America the Complacent

At the eastern edge of the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900 stood the porte monumentale, a curious structure made of three arches, a dome and atop it a statue. The statue, “la Parisienne,” designed by sculptor Moreau-Vauthier, drew criticism, her bold carriage draped by a robe open to onlookers betraying her sultry figure — vulgar as she was splendid to the eye.

Past the monumental gate, down the Place de la Concorde toward Avenue Alexandre III, stood the Petit and Grand Palais. The Petit, built with a traditional stone facade, ionic columns and a porch, represented the Paris of yesteryear.

Echoing the Petit, the Grand Palais was French in its florid elegance, adorned still by a classical stone facade, and yet starkly modern with art nouveau iron adornments and glass panels. Lining the inside of the palaces were curios and contraptions that pushed the then-boundaries of human possibilities. Among the spectators was Henry Adams, the grandson of President John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of President John Adams.

Haunting the great hall of “dynamos,” peering up at the Daimler motor, “which spouted heat in inconceivable volume,” Adams wrote, enthralled. “To him,” he mused (in the third-person), “the dynamo itself was but an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tones of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight; but to Adams, the dynamo became a symbol of infinity.”

“Infinity,” for Adams, was less a poetic flourish than it was his model of history. Adams was a well-placed and able spectator of that unending progression, after all. His project was to distill from the chaotic stream of events he knew of and often witnessed a sequence, as if it were a science. Human events, however, proved untidy. Rather than discerning a sequence of events, or anything human for that matter, Adams cataloged a sequence of forces — the powers that proved to rouse the human spirit and arrest whole centuries by their essence.

In medieval Europe, the Virgin Mary had been the animating symbol of the age: the force that defined the intellectual and social environment. The human knowledge manifest before Adams went beyond the realm of “inert facts” characteristic of bygone epochs, to one far more occult, mysterious and modern: “The force was wholly new.”

For Adams, the exhibition was unlike an auto-show of our day. The wonders he witnessed were shaking the fundaments of the relationship between mankind and nature, were shrinking the distance between will and what had until then been the preserve of providence. Humanity’s imagination no longer exceeded its grasp.

Henry Adams seated at desk in dark coat, writing. Photograph by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Many of the contraptions that inspired Adam’s timeless essay The Dynamo and the Virgin (1907) were those primordial ancestors of the trappings of modernity as we would define it: electrified illumination, telephony, automobility.

Though this veritable golden age of invention is typically technologist-focused (think Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, and the like), the story did not end there. Technological innovation went hand-in-hand with dramatic economic, political and social change.

Though we millennials may take for granted the power of modernity’s trappings to mold the human condition, its meaning was lost neither on Adams, nor on those in the far flung states who benefited from the material and economic progress wrought by these technological advances. Research done by Ufuk Akcigit, John Grigsby and Tom Nicholas, discussed in enriching detail in their piece, The Rise of American Ingenuity: Innovation and Inventors of the Golden Age, confirms: between 1880 and 1940, by practically every macroeconomic indicator, from population growth to financial development, from geographic connectivity even to incidence of slavery, innovation bore progress.

Do we remain in a golden age of innovation?

This is, after all, the age of the start-up. With Steve Jobs’ iPhone, the growth of the gig economy , even new categories of gender, there must be no doubt we are.

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, says otherwise. “Disruption has been the buzzword of the decade…” Cowen begins his book The Complacent Class, “But as important and yet neglected is a story that’s happening alongside and to some degree in reaction to all of that change.”

America the Restless

And that story is a dismal one. For Cowen, it begins with the decision to move, or as is increasingly often the case, the decision not to move. For the college student moving, or the young adults thinking of beginning a family, the decision is as much one of self-transformation as it is an investment in the success of that transformation.

Even though we stick to a few well known binaries — Hillary v. Trump, rural v. urban, country v. rap — it turns out one often overlooked is move-away from-home v. stay.

Perusing the annals of historical American culture, you would a find a nation in motion. In fact in his book titled, Restless Nation, James M. Jasper traces the tradition of American faith in mobility as a mean of self-invention, all the way back to colonial times. From then on, from Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and beyond, Americans have been constantly on the move. It should be no surprise that it was during the golden age of invention that, in spite of rough terrain and risks — medical, martial and otherwise — Americans were among the most mobile Western populations, even more so than the British with their politically-unified free labor markets.

