Tyler Cowen's Vision of a More Perfect Meritocracy

Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over could also be called The End of the Middle-Class Nation. Its subtitle is “Powering America Beyond the Age of Great Stagnation.” The imperatives of power or productivity will make America more unequal and more divided into the two classes of the “hyper-productive” and minimally productive. For the libertarian economist, the movement into a new age of a more perfect meritocracy based on productivity serves not only prosperity but justice. As the first bourgeois philosopher Hobbes told us, there’s no standard higher than the generation of power by which to rank human beings. The productivity of a person is his value.

Let me just call attention to some of the features of this new age, with the help of the fine overview of Cowen’s argument by Michael Barone. It goes without saying that I’ve added my own labor (as well as that of Charles Murray and others) to the description of these features:

1. New technologies will lead us out of stagnation. Productivity depends mainly on technological innovation.

2. The new birth of innovation will produce more very wealthy and more poor people, “including people,” Cowen predicts, “who do not always have access to basic public services.”

3. Two kinds of people will flourish in this new birth of innovation: Those who are very competent in working with machine intelligence. And those who are equally competent in managing and marketing those who are good with machines but lack people skills. The future is about digital, informational “genius machines,” marketing, and management. There is, we can say, a place for the economist as libertarian cheerleader for orienting as much of life as possible—including education—around these imperatives. The best economists, at least, will, because of their comprehensive grasp or even intuition of what really drives change, “be the only people left,” Cowen claims, who have a clear notion of what is going on.”

4. This top 15% or so of the population will be wealthier than ever before. And they will deserve what they have. Race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation and all that will mean less than ever. A meritocracy based on techno-productivity will be multicultural (or not really care about culture) and globalized. “Machines,” Cowen reminds us, “have no fear of the unfamiliar,” and increasingly neither will those distinguished by their comfort and competence in taking their cue from mechanical genius.

5. Those who provide services to the meritocrats will also do very well, although not as well. They will cater to the whims of the “classless.”

6. Other jobs will be oriented around being conscientious. That is: The mental labor for any particular class will have been by the hyper-productive. Others will work only insofar as they competently and reliably carry out their orders. Most jobs will become less creative, not more. Surely “our growing ability to measure and grade performance at a task” will suck whatever joy their once was in working in an office (as an undesirable byproduct of the cheerful fecklessness displayed on TV’s The Office). That might be bad news in particular for men, who are, on the whole, more spirited and worse listeners than women. Anyone with eyes to see knows that the dynamism of our economy is already very hard on men, who have been faring worse and worse. Those whom C.S. Lewis called “men without chests” will do better than men with chests. (I’ll pass on saying anything about women with or without chests.)

7. Many or most middle-class jobs will disappear. The real reason we’re in a jobless recovery is that the jobs taken out by the financial crisis weren’t productive. There’s no reason they should come back. Middle-management in general is on the way out. And so are secure careers in positions fairly insulated from the rigors of productivity, beginning with professors with tenure and most of the civil-service bureaucracy.

8. Upward mobility might be facilitated by high-tech education, which will identify the talented in non-meritocratic families and raise them up. Or, I suspect, it might not for all sorts of reasons. One is that high-tech education—MOOCs and other online delivery systems—won’t be very good and will put a high premium on the personal discipline of the student. The children of the hyper-productive will be getting a more traditional (in terms of delivery, at least) and a much better higher education at an elite school. Meanwhile, the families of those sinking out of the middle-class will get more pathological, including less achievement oriented. So an individual here and there will break into the world of the hyper-productive, but it won’t be that commonplace of an occurrence. It’s clear to me that Cowen believes that individual initiative in many cases won’t be enough.

9. The truth is that the hyper-productive will live in their own world and usually marry each other. So the heritability of intelligence will contribute to the cognitively-based class division. And the families of the hyper-productive, we can already see, will be stable and sensible. Kids will be well raised, at least from a productive point of view.

10. So as Barone says: “A fair society, ironically, may well have less social mobility.” But “fair” means valuing the virtues that lead to productivity and reducing the other virtues to mere lifestyle preferences. Can it really be the case that a society with decreasing social mobility is caused by more perfectly regarding each of us as free and equal individuals under the law?

11. The rich and clever people who have the money and power are unlikely to be magnanimously or generously or charitably concerned for the cost to the social fiber or “social capital.” They themselves, after all, won’t need the various safety nets—including government entitlements but also families, churches, local communities, and so forth—on which ordinary people depend to live decent lives. Religion and family will be lifestyle options or preferences for them, which they will probably often choose.

12. Ordinary people won’t revolt. They’ll be comfortable enough—especially if they move to places like Texas where lots of Mexican food that’s tasty, cheap, and nutritious is so readily available– and diverted enough by their various screens. They are going to get dumber and dumber, and Cowen refuses to sugarcoat or even be judgmental about that fact.

13. It’s true that “well-off intellectuals” might continue to “attempt to lead the egalitarian charge against the wealthy.” Cowen speculates that they do so because those who have “the status currency of intellect” compete with those who have “the status currency of money.” The intellectual class is small and losing on all fronts in the competition for status. More and more people both rich and poor will value learning only as a route to money. And so the alienated intellectuals can’t possibly win the attention of the diverted poor. They can’t even win the attention of the rich with the traditional thought that higher education is about more than money and power.

14. It’s easy to accuse Cowen of moral indifference. But he might respond that’s what being an economist is all about. And there’s something to be said for telling the truth about trends he can’t help but see with his own eyes.

15. Barone, against Cowen, says that we should build up the social capital that might help as many people as possible live a happy and successful life full of earned accomplishments. Economists have sometimes said that with the deconstruction of welfare state dependency social capital—beginning with strong families—would come back. Cowen gives us reasons to doubt that. The dynamic he describes is progressively more individualistic—with good consequences for some and bad for others. Minimalist dependency will continue. People will need it, but the rich and the clever will be pretty stingy about it.

16. Cowen does say, at one point, that people will, in fact, look “toward local communities and tight local bonds” as barriers against “economic risk.” But he also explains that most jobs will be more contingent or risky than ever, and all the evidence he gives would perpetuate our present pathological situation of underemployed men and lonely single moms. He adds, of course, that the men especially will tend to lose themselves in various techno-diversions. Women, or many of them, will be stuck with changing diapers they can barely afford.

17. For myself, I can’t help but think that the libertarian economist slights the possibility of a democratic reaction to these inegalitarian tendencies, just as he slights the possibility of a genuine religious revival. That revival wouldn’t necessarily be among the minimally (or less) productive. The lives of the hyper-productive seem much emptier to me than they do to him. There’s going to be all sorts of restlessness in the midst of hyper-prosperity that doesn’t have an economic cause. The truth about who we are as free and relational beings will work against the division of our country into merely economic classes.

18. The poverty of a certain strand of libertarian thinking is displayed in Cowen’s personal imagination. He “look[s] ahead to a time when the cheap and free fun is so plentiful that it will feel a bit like Karl Marx’s communist utopia, albeit brought on by capitalism.” It turns out that realistic vision of the world to come is “the real light at the end of the tunnel.” So it turns out that the Marxist and capitalist visions of a non-obsessive or amoral life governed by one whimsical enjoyment after another are about the same. For me, they’re visions of hell.