Tyler Cowen: “The Complacent Class” waits for that knock on the door, maybe

Tyler Cowen, somewhat conservative economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and a New Jersey state chess champion, has a new and brief book “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream”.

Cowen believes in a cyclical behavior of peoples throughout history.  When a major culture, such as the U.S., becomes more stable and “safer”, people innovate less, and wealthier or better-off people become more insular.  It becomes harder for less fortunate people to participate meaningfully in the system and to advance.  I advanced this idea myself in my own “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book (2014).  That tends to lead ultimately to breakdowns and new cycles of unrest and instability.  Although, actually, the uncertainty is generated by shortsighted behavior by the better-off, as we saw with the 2008 financial crisis, where the “rich” goaded the “poor” into taking on debts they could not pay back (the subprime scandal).

I can relate to this personally.  I did get an “inheritance” at the end of 2010, so I have kept on writing without demanding much compensation for it.  Otherwise, I might have more incentive to take risks and create “real businesses” that can actually employ others.  Or I might have more incentive to have a bigger personal stake in both “other people’s causes” and in actual volunteer efforts (and be willing to demonstrate and sometimes take other people’s bullets).

That fits into the idea of populism and anti-elitism that helped Donald Trump win the election and helped Britain leave the EU.

Cowen does attribute some of today’s complacency to the Internet, and the way it can lead to people of like minds to clump together and ignore larger truths.  This can become expressed in “assortative matching”  even in dating (like using fitbit watch data in real time) and marriage, but it can also lead to aggregations of fake news that can sway politics.

The Internet also tends to make some people less interested in the physical world, as he notes by talking about how some people used to collect records and CD’s of classical music (as I did) but now can depend on the Cloud. Economically, the use of “free” content is a mixed bag, as it gives more people a chance to be heard (as it did for me), but makes it harder for many people to make a real living at it (outside of the idea of “Make the A-List”).

He also notes that the level of violence and rebellion has been greater in the past (like the 1960s and early 1970s) than now, but that, as the Black Lives Matter movement (in response to police profiling) shows, the extreme indignation of some people can make this kind of energy come back, and burst into the lives of the sheltered.

He often mentions gay rights, going back to Stonewall in 1969, which was pretty energetic.  He gives a nod to gay conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, and notes that gay marriage or abstract equality was not particularly compelling as an idea until after Y2K.

It was easier in the past for someone with “nothing” too work him or herself into wealth that it is today.  He notes that even in authoritarian countries like China, it is easier for some people to do this today than it is in the U.S., where people are no longer as “hungry” for wealth or even for others.

Cowen is not optimistic that the Internet, which gave me a second career as a self-made journalist-pundit, will continue to be the source of truth for those who want to store it there.  He thinks crime could undermine the entire digital revolution, and be the Big Rip of our complacency.  The Great Moderation will indeed end.

Cowen mentions the issue of campus protective environments (example is “Mizzou”) but doesn’t get into the issue of speech codes, micro-aggressions and trigger warnings the way he could. Campus environments are promoting complacency while pretending to favor activism.


Author: Tyler Cowen
Title, Subtitle: The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream
Publication date 2017
ISBN 978-1250108692
Publication: St. Martin’s Press, 240 pages, hardcover, 9 chapters, endnotes, index
Link: marginal revolution

(Posted: Thursday, May 4, 2017 at 3 PM)

“Occupy Unmasked”: documentary work of Stephen K. Bannon, White House strategist and campaign manager for Donald Trump

Stephen K. Bannon is now President-elect Donald J. Trump’s appointed Chief Strategist for the White House (as of Jan. 20), and was the CEO of Trump’s 2016 campaign, and has been an executive at Breitbart News.  His activities and associations are described by others as “alt-right” or “far-right”. And he has been described as a filmmaker.  So I wondered what his films look like.  Ii checked, and found I had seen “The Steam Experiment”, which he had produced (see Index).

So I looked for a film he had directed, too, and there’s not a lot available.  But Amazon offered his 2012 76-minute documentary “Occupy Unmasked” for $3.99.

The film does come across as a bit of a rant in its non-stop chatter castigating the Occupy movement. But a lot of what it says is probably true.  And there was nothing in the film hateful or phobic of individual people over race, gender or sexuality issues.

The film maintains that the series of camp-outs that would morph into Occupy Wall Street and Occupy DC got started in the lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  I had never heard that “rumor” myself (is it “fake”?)  I drove through or near the area in a rented car in February 2006.  A church group sent volunteers down to help the residents, and the volunteers were not allowed to do much because of mold.

The film also talks about Anonymous, and claims it targets individual capitalists and marks them for attack by hacking their work.  I’m really not aware that this happens to people just because they are “rich” or able to make a good living or are even visible in a reasonable manner.

The film turns into an indictment of the radical Left.  It traces some history back to the New Deal, and to Mafia involvement with labor unions after Prohibition ended.  It does mention some of the more vigorous (sometimes violent) organizations of the far Left in the 1960s and 1970s, like the Black Panthers and the Weathermen.  The film was made before Black Lives Matter came into being (after Ferguson in 2014), so I wonder if Bannon imagines updating the film to cover that.

The attitude of the radical Left is depicted as saying something like “Capitalism is slavery” and as nihilistic, trying to destroy the idea of “unearned wealth” with no plan of anything to replace it with other than authoritarianism – that is, extreme Communism.  That goes beyond what happened in the Soviet Union to the more radical Communist China and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, Maoism, where every intellectual took his turn becoming a peasant. It also led to groups like the Khmer Rouge and now to North Korea (although that history has some other factors related to Japan).  The far Left is depicted as hating rich white people – yet it shows Michael Moore’s vacation home.

