Here’s a “big picture” perspective about the major trend in which we live. I’ll add comments afterwards about how this trend impacts sustainability.
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Have Americans Given Up?
A new book by Tyler Cowen argues that when it comes
to innovation and dynamism, the country is all talk.
Americans have fallen in love with the idea of their entrepreneurial spirit. Silicon Valley seems to have replaced New York City as the country’s metropolitan mascot of dynamism. Innovation is the unofficial buzzword of corporate America, and news organizations heap praise on the zillionaire startup heroes of the Millennial generation.
But this is a mirage, according to the economist and popular writer Tyler Cowen, whose new book is The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. In fact, the nation’s dynamism is in the dumps. Americans move less than they used to. They start fewer companies. Caught in the hypnotic undertow of TV and video games, they are less likely to go outside.
Even the federal government itself has transformed from an investment vehicle, which once spent a large share of its money on infrastructure and research, to an insurance conglomerate, which spends more than half its money on health care and Social Security. A nation of risk-takers has become a nation of risk-mitigation experts.
So, what happened?
Cowen’s thought-provoking book emphasizes several causes, including geographic immobility, housing prices, and monopolization.
First, Americans move much less than they used to, and economic mobility has declined along with geographic mobility.
The share of Americans moving between states fell by more than half since 1970, from 3.5 percent per year to 1.4 percent. Moreover, as recently as the middle of the 20th century, Americans used to move toward productivity and jobs. In the 1920s, “the creation of a single automobile plant … boosted Michigan’s population by creating more than 100,000 workers,” Tim Noah wrote. But today, the most popular destinations for movers aren’t productive cities, but rather cheap sunny suburbs.
This has to do with the second cause: High housing costs in the most productive metro areas have turned places like Silicon Valley and Manhattan into playgrounds for plutocrats.
Tighter land-use regulations in rich metros pushed up housing values, as the Harvard economists Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag have written. That means that lower-income families, who would benefit from living near these bustling job centers, can’t afford to move there. As a result, rich young college graduates have clustered in a handful of cities while the rest of American movers are going to sunbelt suburbs with cheap housing.
Moving toward affordability has replaced moving to opportunity.
Third, the growth of large companies has clearly sapped some of the dynamism from the U.S. economy.
As I’ve reported, the decline in entrepreneurship has coincided with the rise of new monopolies—across retail, healthcare, and tech—that make it harder to start a new successful firm in these industries. Starting in the late 1970s, antitrust regulators stopped cracking down on large companies as long as they provided cheap products for consumers. Since 1978, the share of U.S. firms that are startups has fallen by 50 percent.
At an event this week at Politics & Prose, a bookstore in Washington, D.C., I asked Cowen whether he regarded Trump as the outcome of American complacency or as a kind of vaccine that would cure Americans of their indolence. He sided with the former, explaining that he had long thought that a constitutional crisis or a figure like Trump becoming president might happen in the distant future. He also said that in many ways, Trump is the perfect manifestation of a country that has lost interest in new ideas.
“Make America Great Again” is an appeal to nostalgia, a promise to bring back the economics and culture of the 1950s, not to do anything new.
Cowen’s book performs the trick of all successful idea-driven non-fiction. It provides an open invitation for the reader to think deeply, even when deep thinking leads to some disagreement. At Politics & Prose, Cowen and I discussed a thesis common to his book and mine. Today’s algorithmic media, like Facebook, Pandora, and dating apps, specializes in offering users content that is “optimally new” — familiar, yet surprising.
Cowen argues that these technologies wall off anything that is too novel, which feeds complacency.
It’s a fair point.
But dating apps also increase the supply of potentially discoverable partners, which leads to more dating. I wonder: Does waiting until your late 20s to settle down with a partner signal complacency, or the opposite?
• • • • • • • •
Having just completed a prototype Net Zero sustainable development – rated by Finland’s leading university as the most sustainable development in the U.S. – I can readily attest to the resistance we faced from inception to near completion. The comment that …
… “these technologies wall off anything
that is too novel, which feeds complacency.”
… feels amazingly true. In the 1950s, we could build new suburbs, because urban sprawl hadn’t existed. We could drive to the new malls on cheap gas, and not worry about air pollution or respiratory disease. Developers could use the cheapest heating and cooling systems, because they didn’t pay the maintenance or utility bills, and energy was cheap.
Times have clearly changed. Our impact on Earth has become unsustainable. And our technologies way surpass anything dreamt of 60 years ago – which changes our life style.
While creating a Net Zero community does no harm to anyone, resistance was huge, because what we were doing “was different.” Bankers weren’t sure if they could resell a sustainable home if the mortgage-holder defaulted – so financing was more difficult. Appraisers didn’t want change, so they could find five comparable properties that sold recently within a half mile of the home, and do their work without leaving their desk. And realtors didn’t know how to present a home that was that unique.
Status quo was a lot more comfortable.
I know a gifted and experienced landscape installation professional in her 60s who took a job in an auto parts store because while the pay was low, they provided benefits. When I read the comment …
“A nation of risk-takers has become
a nation of risk-mitigation experts.”
… her situation rang true. She’s gone from unsatisfying job to unsatisfying job just to “get benefits.” And I personally know many who do this … go through life unhappily for the security of benefits.
“Sustainable living” is more than just being Net Zero in our homes and cars. It’s also living joyfully … with passion … so we greet every day with a smile and enthusiasm. A mentor of mine who made a study of risk-taking said (paraphrasing) …
“The best risk to take is none! But if you want
to do something, you first need to identify each
risk involved. Then you do whatever you can
to eliminate each risk. And when you’ve done
that … then take every risk you can take.”
Before my wife and I set sail to develop the Garden Atrium sustainable community, we asked ourselves what the worst outcome could be. It was bankruptcy – a loss of all our savings. As a “last resort,” we’d be living in an old 1830s farmhouse in central Illinois, in a tiny town for which we felt no passion. But – we felt doing the project was worth that worst case outcome.
Then I met with as many expert specialists as I could, to reduce the risk of creating something that wasn’t as sustainable as possible – or that couldn’t be marketed in competition with traditional homes.
The project has taken 15 years to complete; we thought it would take less than half that. Some efforts didn’t work, which cost us money to discover, while others worked far better than we thought. And while we labored to be sure we were Net Zero sustainable, residents bought because of aesthetics!
The message: Identify whatever passion you have, and set sail to focus your life on pursuing that passion. Given where our world is today, and where our technology is today … what lights your fire? And how can you crystallize it, identify the risks, reduce the risks, and then pursue it?
That’s truly “Sustainable Living.”