"The new forces, elevating in their nature though they be, do not act upon the social fabric from underneath, as was for a long time hoped and believed, but strike it at a point intermediate between top and bottom. It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down."
— Henry George, Progress and Poverty
Cowen is an economist at George Mason University. He achieved fifteen minutes of fame via an e-book, The Great Stagnation in 2011. The e-book created a buzz loud enough to grab the attention of a publisher with a printing press. Stagnation insinuated its way between hard covers, from where it continued to make the case that a low-wage, slow-growth economy is something that the world had better get used to. It’s the new normal.
Average is Over, evidently a hurried sequel to Stagnation, reprises Cowen’s message: Extreme income inequality is here to stay. We can't tax the rich, after all, because they have too many channels through which to transfer the burden to the middle class and the poor.
Cowen offers up education as a tool that sub-millionaires might use to elevate themselves economically, but such education as Cowen conceives of might more candidly be called instruction, or schooling, or obedience training. So, operating in a bimodal economy—one that concentrates wealth at the tippy top and diffuses poverty across the broad bottom of the barrel, with no middle between—how does the top dispose of the barrel bottom? Cowen seems to think that that’s a problem to be solved and that he has a solution:
“What if someone proposed that in a few parts of the United States, in the warmer states, some city neighborhoods would be set aside for cheap living?”Cowen describes the housing in these cheap zones as being modest but not ramshackle, and it all seems fuzzily commonsensical. But then,
“We also would build some makeshift structures there, similar to the better dwellings you might find in a Rio de Janeiro Favela. The quality of the water and electrical infrastructure might be low by American standards, though we could supplement the neighborhood with free municipal wireless (the future version of Marie Antoinette’s famous alleged phrase, “Let them watch internet!”) Hulu and other web-based TV services would replace more expensive cable connections for those residents. Then we would allow people to move there if they desired. In essence, we would be recreating a Mexico-like or Brazil-like environment in part the united States, although with some technological add-ons and most likely greater safety.”Ok, so let’s fill another flute with bubbly and kick back to get a good look as the great unwashed descend ever deeper into collective poverty. It’s a kind of spectator sport for the well heeled, really. Let’s anticipate this decline in quality of life and contain the newly impoverished in ghettos modeled after Brazilian slums. If we call these habitats for impoverished humanity camps maybe they’ll seem almost recreational. Maybe FEMA would do a good job running these camps, keeping everything orderly and responding to emergencies. They might even cook up a motivational slogan. Maybe something like Arbeit Macht Frei.
No one should find the favela prospect objectionable, Cowen opines, after all, “no one is being forced to live in these places. Some people might prefer to live there. I might prefer to live there if my income were low enough.” He goes on to remind readers that some neighborhoods deteriorate naturally into shantytowns: “The end result is no different from the deliberate shantytowns already discussed.”
Let that cute phrase rattle around inside your skull.
What a striking public policy objective. Cowen wants his manufactured ghettos to be modeled after Brazilian favelas. So, how is it going for the residents of those South American slums? Maybe not so good. Could be better.
To say that poor people “choose” to live in rundown neighborhoods evinces a staggering callousness on the part of the author and an atmospheric detachment from the world outside the ivory tower. The poverty stricken could simply load up their limousines and relocate to nearby mansions? Why they don’t exercise the option, evidently, is just a matter of personal preference. Poor people are so eccentric.
Piercing the callousness, however, Cowen reveals a sliver of heart when he concludes the book with a ray of hope:
“Rather than balancing our budget with higher taxes or lower benefits, we will allow the real wages of many workers to fall and thus we will allow the creation of a new underclass. We won’t really see how we could stop that. Yet it will be an oddly peaceful time, with the general aging of American society and the proliferation of many sources of cheap fun. We might even look ahead to a time when the cheap or free fun is so plentiful that it will feel a bit like Karl Marx’s Communist utopia, albeit brought on by capitalism. That is the real light at the end of the tunnel.”Let us unpack that doozy of a condescending pat on the head. “We,” evidently the overclass, will enjoy the tranquility brought on by the emergence of a broad underclass, the odd peacefulness of the times a byproduct of generous allotments of Bread and Circuses. Marx’s Communist “utopia” consists of a herd of underclass laborers wallowing in cheap or free fun? This passage from the book is downright bizarre. If it’s offered tongue in cheek, then it’s merely in bad taste. If not, it’s worrisome.
The condescension continues:
“Conscientiousness is especially valuable in two other important parts of the labor market: health care and personal services. Most healthcare workers are not doctors, and many of them are not geniuses. Nonetheless, you want to make sure these workers wash their hands when necessary, write down the correct information on the patient’s chart, and measure the lab quantities correctly. Again, that’s conscientiousness and due to population aging the number of healthcare jobs will continue to grow. It is no accident that female workers are especially well represented in these fields, as they are in education.”Yeah, dem chicks really know how to wash der hands and take notes and measure stuff. Dey’re, like, real conscientious, yeah, ya know. You got somethin’ what don’t take no brains, a chick’ll do it great, man. Dey really know how to follow directions.