Something about the 1980s changed that. Even though the common trope of America’s coming of age begins in the 60s, Cowen’s focus is on the 80s. Since then, interstate migration has fallen 51 percent below the 1948–1971 average, and continues to decline. Migration patterns between countries, too, have moved in lockstep. Take for instance African Americans boomers. 76 percent of African American mothers gave birth in the same state that their mothers did, whereas white women did so at a rate of roughly 65 percent.

That African Americans are less mobile relative to other segments of American population is salient not only because African Americans used to be particularly mobile — about 30 percent of African Americans in the South moved north from 1920–1960 — but because it reveals one among many of the more disturbing consequences of geographic stasis.

The New, New Jim Crow

On the way back to the Washington University in St. Louis, where I was doing my undergraduate studies, after a haircut down at the basement barber Cutters & Co. in the Chase Park Plaza Hotel, a friend and I caught a cab. “There are three things I don’t want to hear about in my cab,” the driver said. “Politics, religion, and niggers.” I looked at my friend. We rode silently until the stoplight where we caught another cab.

Just eleven miles along Kingshighway and up the southbound 170 to the eastbound 64, and a world away from the Chase Park Plaza sits Florissant Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri. The explosion of violence that followed the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the St. Louis police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, engulfed that forlorn suburb.

Missouri state troopers line up to form a perimeter to contain rioters from entering neighborhood adjacent to Florissant Avenue. Taken on my iPhone.

Many were surprised but should not have been. If that first taxi ride from the Chase was any indication, or the stern warnings from the white blonde barbers to avoid the Richmond Mall after sundown because it gets “real dark over there,” that the segregation had grown untenable, the St. Louis community was lucky the riots were confined to a suburb.

Lesley McSpadden and Louis Head, the mother and stepfather of Michael Brown, on August 9th. Photograph by Huy Mach/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP

The forces culminating in the paroxysm I witnessed on the streets of Ferguson was different from segregation of the KKK-burning-crosses variety.

Whereas most macroeconomic indicators demonstrated America’s dynamism in the golden age of invention, most today point to mass segregation.

Since 1970 and especially in the early 2000s, segregation by income has worsened across American neighborhoods. In 1970, a mere 15 percent of families resided in neighborhoods that were plainly “affluent” or “poor.” By 2007, that number had more than doubled.

Cowen moves from income to a softer segregation foreign to American casteless vocabulary: segregation by class. In American parlance, “class” means not “inherited,” as it meant in France or India, but more acquired by way of education or industry. Urban researcher Richard Florida and Charlotta Melander identified a list of “high-tech, knowledge based metros.” These are no surprises here: Los Angeles, Dallas-Forth Worth, and Washington D.C. Discounting size as a factor, you come up with cities like Durham-Chapel Hill, Bloomington, and Ann Arbor — all college towns. Both lists are places that are sure to have expensive cocktails, sure to have young people, and sure to have plentiful ubers.

The new, new Jim Crow, as opposed to Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow, has less to do with mass incarceration than it does with markets.

Markets and the Homeless Mind

In 2012 Alvin E. Roth, an experimental economist at Stanford University, won the Nobel Prize for research into market design. In his book, Who Gets What and Why, Roth reveals the rules that govern who gets what and why and how ubiquitous those rules are — from Airbnb rentals, to used kidneys, to love. The essence of Roth’s research is that life can be best understood as a series of markets, and whether or not those markets are designed well and we can navigate them decides the outcomes we face. And determining the outcome depends on whether and how well a match can be made.

From music curated by Spotify to products suggested by Amazon, the internet of things narrows to an internet of just a few things. On the popular reading app, Flipboard, you enter your interests and, in return, you get a relevant reading experience that connects you with like-minded people. On Facebook, your social network does not encompass the entirety of Facebook’s two billion users, but only those most connected to you. (According to Pew Research, among adult Facebook users, the average number of friends is 338, and the median number of friends is just 200.)

