The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream

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A Wall Street Journal and Washington Post Bestseller

"Tyler Cowen's blog, Marginal Revolution, is the first thing I read every morning. And his brilliant new book, The Complacent Class, has been on my nightstand after I devoured it in one sitting. I am at round-the-clock Cowen saturation right now."--Malcolm Gladwell

Since Alexis de Tocqueville, restlessness has been accepted as a signature American trait. Our willingness to move, take risks, and adapt to change have produced a dynamic economy and a tradition of innovation from Ben Franklin to Steve Jobs.

The problem, according to legendary blogger, economist and best selling author Tyler Cowen, is that Americans today have broken from this tradition—we’re working harder than ever to avoid change. We're moving residences less, marrying people more like ourselves and choosing our music and our mates based on algorithms that wall us off from anything that might be too new or too different. Match.com matches us in love. Spotify and Pandora match us in music. Facebook matches us to just about everything else.

Of course, this “matching culture” brings tremendous positives: music we like, partners who make us happy, neighbors who want the same things. We’re more comfortable. But, according to Cowen, there are significant collateral downsides attending this comfort, among them heightened inequality and segregation and decreased incentives to innovate and create.

The Complacent Class argues that this cannot go on forever. We are postponing change, due to our near-sightedness and extreme desire for comfort, but ultimately this will make change, when it comes, harder. The forces unleashed by the Great Stagnation will eventually lead to a major fiscal and budgetary crisis: impossibly expensive rentals for our most attractive cities, worsening of residential segregation, and a decline in our work ethic. The only way to avoid this difficult future is for Americans to force themselves out of their comfortable slumber—to embrace their restless tradition again.

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About the author

TYLER COWEN (Ph.D.) holds the Holbert L. Harris chair in economics at George Mason University. He is the author of a number of explanatory and text books, including The Complacent Class, as well as writing the most read economics blog worldwide, marginalrevolution.com. He has written regularly for The New York Times and contributes to a wide number of newspapers and periodicals.
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Additional Information

Publisher
St. Martin's Press
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Published on
Feb 28, 2017
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Pages
272
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ISBN
9781250108708
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Language
English
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Genres
Business & Economics / Economic Conditions
Business & Economics / Economic History
Social Science / Sociology / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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American society today is shaped not nearly as much by vast open spaces as it is by vast, bureaucratic organizations. Over half the working population toils away at enterprises with 500 or more employees--up from zero percent in 1800. Is this institutional immensity the logical outcome of technological forces in an all-efficient market, as some have argued? In this book, the first organizational history of nineteenth-century America, Yale sociologist Charles Perrow says no. He shows that there was nothing inevitable about the surge in corporate size and power by century's end. Critics railed against the nationalizing of the economy, against corporations' monopoly powers, political subversion, environmental destruction, and "wage slavery." How did a nation committed to individual freedom, family firms, public goods, and decentralized power become transformed in one century?

Bountiful resources, a mass market, and the industrial revolution gave entrepreneurs broad scope. In Europe, the state and the church kept private organizations small and required consideration of the public good. In America, the courts and business-steeped legislators removed regulatory constraints over the century, centralizing industry and privatizing the railroads. Despite resistance, the corporate form became the model for the next century. Bureaucratic structure spread to government and the nonprofits. Writing in the tradition of Max Weber, Perrow concludes that the driving force of our history is not technology, politics, or culture, but large, bureaucratic organizations.


Perrow, the author of award-winning books on organizations, employs his witty, trenchant, and graceful style here to maximum effect. Colorful vignettes abound: today's headlines echo past battles for unchecked organizational freedom; socially responsible alternatives that were tried are explored along with the historical contingencies that sent us down one road rather than another. No other book takes the role of organizations in America's development as seriously. The resultant insights presage a new historical genre.

Here, Richard Lachmann offers a new answer to an old question: Why did capitalism develop in some parts of early modern Europe but not in others? Finding neither a single cause nor an essentialist unfolding of a state or capitalist system, Lachmann describes the highly contingent development of various polities and economies. He identifies, in particular, conflict among feudal elites--landlords, clerics, kings, and officeholders--as the dynamic which perpetuated manorial economies in some places while propelling elites elsewhere to transform the basis of their control over land and labor. Comparing regions and cities within and across England, France, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands from the twelfth through eighteenth centuries, Lachmann breaks new ground by showing step by step how the new social relations and political institutions of early modern Europe developed. He demonstrates in detail how feudal elites were pushed toward capitalism as they sought to protect their privileges from rivals in the aftermath of the Reformation. Capitalists in Spite of Themselves is a compelling narrative of how elites and other classes made and responded to political and religious revolutions while gradually creating the nation-states and capitalist markets which still constrain our behavior and order our world. It will prove invaluable for anyone wishing to understanding the economic and social history of early modern Europe. Capitalists in Spite of Themselves was the winner of the 2003 Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award of the American Sociology Association.
In contemporary American political discourse, issues related to the scope, authority, and the cost of the federal government are perennially at the center of discussion. Any historical analysis of this topic points directly to the Great Depression, the "moment" to which most historians and economists connect the origins of the fiscal, monetary, and social policies that have characterized American government in the second half of the twentieth century. In the most comprehensive collection of essays available on these topics, The Defining Moment poses the question directly: to what extent, if any, was the Depression a watershed period in the history of the American economy? This volume organizes twelve scholars' responses into four categories: fiscal and monetary policies, the economic expansion of government, the innovation and extension of social programs, and the changing international economy. The central focus across the chapters is the well-known alternations to national government during the 1930s. The Defining Moment attempts to evaluate the significance of the past half-century to the American economy, while not omitting reference to the 1930s.

The essays consider whether New Deal-style legislation continues to operate today as originally envisioned, whether it altered government and the economy as substantially as did policies inaugurated during World War II, the 1950s, and the 1960s, and whether the legislation had important precedents before the Depression, specifically during World War I. Some chapters find that, surprisingly, in certain areas such as labor organization, the 1930s responses to the Depression contributed less to lasting change in the economy than a traditional view of the time would suggest. On the whole, however, these essays offer testimony to the Depression's legacy as a "defining moment." The large role of today's government and its methods of intervention—from the pursuit of a more active monetary policy to the maintenance and extension of a wide range of insurance for labor and business—derive from the crisis years of the 1930s.

Tyler Cowen’s controversial New York Times bestseller—the book heard round the world that ignited a firestorm of debate and redefined the nature of America’s economic malaise. 

America has been through the biggest financial crisis since the great Depression, unemployment numbers are frightening, media wages have been flat since the 1970s, and it is common to expect that things will get worse before they get better. Certainly, the multidecade stagnation is not yet over. How will we get out of this mess? One political party tries to increase government spending even when we have no good plan for paying for ballooning programs like Medicare and Social Security. The other party seems to think tax cuts will raise revenue and has a record of creating bigger fiscal disasters that the first. Where does this madness come from? 

As Cowen argues, our economy has enjoyed low-hanging fruit since the seventeenth century: free land, immigrant labor, and powerful new technologies. But during the last forty years, the low-hanging fruit started disappearing, and we started pretending it was still there. We have failed to recognize that we are at a technological plateau. The fruit trees are barer than we want to believe. That's it. That is what has gone wrong and that is why our politics is crazy. 

In The Great Stagnation, Cowen reveals the underlying causes of our past prosperity and how we will generate it again. This is a passionate call for a new respect of scientific innovations that benefit not only the powerful elites, but humanity as a whole.
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