Cowen sets out not merely to lower middle-class expectations, but to bury them. His skip-to-my-Lou matter-of-factness about the inevitably dismal fate of the masses—a dumbed-down, droidlike existence for the majority of humanity—is chilling. The economist’s humanity must have been surgically removed.
Let’s continue the tour of Cowen’s less-than-rosy future.
“As workers are displaced by smart machines in manufacturing and other areas, more individuals will be employed as personal trainers, valets, private tutors, drivers, babysitters, interior designers, carpenters, and other forms of direct personal services. These area all areas where a patron—often a family or individual—expects a commission or request to be followed. ‘Pick up my kid from school.’ ‘Fix the electrical wiring.’ ’Show up for my lesson at six o’clock.’ Most of these jobs require some applied skills but not monomaniacal commitment at the highest levels of world-class achievement. The premium is on conscientiousness, namely whether the worker can follow some straightforward requests with extreme reliability and basic competence. If you are looking to hire a concierge butler, the person really does have to be trustworthy.”So we can anticipate a militarization of the workplace: Officers barking orders and grunts snapping to attention. But what’s described isn’t even a modern workplace. It’s the castle of a Duke. Drivers, valets, tutors? Pick up my kid and fix the wiring? The employer morphs into a patron, a lord of the manor, and employees endure demotion to plantation slaves.
And the egos of the “earners” and “achievers” will need constant grooming,
“It sounds a little silly, but making high earners feel better in just about every part of their lives will be a major source of job growth in the future. At some point it is hard to sell more physical stuff to high earners, yet there is usually just a bit more room to make them feel better. Better about the world. Better about themselves. Better about what they have achieved."Are you gagging yet? If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself outside the inner circles, you are likely to find yourself considered barely a human being, but rather some unit of economic value, that is, a "human resource." Something made to be drained and discarded.
And the inhumanity continues.
"The forces outlined in this book, especially for labor markets, will force a rewriting of the social contract, even if it is not explicitly recognized as such. We will move from a society based on the pretense that everyone is given an okay standard of living to a society in which people are expected to fend for themselves much more than they do now. I imagine a world where, say, 10 to 15 percent of the citizenry is extremely wealthy and has fantastically comfortable and stimulating lives, the equivalent of current-day millionaires, albeit with better health care.”What a quaint Malthusian dog-eat-dog nightmare he imagines. It is one in which a hollowed-out middle class leaves behind a socioeconomic gulf, with an oligarchy tended to by armies of technicians on one side and on the other side a poverty-stricken class of serfs fending for themselves. The future, in Cowen's vision, looks downright medieval, a post-middle-class society only technologically distinguishable from pre-middle-class society. Why is it a pretense that everyone be given an okay standard of living? It should be an objective.
There is so much that is contemptible in this book that conscience must pray it already has been remaindered.
On with our dystopian misery tour:
“It’s clear: The world is demanding more in the way of credentials, more in the way of ability, and it is passing along most of the higher rewards to a relatively small cognitive elite. After all, the first two categories of earnings winners—namely those with advanced degrees—account for only about 3 percent of the US population.”Let us blow up once and for all the myth that today’s oligarchs and plutocrats, the finance-capital market manipulators and fraudsters, the pseudo-meritocratic “earners” who leach wealth from the economy are doing anybody any favors or by any rationale can be said to deserve their rewards. They present themselves as “job creators,” a hollow legend, but hammered into a public myth by mainstream media. Where exactly are all these jobs that they supposedly are creating? Where’s the next wave of innovation, the rising tide that lifts all boats? The “earners” have been doing something other than earning.
But Cowen isn’t done. He pushes his vision to its fascistic conclusion.
"The framing of income inequality in meritocratic terms will prove self-reinforcing. Worthy individuals will in fact rise from poverty on a regular basis, and that will make it easier to ignore those who are left behind. The wealthy class will be increasingly self-motivated, will be larger over time, and—precisely because we are selecting ever more for self-motivation—will have increasing influence. It is their values that will shape public discourse, and that will mean more stress on ideas of personal ambition and self-motivation. The measure of self-motivation in a young person will become the best way to predict upward mobility” [emphasis added].No it won’t. Family connections will remain the best way to predict upward mobility. The Darwinian reference to “selecting for” gives away the game. “We are selecting ever more” for some worthy trait? Given the Darwinian trope, there’s no escaping the breeder/bred relationship implied. The slogan “Average is over” suggests that a broad swath gets rubbed out.
The desired outcome, desired presumably by the "we" who will do the selecting, is the elimination of the unfit, those who lack sufficient "self-motivation" (i.e., eagerness to please the overlords) and/or sufficient capacity to make machines more productive (i.e., the way people did in the Matrix movies, where they allowed the machines to drain them like batteries).
Say goodbye to American exceptionalism.
Say hello to the soft, and maybe not so soft, eugenics of finance capital.