I prefer to think of the sorting Cowen calls out as our collective response to the problem posed by Peter Berger in his classic work The Homeless Mind (1973). If you are a nerd for political sociology, like your writer, I recommend it.

Berger’s thesis is that modernity alienated individuals from “primary institutions,” things like church and synagogue — “forces” in their own way — that once concatenated mores, customs, sounds and smells into the fabric of community.

Berger theorized that individuals have turned inwards, carving for themselves private spheres distinct from the public. If nothing else, Berger’s narrative is one of creation. In Lurianic Kabbalah, the creation narrative begins with God “contracting” in order to make space for light, matter and man. To fill the void where the primary institution faltered, unable to provide the answers or the solace humanity required as it faced up to the modern condition, mankind created a multiverse of clusters, each revolving around sameness.

Since Berger wrote in 1973, modernity has accelerated. In 2006, just about half of Americans had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in banks. By 2016, the number had dipped to 27 percent. Polling done by Gallup tells of a sentiment that goes beyond distrust: Americans’ average confidence in 14 institutions is at only 32 percent. Confidence in primary institutions has never been lower.

At the same time that Americans have lost faith in primary institutions, others have risen. Arguably the greatest single leap mankind has made as part of that acceleration is the internet. In May of 1995, in the midst of a massive anti-trust action against his company, Bill Gates wrote a memorandum to Microsoft staff laying out his vision of what was to come:

The next few years are going to be very exciting as we tackle these challenges and opportunities. The Internet is a tidal wave. It changes the rules.

As Adams had seen the dynamo’s potential, technology pioneers like Gates understood the gravity of the internet’s capacity as public forum for the digital age — a new town square for a globalized village. Before the internet revolutionized interpersonal communication, ideas — from political philosophies to crude jokes — were tested in literal gathering places, taverns in early modern Poland, for instance. Writing a social history of the development of the public forum, Jürgen Habermas traced its origins to the 18th century salons of Enlightenment France. In Habermas’ model, an idea would be brought to the forum in an exercise of inclusive, critical deliberation where the bonds of bread and drink would overcome pretension and prejudice. For Habermas and Gates, too, the evolution of ideas and therefore the progress that sprang from it was essentially dialogic.

It is ironic, then, that at the same time humanity has constructed what seems to the ultimate engine of dialogic communication, the trend is toward fracture — and not only intellectual or recreational.

There are parents across the country who, given the choice, would prefer to send their children to schools with students of social and economic backgrounds similar to their own. Absent parents’ volition, the effect persists, caused by systemic factors ranging from housing prices to the regulations aimed at neighborhood preservation. Diversity might be ideal in theory, but it is not easy. Simpler is sameness.

Consider Netflix’s experience when it began its streaming service, as told by Danah Boyd in an essay published in the Guardian:

Users didn’t watch the movies that they had placed into their queue. Those movies were the movies they thought they wanted, movies that reflected their ideal selves — 12 Years a Slave, for example. What they watched when they could stream whatever they were in the mood for at that moment was the equivalent of junk food — reruns of Friends, for example.

Though we do not envision ourselves as such, we prefer decisions that give us less than our ideal, but something simpler and more swiftly gratifying — and with libidinal zest.

A Tale of Two Lads

Consider a young man just entering university, bearded and husky. He lives in a small village in a more rural part of America. Call him Charlie. Charlie is a good Christian — he drank two Bud Light beers underage at a New Years party, and confessed it by Sunday. Charlie, who grew up splitting time between his family’s farm and school is going to the University of Texas at Austin to study engineering with a minor in biology. He wears a size 14 shoe, walked on the football team as a linebacker. He might not ever play, but will probably be the CEO of John Deere.

Last time he went home for Thanksgiving, his uncle asked him about love. His father looked on. His mother told them not to pry (“Unless you have something to share with the table.”) Charlie has been to a few parties but the music is too loud to talk. Another lineman from Hawaii mentions that his friend from Chicago has “struck gold” on Tinder. Charlie downloads Tinder, begins to swipe indiscriminately — swipe after swipe after swipe — and hits upon a few matches. He is after all on the football team. He gets a few messages, even a few emojis, but he does not quite know how to respond. He freezes. Finally he matches with someone from yet another small village in yet another rural part of America. The two go out for coffee and it’s not long before they go steady.

