Tyler Cowen has published his most successful book yet, The Complacent Class, now on the Washington Post nonfiction bestseller list and getting reviewed by everybody from The Economist to the New York Times and on. It is the Book de Jour that all are commenting on one way or another. Is America declining because so many of its people have become complacent? (Shame on them.)
The book has much to offer. It is chock full of many interesting facts, although many of them Tyler has publicized at one point or another on his blog, Marginal Revolution. He even pushes some newly fashionable ideas that have been in the dark for too long, such as a sort of cyclical theory of history. And he certainly makes the case that there are lots of trends that seem to show the American people not being as energetic or adventurous as they used to be, with headline data including reduced interstate migration, reduced changing of jobs, reduced patenting, and reduced entrepreneurial startups, among other things. He does note some external matters that may be adding to some of this, with building codes and land use restriction in economically dynamic urban areas a big culprit as it makes it harder for many to take advantage of the high paying jobs in those areas. He has also noted that we may be running out of new scientific knowledge to learn or discover, which makes it harder to find dramatic things to patent, and indeed he wrote a previous book about this, blaming this as a major reason for secular stagnation.
But the big question is whether the title is an accurate representation of what is in the book, which has come up in a series of inconclusive blogposts about “Who is the Complacent Class?” Frankly, it is not clear that there is one, or if there is one, they are not the people who are responsible for the data he puts forth as supposedly claiming there is one. If there is a complacent class in the US, it is the top 1 or 2 percent of the wealth and income distribution, who get lots of attention, but who are not the people who are not moving across state lines or changing jobs. That is going on in the other 98 percent mostly.