Settling for Stasis

Americans use technology for comfort, not revolution

For those old enough to remember life before the Internet and cell phones, the past 30 years may seem like an era of revolutionary change. Together with other new digital technologies, the Internet has made almost everything easier: from banking to travel to finding dog-sitters, even meeting future spouses. During this same period, European communism gave way to messy democracy, while the rise of China in the East has shifted the balance of global power. Terrorism has gone from a localized phenomenon in places like Britain and Israel to a cancerous global threat. There’s a widespread sense that rapid change is the new normal—even in charitable circles, where prominent donors have committed themselves to “disruptive” solutions rather than conventional twentieth-century models of philanthropy.

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The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream by Tyler Cowen.

Tyler Cowen’s book The Complacent Class argues the opposite. Beneath the roiling surface of change, Cowen argues, contemporary America is now characterized by “stasis”—a pervasive aversion to risk, change, and conflict, and a preference instead for comfort and convenience. While technological advances can indeed upend the status quo, ­Americans very often use technology to further entrench their own positions and ideas, along with others who think and act like them.

In contrast to the restless adventurism of our forebears who risked everything to launch new lives, build towns, and create businesses, we have become a nation of homebodies less likely than ever to try something new unless Yelp or TripAdvisor has approved. And Cowen isn’t talking only about legions of adult men who could work but instead stay home playing video games. He’s talking about middle America.

For one thing, Americans move a lot less than they used to. This reinforces segregation by income and social class. And despite a widespread belief that we are an entrepreneurial country, startups as a percentage of all businesses have been declining for three decades. This means not only fewer fresh enterprises, but also that fewer employees work for someone who has started a company, fewer mentored by an entrepreneur or inspired by that creative energy.

We are growing accustomed to steady advances in efficiency and quality, that is true, but we have lost our taste for large-scale advances that truly change people’s lives the way that the introduction of electricity, air conditioning, and automobiles did. As a young Facebook employee once famously said, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.”

To top it off, a smaller set of larger companies are dominating important industries. There’s a lack of competition in major sectors like finance, health care, and manufacturing, accompanied by sluggish growth in GDP and living standards. Cowen compares 1900-1950 with 1965-2015 and concludes that the scope of change in living standards in the past 50 years does not come close to what Americans experienced in the first half of the twentieth century. The personalization of music playlists and the improvement of music quality through digitization are nothing compared to the life-altering introduction of radios and televisions in the first place.

Economic stasis has been matched by other forms of political and cultural complacency. Cowen writes that even political unrest in our era pales in comparison to the intensity, disruption, and violence of the civil-rights era, which may strike readers as a good thing. And it is. But increasing stability comes at price. Striving to overcome deep societal blockages, at risk to personal comfort and well-being, has historically been a source of innovation and progress.

It’s a paradox that the very technological advances making us feel as though we are living amidst rapid change are often responsible for our stasis. “Most ­Americans,” Cowen writes, “don’t like change very much, unless it is on terms that they manage and control, and they now have the resources and the technology to manage their lives…more and more, to the country’s long-run collective detriment.”  

Cowen’s most original observation concerns “matching,” which he calls “the grand new project of our time” and “the supreme skill of the complacent class.” We now have the ability to arrange our lives according to our preferences unlike ever before in human history, which in turn means we are less likely to put ourselves in situations that challenge our preferences and interests. Striving to confront life’s big challenges head-on has given way to averting them with better technology.

At the level of personal experience, matching is quite positive. As I listen to music on my app, I receive recommendations for other music I might like. As I shop for products online, I receive special offers for similar products I might like to have but never would have found on my own. Finding associations, restaurants, churches, and people with similar interests is remarkably easier compared to a past in which hours and hours of sifting through Yellow Pages, visiting libraries and city halls, and making numerous phone calls yielded mixed results. Learning what people in your neighborhood think about the local school and extracurricular offerings for your children in the community is possible without having to take time to have multiple conversations.

But our tribal human nature leads us to use matching technology to associate with others who like what we like and think like we do. This is why the rise of the Internet has seen greater polarity in people’s political views and sources by which they keep informed. Given a choice, humans avoid the discomfort that difference brings and latch onto what is familiar and comfortable. We are conformists at heart. Reform, let alone transformation, is the natural goal of very few people.

Along with the kind of life that technology has made possible, government has been a major contributor to complacency over the past 50 years through its role as a provider of security through entitlements and social-welfare programs. Most Americans favor the largest money-­transfer programs regardless of their politics, making political competition and debate mostly an activity at the margins. 

In the end, Cowen doesn’t think this state of affairs can hold. Just as we are perfecting the art of complacency and creating greater contentment in our daily lives, the world is rapidly careening toward instability and conflict. The federal budget cannot continue to grow entitlements at the present rate. Global trends away from democracy and stability are alarming and suggest new forms of significant geopolitical disruption. Cowen does not predict how things will turn out in the end, but he is confident that the complacent class is in for a rude awakening in the coming decades.

The question for philanthropy is whether givers will be shocked like everyone else, or whether prescient donors will start addressing the deep conflicts knocking at our door, while the rest of America fine-tunes its Netflix preferences.

