Tyler Cowen’s new book, The Complacent Class, comes out today. In it, he argues that as a society, Americans have stopped taking risks, are too comfortable, and rely too heavily on incremental improvements of existing goods & ideas, which has resulted in a stagnation of our culture and economy. This video by Cowen is a good introduction to what he means by that.
After about the 1970s, innovation on this scale slowed down. Computers and communication have been the focus. What we’ve seen more recently has been mostly incremental improvements, with the large exception of smart phones.
This means that we’ve experienced a ton of changes in our virtual world, but surprisingly few in our physical world. For example, travel hasn’t much improved and, in some cases, has even slowed down. The planes we’re primarily using? They were designed half a century ago.
Since the 1960s, our culture has gotten less restless, too. It’s become more bureaucratic. The sixties and seventies ushered in a wave of protests and civil disobedience. But today, people hire protests planners and file for permits. The demands for change are tamer compared to their mid-century counterparts.
Time published an excerpt of the book last week:
Americans traditionally have thought of themselves as the great movers, and indeed that was true in the nineteenth century and even through most of the twentieth. But since the 1980s, Americans have become much less restless in movements across the country, and more people are looking to simply settle down and entrench themselves.
Here is this change in a single number: The interstate migration rate has fallen 51 percent below its 1948-1971 average, and that number has been falling steadily since the mid-1980s. Or, if we look at the rate of moving between counties within a state, it fell 31 percent. The rate of moving within a county fell 38 percent. Those are pretty steep drops for a country that has not changed its fundamental economic or political systems. You might think that information technology (IT) would make it easier to find a job on the other side of the country, and maybe it has, but that has not been the dominant effect. If anything, Americans have used the dynamism of IT to help ourselves stay put, not to move around.
And in a recent piece in the NY Times that mentions Cowen’s book, David Brooks references a piece by Nicholas Eberstadt called Our Miserable 21st Century:
That means there’s an army of Americans semi-attached to their communities, who struggle to contribute, to realize their capacities and find their dignity. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics time-use studies, these labor force dropouts spend on average 2,000 hours a year watching some screen. That’s about the number of hours that usually go to a full-time job.
Fifty-seven percent of white males who have dropped out get by on some form of government disability check. About half of the men who have dropped out take pain medication on a daily basis. A survey in Ohio found that over one three-month period, 11 percent of Ohioans were prescribed opiates. One in eight American men now has a felony conviction on his record.
If you need a chaser, consider this from the introductory chapter of Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (which I’m currently reading):
For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.
David Brooks asks: what does life look like when you stop focusing so much on resume building and external achievement and spend more time working on your morality and inner character?
It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?
We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.
But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.
This essay is adapted from Brooks’ newest book, The Road to Character, which is out tomorrow.
David Brooks argues that over time, people (especially men) have become more emotionally intelligent and that this shift might be responsible for a significant portion of our cultural progress.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the researchers didn’t pay much attention to the men’s relationships. Instead, following the intellectual fashions of the day, they paid a lot of attention to the men’s physiognomy. Did they have a “masculine” body type? Did they show signs of vigorous genetic endowments?
But as this study — the Grant Study — progressed, the power of relationships became clear. The men who grew up in homes with warm parents were much more likely to become first lieutenants and majors in World War II. The men who grew up in cold, barren homes were much more likely to finish the war as privates.
Body type was useless as a predictor of how the men would fare in life. So was birth order or political affiliation. Even social class had a limited effect. But having a warm childhood was powerful. As George Vaillant, the study director, sums it up in “Triumphs of Experience,” his most recent summary of the research, “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”
I attended the XOXO Festival in Portland, OR this past weekend. I don’t have a great deal to say about it because — and I’m not trying to be a dick here — you had to be there. As in, physically in the room with the speakers and the attendees. But I did want to mention a few things.
- XOXO was put on by Andy Baio and Andy McMillan. They killed it. And they killed it because they really really (really!) cared about what they were doing, so much so that they were (at times unsuccessfully) holding back tears as they did their outro. Do Chris Anderson or Walt Mossberg cry at the end of TED and D? I don’t think so.
- At no point during the weekend did anyone on the stage make a cynical or ironic remark. Everyone was so positive. It would be easy to mistake it for wide-eyed and naive idealism but that optimism is hard-won and tempered by experience. You can do it — we can do it — because we’ve done it before.
- XOXO attendees were generally not on their computers or phones. They listened to the talks and chatted with their nearby seatmates. It was amazingly refreshing. More conferences like this please.
- Though not specifically referenced, one of the themes of the weekend was what David Brooks referred to as “the power of the particular”. From his piece in the NY Times a few months ago:
It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.
The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.
Examples of this power abounded at XOXO. The indie gaming scene is insanely niche but, as documented in Indie Game: The Movie, some of the best and more unique games make millions of dollars. Emily Winfield Martin felt like a misfit in art school but gained a huge following for her illustrations on Etsy and is now living her dream of creating children’s books. Julia Nunes started out playing cover songs on her ukelele in YouTube videos and now has albums and has played with Weezer and Ben Folds and appeared on Conan. Adam Savage told the story of The Adventurebilt Hat Company, which started making replicas of Indiana Jones’ hat from Raiders of the Lost Ark because they were fans of the film and ended up supplying the actual hats for the fourth Indy movie. The PDX671 food cart that took home the judges’ award in the 2012 Eat Mobile awards was parked outside of the festival both days serving cuisine from Guam. Another cart from the XOXO pod, Nong’s Khao Man Gai, serves only a single Thai dish and boasts long lunch lines. Even the numerous craft beers available all over Portland are valued by aficionados for each beer’s particular characteristics.
David Brooks has some advice for artists, musicians, politicians, and the like: appreciate the tremendous power of your particularity.
We carry this need for paracosms into adulthood. It’s a paradox that the artists who have the widest global purchase are also the ones who have created the most local and distinctive story landscapes. Millions of people around the world are ferociously attached to Tupac Shakur’s version of Compton or J.K. Rowling’s version of a British boarding school or Downton Abbey’s or Brideshead Revisited’s version of an Edwardian estate.
Millions of people know the contours of these remote landscapes, their typical characters, story lines, corruptions and challenges. If you build a passionate and highly localized moral landscape, people will come.
Brooks roots these story landscapes to place but it’s easily expanded to any individual differentiator. Take tech companies. Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft…they all embody the particularity of their founders and have found success because of it.