Consider instead Julian, a recent graduate of Northwestern University. Julian was born to a culturally Jewish mother and father in Marin County. Julian loves savory brunch omelettes, left school offer-in-hand to a prestigious accounting firm as a user-experience designer working to develop its new mobile app. Julian discovers most of his new music from the Spotify playlist Hipster International, curated by Sean Parker. He tells his friends he avoids Parker’s cookie cutter calls, like Mumford and Sons (“no soul.”)

Julian lives in a one-bedroom in the River North neighborhood of Chicago, renting it out on Airbnb on weekend he goes to music festivals. It was after the first day of the last Lollapalooza where Julian had seen Haim and Flume and seemed content. He had met a girl, Jane, who had been wonderful company for the first day— pretty, smart, seemed ambitious — but turned out to be infatuated more with Instagram filters than the concert itself. By festival’s end, Julian found himself in the back of an uber, alone.

After spurning dating apps and relying on “just talking to people,” Julian downloads Tinder. He swipes and swipes and swipes but to no avail. He downloads Bumble. He swipes and swipes and swipes. Matches once or twice, but the 24 hour clock runs out on each without her ever reaching out. He figures maybe JSwipe will be his ticket — he even has a daring line about Manischewitz. He swipes and swipes and swipes, face after face, none pretty enough to keep his thumb from swiping on. He finally matches. He tells her he is the third in line to the title of world champion Tetris player (the Manischewitz line is good, but this is spur-of-the-moment gold.) She never responds. On to the next one. And the next one. And the next one.

Whereas Charlie is able to reach a satisfactory outcome, Julian is unable. Why? Because Julian not trying to match, he is trying to win. In our matching society, you must strive to be Charlie; the kind of person who has a particular taste and identity and finds satisfaction in finding others similar. Otherwise you are left in the back of a surge-priced uber with Julian, with the impossible task of striving to win.

And so we resign to sitting and waiting, curating ourselves to oblivion — a conundrum at least millennial males know all too well.

From Dating Apps to Congress

Not as far afield as you might hope from the problem of millennials’ stagnant love lives, is how that same phenomenon effects our political institutions.

In the field of professional electioneering, there are two kinds of elections: continuity and change. Whereas 2008 had been a change election, 2012 was a continuity. Then came 2016, which added a third kind of election of I will call radical rupture. Desperate to recover and prove it still exists in any meaningful sense, the Democratic Party focused its efforts on tenderfoot Jon Ossoff’s Georgia’s sixth congressional district.

A young, handsome urbanite, with roots in the district, Ossiff had never held office before and so came with a clean slate. Running in a district that Trump had won in the general election, he was careful not to be the urbanite-liberal-anti-Trump Democrat, opting instead to be the handsome-my-parents-are-from-here-native-son-I’ll-do-good candidate. It was a losing strategy.

But not one uncommon in politics. In fact, when people say, “you speak like a politician,” they mean you say a whole lot without meaning a whole lot. Though Ossoff could not make it there, Cowen see the stratagem of “creative ambiguity” at play in the halls of Congress. Take the military engagement in Libya in 2011. President Obama never called for a vote. On its face, the decision was about Republicans stonewalling. Another equally probable narrative is that after the unpopular Iraq War, and how votes on that topic became a litmus test initially of patriotism and later of intellectual and moral competence, elected officials hid behind the War Power Resolution. Better to be remain ambiguous than to stake out a position, only to find out it no longer matches the electorate’s.

And beyond inane rhetoric like Ossoff’s, there are serious consequences for policy outcomes. For every dollar the federal government spends in a year, about half of that dollar is already spoken for by entitlement programs like Social Security — the very stickiest of spending obligations. Out of that budgetary quandary, there are two paths: roll back entitlements or raise taxes. The reality is that no elected official would do either of those things because of the moral cost of reneging on the government’s promise from years ago of a social safety net, and of the political cost of either taking people’s money, on the one hand, or taking people’s money on the other. (Mitch McConnell’s healthcare reform bill may challenge the convention, but now delayed past the July 4th recess, the adage holds.) And so the federal government is left with only half of its spending power to make any meaningful or moonshot investments, and a group of decision makers reluctant to make them.


