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Tyler Cowen And The Fallacy Of American Laziness

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Have we all gone lazy? Are Americans no longer the restless go-getters they once were? Has our culture changed in ways that impede economic progress instead of naturally promoting it? In his new book, The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen, one of the most eclectic and inventive authors on economic issues, says yes to all of these questions.

The Complacent Class by Tyler Cowen

Not so fast, professor. The United States is still the richest large country in the world. Three decades after Japan gave us a run for our money, and two decades after Europe unified, we’re way ahead of both. The U.S. recovery from the global financial crisis of 2007-2009, while lacking in vigor, is stronger than virtually anywhere else. While some small countries have higher per-capita income and China’s total output is on par with that of the U.S. (depending on the measure), Chinese per capita incomes are one-quarter those in the United States and will probably not catch up in this century. And the U.S. standard of living has increased in ways that are not captured by GDP statistics – the air Americans breathe and the tap water we drink is the envy of hundreds of millions around the world.

Tyler Cowen is one of the most prolific and original authors the economics profession has produced. It’s hard to figure out when the blogging superstar, George Mason University professor, online educator and author of more than a dozen books ever sleeps.

But The Complacent Class is not Cowen’s best work. Cowen portrays Americans as contented with modest achievements, dug in, working harder to protect small gains than to achieve large ones. This image collides with the America I know. There is a vocal minority that is deeply distressed, a condition common over America’s turbulent economic history. But a great many people, the majority, work hard and are generally doing well.

Oy vey…

Cowen, who has elsewhere presented optimistic outlooks, has joined the chorus of commentators who say that the country is losing its edge. He foreshadowed this book with The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, published in 2010, but the emphasis in that book, on how we can and will someday feel better, is mostly missing from The Complacent Class.

The declinist genre is as old as the ancient Greeks and has filled American library shelves for our entire history. But it is enjoying a robust revival.

Of course, just because an idea has become faddish does not mean it isn’t true. Relative to its glorious history, the U.S. has indeed suffered in this new century, with two wars and a long, shallow depression. We never fully recovered from the global financial crisis. It’s not surprising that there should be a rash of pessimistic books in the stores.

But, despite making a large number of worthwhile points, The Complacent Class could be more persuasive. A cleaner case for American decline was made by Nicholas Eberstadt, writing in Commentary. Eberstadt focused on the newly disadvantaged category of young and middle-aged white men. He is rightly concerned about the separation of this group from the upwardly mobile mainstream, which includes many members of minority groups.

Cowen, in contrast, says that a mainstream group, the professional upper-middle class, is the problem. That is Cowen’s most serious mistake. Those who are falling behind should be emulating the professional class’ success, not deploring or resenting it.

By Laurence B. Siegel, read the full article here.

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