My own experience with the radical Left settled out in December 1972, when I “spied” on an activist meeting of The People’s Party of New Jersey in a drafty rowhouse in Newark, NJ, and listened to their proposals:  limit incomes to $50000 a year (no Trumps), mass expropriation by force, abolish all inheritances, use revolution and violence if it becomes necessary.  I never had contact with them again.

The film opens with some of the summer 2011 debate over the debt ceiling, which it never connects well to the rest of the movie.  Republicans are shown as claiming we don’t have the money to pay the country’s bills, and Democrats claim seniors will go without social security.  It is true, the debt ceiling is about authorization to pay bills the US has already ratcheted up, not new spending (see this ).

Andrew Breitbart does appear in the film, but he died at age 43 suddenly in early 2012 of cardiomyopathy.

The film is in three parts, with titles like “The issue is not the issue” and “structured chaos” (or “organized chaos”, which is how a somewhat conservative local pastor describes a monthly community assistance program in Arlington VA — with “mental illness” thrown in as a major explanation of systemic poverty).

Name:  “Occupy Unmasked
Director, writer:  Stephen K. Bannon
Released:  2012
Format:  1.85;1
When and how viewed:  Amazon instant, 2017/1/8
Length:  76
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Citizens United; Magnolia Pictures, Magnet, Amazon
Link:  official

Wikipedia lower ninth ward destruction picture.

Posted Monday, January 9, 2017 at 11 AM EST

Picture of tent is in December 2011 in Washington DC near McPherson Square, taken by me.  One time when I took a picture of the camp, a man called out to me and chased me down K Street, saying, “I’m speaking to you.”  Is this the “No spectators” idea?

“The Divide”: how wealth inequality feeds on itself (based on “The Spirit Level”)

The Divide” (2015), directed by Katharine Round, is a documentary based on the 2011 Bloomsburg book “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wikinson and Kate Pickett.

The film traces seven individuals, with scenes in quick succession, tracing their lives as they live out their station in life created by a system of wealth inequality that naturally feeds on itself. (Now the top 0.1% controls as much wealth as the “bottom” 90%.)  The people are in the United States and the UK (both England and Scotland).

One man, reared in the Virginia Blue Ridge, had a promising future but wound up in prison for decades in California after Bill Clinton (the “Repubicrat”) pushed the three strikes laws.  One woman had been in a coma for heart failure.  Another woman described being driven out of her small business by Wal-Mart, then working for them, finding them a good employer at first but then gradually more ruthless with cost cutting.

But a prosperous couple in Sacramento, CA wonders about the values of living in a gate community, where people tend to grow more isolated – and how this gives their small children an overly sheltered view of the world.

Another public relations agent on Madson Avenue talks about the grind of work, and about “dressing for success” ((John T. Molloy’s classic book).

Noam Chomsky often leads the commentary, about runaway extreme capitalism that took hold during the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (with the weakening of unions).  The same value system feeds “The Cheating Culture” (2004, David Callahan), leading to the mirages of derivatives and finally the financial crash of 2008.  Most Americans had been duped into gambling their entire lives on their homes.   As Ross Perot said in 1992, “Trickle down didn’t trickle.”

Name: “The Divide”
Director, writer:  Katharine Round
Released:  2015
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant; 2017/1/7
Length:  79
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Dartmouth
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, January 8, 2017 at 12:15 AM EST)

“The New Public” chronicles a Brooklyn high school for the arts for inner-city kids


Name: The New Public
Director, writer:  Jyllian Gunther
Released:  2013
Format:  video film
When and how viewed:  Netflix (Amazon is $2.99)
Companies: Alive Mind, Kino Lorber, Submarine
Link: link

The New Public” (2013), directed by Jyllian Gunther, is another documentary about an education experiment set up to help disadvantaged kids, mostly African-American.

This time the school is BCAM, Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School , in Bedford-Stuyvesant (“Bed-Stuy”) in Brooklyn NY.  The film traces four years for its first ninth-grade class. The film doesn’t show that much of the music and arts program, instead focusing a lot on a white male English teacher, who explains the meaning of “anaphora”, and later uses two poems by William Blake (“Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience”) to help motivate a student, troubled by more involuntary responsibility at home for younger siblings as well as college application.

The film is shot “as is”, with hand-held video, almost in “Cloverfield” style. Rather than presenting a lot of interviews, the documentary filmmaker presents clips of students and teachers dealing with their interpersonal problems.  One female just doesn’t get math and doesn’t know why she has to pass algebra.  The young man (above) visits his apartment mailbox repeatedly to find rejection letters from colleges, until one day he gets in to a film school in Connecticut, with scholarship.

It takes a right kind of person (like “It Takes a Village”, as per Hillary Clinton) to interact with kids as these teachers do.  One could have to find that activity within one’s calling or identity.  A lot of people talk about progressivity and fight for freedom, like from Internet censorship, but don’t want this kind of interpersonal activity finding them.

A topic that might have been covered more is a nexus between music education and teaching math (as in my drama blog here).

A few films about education of disadvantage children have focused on chess as well as the arts.

A few films about education of disadvantage children have focused on chess as well as the arts, such as “Brooklyn Castle” (2012, by Kelly Dellamaggiore), “Knights of the South Bronx” (2005, by Allen Hughes, and of course the high profile “Pawn Sacrifice” about Bobby Fischer, by Edward Zwick.

The film touched on senior sloughing, so another relation is the Cappies play “Senioritis” (2007).

(Published: Friday, May 26, 2016 at 2:30 PM EDT)