After watching the Jim Comey testimony a few weeks ago, a friend texted me that we are all fucked until a watershed moment of such tremendous catastrophe that either the Trump administration must prove itself once and for all, or step aside. In spite of my affirming “lol,” now having read Cowen’s book, I think the comment might be prescient.

“Ultimately,” Cowen writes, “peace and stability must be paid for.” Ferguson was step one. Trump was step two. Though Cowen hesitates to soothsay as to step three, it is sure to come. Instability on campus, rising crime rates, waxing cynicism toward institutional inability to expediently solve societal problems, and especially a global system of decentralized and fickle loci of power and influence— these are all birth pangs of what comes next.

Cowen frames his analysis with Alexis De Tocqueville and his observation of Americans’ mid-nineteenth century geographic, and therefore social, mobility. Though his observations are read by convention as laudatory, Cowen casts them in a different, harrowing light.

De Tocqueville wrote with trepidation about the viability of a state whose core tenet, the promise of equality, depended on the integrity of a space larger and farther-flung than continental Europe. In such a scheme, where governance failed, “a network of small complicated rules” would thrive.

Masquerading as munificent and convenient, a soft despotism would suffuse the republic: “It does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born.” Afflicted by a pervasive communitarian thicket, Americans would become smitten by “a relaxed love of present enjoyments,” and the democratic experiment would be doomed to failure.

Where the Virgin Mary had been the force stultifying the human spirit in medieval times, the dynamo represented mechanical power, newfound and boundless. It marked the difference between those who saw the woman atop the porte monumentale in Paris in 1900 and saw wantonness, and those who saw beyond it. In 1862, Adams wrote his brother:

Our good country the United States is left to a career that is positively unlimited except by the powers of the imagination…You may think all this nonsense, but I tell you these are great times. Man has mounted science, and is now run away with it.

In the 1980s, Man ran away, retreating from responsibility, and took refuge in an episode of vast and careless selfishness. This was the decade of the absurd yet real stories of Martin Siegel, Dennis Levine, Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, ingenious as they were criminal. If the 1960s were about Vietnam, civil rights, faces on the back of milk cartons and locked doors, and the 70s about sitcoms and Watergate, then the 1980s were about money culture, excess and greed. It is no coincidence that the moment corporate wolves roamed, the complacent class first appeared — nor is it one that few could see.

Hyman Minksy, an American economist and professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis, postulated against the grain, that the global financial system was more fragile than it seemed.

In a time when the world was focused on deregulation and Laffer curves, Minksy was pursuing a sort of corollary to Keynesian economics that focused on cycles of boom and bust and how one foretold the other.

In times of great bounty, Minsky argues, private accumulation of debt and corporate cash flows rise, and people behave irrationally and exuberantly beyond their means in the marketplace. There is a point, Minksy postulates, where debt catches up with borrowers’ speculative rather than value-based revenues. Reach that point and the system contracts, producing a “Minksy moment,” or a sudden and extreme drop in asset, and therefore market, value. Immobile, segregated and matched to contentment, we have reached our Minsky moment.

Adams never found his sequence. One force after the other, history will continue to progress. But the farther it went, the farther it had to go. The meaning of modernity, what rendered it different from bygone times, was that is was self-defeating. Similar to Minksy’s theory of debt and revenue, mechanical energy, too, would approach a limit beyond human capacity to absorb, much less make sense of. It was the dynamo that had broken Man free of the Virgin Mary’s mindless yoke. It would be the dynamo, too, that would harness him once more, binding him mindless.

Cowen does not go so far as to suggest a remedy to complacence. Henry Adam’s way of thinking might be a place to start. Bound in this Victorian mindset, the American conscience could grasp only the inert facts, while remaining oblivious to their depth or meaning. The typical Americans of Adams’ day, as he would likely say of us today, could see only a tile, and not the grand mosaic standing before them.