My Weekly Reader 1 March 2017.

In recent years, I have noticed–and lost track of–how many times a head-line in the New York Times describes something as “risky.”[1]  The word is meant to deprecate, rather than to laud the thing being described.  Clearly, both the editors and the typical Times reader are risk averse.  OK, so what?  So this.

Tyler Cowen, The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream (2017), argues that risk-taking and an openness to change “made America the world’s most productive an innovative economy.”  Now, however, the American economy appears much less innovative and aspirational.[2]  Start-ups as a share of American companies have fallen from 12-13 percent in the 1980s to 7-8 percent today; over the last eight years productivity growth has increased at about half the average rate for the period since 1945.  The former may be taken as a rough measure of entrepreneurialism; the latter may be taken as a rough measure of technological innovation.  Then there is the widespread prescription of mood-leveling anti-depressants.  Perhaps these blunt enthusiasm and engagement (as well as the impulse to drive your car into a telephone pole)?  Even Americans’ recreational drugs-of-choice disappoint.  We’ve gone from dropping acid and snorting coke to drifting away on an opioid cloud.

Cowen believes that Americans have shifted from “building a new and freer world” to “rearranging the pieces in the world we already have.”  To steal a metaphor from demography, Americans are becoming increasingly “endogamous” (marrying people inside the familiar social group) and decreasingly “exogamous” (marrying people outside the familiar social group).  That is, people are increasingly “matching” with others who share their own identity, whether it is politics, or residential location, or interior design.[3]  One way or another, risk-aversion and a fear of change have seized hold of the hearts of a broad swathe of Americans.

While Cowen offers some cautious suggestions about the future, the book may incite a closer examination of the past.  If Cowen is correct, then how did this risk-aversion come about?  In a sense, “morning in America” or no, the last forty years have been trying times.[4]  The oil shocks of the Seventies announced a long era of the disruption of the settled economy of the post-war period.  A whole set of important social relationships and institutional arrangements rested upon the prosperity yielded by that settled economy.

A whole string of unforeseen disasters revealed errors in human judgement.  Take a few recent examples.  The invasion of Iraq in 2003 seemed like a good idea to some people and a bad idea to other people, but no one anticipated that the Pentagon would mess-up the subsequent occupation.  In the first decade of the 21st Century, a housing bubble existed and banks were badly compromised, but only a few people perceived the danger and government regulators were not among them.  The “Deepwater Horizon” blow-out left some people agape at the realization that no one in the oil industry had ever asked what would happen if the blow-out preventer failed, as technology does with surprising frequency.[5]

Seen in this light, it is possible to understand why many people have come to adopt a stance of “first do no harm.”  However, it may be that such a stance does a different kind of harm.

[1] For a sampling, see:

[2] Matthew Rees, “Lazy Does It,” WSJ, 1 March 2017, p. A15.

[3] For another take on this issue, see:

[4] “Make America Great Again” is a frank acknowledgement of a feeling shared by many Americans.

[5] For example, Samsung phones catching fire or Takata air-bags deploying when there weren’t supposed to.

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