On a local level, some community leaders and philanthropists have made a good start by joining together with the aim of injecting more appetite for adventure and risk into today’s rising generation. Getting teenagers out of their comfort zones and into elements they can’t control, through programs ranging from the Scouts to Outward Bound to camps across the country, will help them face challenges, take responsibility, and get their faces out of screens. Programs that foster entrepreneurialism, such as Venture for America and Junior Achievement, are helping to normalize economic risk again. Institutions like the University of North Dakota’s Center for Innovation are expanding education to include real-world experience with business creation. Any substantive volunteer opportunity like Habitat for Humanity that encourages hard work and team coordination helps ground young people in concrete productivity.

This is an older American view of the pursuit of happiness: that striving for betterment, overcoming obstacles, and confronting challenges is part of the game. By contrast, the complacency that Cowen diagnoses understands happiness as the alleviation of discomfort, and the validation of personal preferences. At what point, one wonders, did the “American Dream” become less about striving and more about never facing stress?

By showing how progress has, ironically, sowed the seeds of cultural stagnation, and even led to a peculiar distaste for progress itself, Cowen has challenged conventional views of what is good for us today. There are many deep implications of that for philanthropists to think through. Do we want to make life “better” for ourselves in ways that could make life worse for our children? Are we willing to improve prospects for future Americans in ways that might make adults a little less comfortable today?

Sometimes, carefully defining what’s “good” is the first step in doing good for society. But that won’t happen unless we first realize we may have a problem. And that comfort might not be the best goal for culture reformers.

Contributing editor Ryan Streeter is director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

 

Calling All Churches

A Detroit school mentor asks congregants to step up

Within the Detroit public-school system, only 45 percent of fifth graders from 2004 made it to graduation by 2011. That means many of the remaining 55 percent fell into the demographic of “disconnected youth”—the more than 5 million American young people between 16 and 24 who are neither working nor attending school.

The problems thwarting at-risk students start before they leave for school each morning, writes Detroit native Mike Tenbusch in The Jonathan Effect. He estimates that at least half of the students in high-poverty public high schools come from a home environment lacking stable living conditions and an expectation of everyday school attendance. They need help beyond the walls of the classroom.

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Tenbusch argues that one-on-one relationships with adult mentors can help these kids stay in school and succeed. Drawing from the Biblical story of how Jonathan’s friendship steadies and strengthens David, he calls for churchgoers to love, inspire, and assist urban high-school students. He suggests this can change the course both of many young lives and of communities. Tenbusch’s ideas are not new or dramatic, but his voice of experience gives them new life.

Tenbusch has spent his life focused on inner-city schools. Where he grew up in Detroit, shootings and gang violence were frequent, and while a member of the citywide school board he was more likely to encounter fights than academic excellence during high-school visits. He has come to believe that churches can supply the best antidote for these problems—adult ­mentors—and calls on church leaders to marshal “relational capital.”

Because it focuses on church-school partnerships, the book is targeted toward a religious audience. Non-churchgoing readers may be inspired, but the emphasis is on using churches to bring groups of people into schools to reach individual children on a large scale. All people can mentor, Tenbusch argues, but Christians have a particular calling: “No other sector in American society has the depth and breadth of people who can and should help.” He points out that there are 300,000 churches and 100,000 public schools in America. If one third of churches adopted a school, there could be a bloom of partnerships.

Tenbusch dates the genesis of church-school mentoring to the early 1990s, when pastor Tony Evans connected his Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship with a nearby Dallas high school. More recently, he cites a thriving example from his hometown. Oak Pointe Church made a commitment to partner with Cody High School in Detroit two years ago, and since then, church members have sold concessions at home games, met students for lunch every other Monday, taught piano, and helped in the STEM lab. (Another worthwhile effort close to home is Kids Hope USA, a Holland, Michigan-based nonprofit which has fostered 1,000 church-school partnerships in 34 states.) From this and other examples Tenbusch draws practical tips, like the value of having a liaison represent the church in the school, and using programs like clothing closets to establish a presence.

When churches partner with schools, the biggest results come from the establishment of individual relationships. Tenbusch characterizes the Jonathan commitment as more than a traditional mentoring role. He identifies four crucial elements: Both Jonathan and David enter the relationship freely. There is no formal time requirement. The goal is for David to reach a long-term achievement (like college, marriage, or career). And because it is based on friendship, both members are expected to give and take and stick it out through thick and thin.

Weaved in between each chapter of the book is a story of the author’s own friendship with a teenager named Keyvon. When Tenbusch met Keyvon at Cody High School, the boy offered to fight him. Instead, the two of them went out for a meal. Years later, Tenbusch maintains a connection to Keyvon; when he was kicked out of his house ­Tenbush helped him find a job.

Readers might expect to learn that Keyvon is now happily employed and living a self-sufficient life. But at the time this book published, Keyvon was facing four years in prison for selling cocaine. Tenbusch, a lawyer, planned to represent him in court. Even after years of friendship with a stable adult, Keyvon could be going to prison.

The Jonathan commitment will not guarantee that Davids live successful lives. Tenbusch warns mentors and churches against thinking they’re going to save the world by entering these partnerships. “You will not change the community or city where your school is located,” the author explains. “That work will be done by the David you befriend.”

In the meantime, these relationships are meant to benefit both partners. And they will unfold in the imperfect, up-and-down, two-steps-forward-one-step-back way that fallen humans navigate life.  
Madeline Fry