittgenstein ended up on a POW camp near Italy after the war.

Keynes used his government privileges to get Wittgenstein’s manuscript shipped out of the POW camp and into the hands of Bertrand Russell of Cambridge. This led to the English-language publication of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 1922. According to The Price of Peace, Keynes’ own work on philosophy was completely eclipsed by Wittgenstein’s book. The book that might easily have ended up burned or thrown in the garbage of a POW camp.

Would Keynes and Wittgenstein blog if they were alive today? Would they have produced brilliant books, or would they be too distracted by Reddit and video games?