Between complacency and a self-defeating dream
These two books by well-known academics are written in a popular and accessible style, each endorsing the other on their respective back covers. In both cases, the subtitle alerts the reader to the main story. The two authors are professors – Cass Sunstein of Law and Tyler Cowen of Economics – and they share concerns about the decline of the USA, each warning of problems that lie ahead for the country.
The books each reflect on the state of the economy and society in the USA over the last two decades. In their endnotes, both authors refer to a considerable body of academic research in law, sociology and economics, as well as articles from the popular press. Both books focus almost entirely on the USA with only the very occasional mention of the world outside. They both deal with different aspects of the perceived degeneration of American public life: the decline of public fora for free speech is denounced by Sunstein, whereas the decline of economic progress and the resulting brake on the growth and redistribution of income is thoroughly described by Cowen. Via these different routes, the two ultimately share the same prognosis: that American society is deeply divided and democracy is at risk.
#Republic: Divided Democracy consists of 11 chapters, dealing with different aspects of what Sunstein sees as the danger posed to American democracy and way of life, namely the pernicious effect of what he calls ‘echo chambers’ resulting from the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) that enable people to cocoon themselves from unwelcome and unsolicited information and interaction. The hashtag in the title already alerts the reader to the social media context. The ‘Republic’ part of the title refers to the republican ideals of the framers of the US Constitution, who stood up for pluralism of views, and to the 1st Amendment that guarantees the rights of freedom of speech that are universally regarded as fundamental to democracy. For Sunstein, quoting John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy on the value of ‘perpetually comparing [human beings'] own notions and customs with the experience and example of persons in different circumstances from themselves’, the tragedy is that the technologies that enable us to find out about almost anything also enable us to protect ourselves from what he calls ‘happenstance’ – chance encounters with other views and cultures.
Sunstein starts with a disquisition on the ‘Daily Me’, the daily dose of self-selected and/or algorithm-generated news, blogs, social media sites, sport, culture et cetera that greets people when they start up their IT devices for the day. Evidence is provided in chapter 2 that most people now obtain news filtered to them via Facebook or (less likely) by another such platform. The result is that everything becomes self-reinforcing: you get to hear what you want to hear and fail to hear opposing views. In a wider sense, there is a culture of safe and unchallenging homogeneity, and Sunstein believes this is a matter of great concern for democratic society and government. He laments the loss of serendipitous experiences and encounters and of the public fora on which they may be, and should be, conducted.
The next chapters,‘Polarization’ and ‘Cybercascades’, delve into Sunstein's thesis that the Internet offers massive opportunities for people to insulate themselves from having to confront opposing opinion and instead leads to discussion only among like-minded people. With cybercascades, the selected information and opinion, whether true or false news or terrorist propaganda, spreads uncontrollably to others who have cut themselves off from offsetting views. The following chapters then develop his thoughts on the resulting risks of social fragmentation. In ‘What’s Regulation? A Plea’, Sunstein introduces another of his main concerns: ‘There are profound differences between those who emphasize consumer sovereignty and those who stress the democratic roots of the free speech principle’. It is his belief that elision of the two lies behind the question of regulating the Internet; freedom of choice, favoured in the economic sphere, is a very different thing from the democratic necessity of free speech.
Chapter 8 on freedom of speech discusses the constitutional position on the regulation of free speech, pointing out that there are no absolutes: aspects of speech have always been forbidden by one type of law or another, such as those on sedition and advocacy of violence. Later on, Sunstein puts forward remedies to strengthen the ‘law on speech’ as mandated by the constitution, while recognising that all that can be done in effect is to encourage democratic deliberation. Chapter 10 ‘Terrorism.com’ discusses the ‘clear and present danger’ rule in assessing free speech in the face of the threats from terrorism and computer viruses, and Sunstein argues that we cannot simply leave things as they are. The final chapter, ‘#Republic’, emphasises the need to strengthen public discourse to rescue US democratic ideals from the effects of insulating and insular ‘echo chambers’.
Tyler Cowen’s focus is on complacency in economic life, a concern that as the book develops proves to be close to those of Sunstein. The ‘complacent class’ of the title refers to those in the upper percentiles of income distribution; not necessarily the governing elite, though they, too, fail to understand the deep divisions in US society. The elements of complacency are described first: to start with, ‘The Complacent Class and Its Dangers’ spells them out – the loss of entrepreneurial drive, excessive concern with calm (through medication) and safety (especially of children), lack of geographical mobility and ‘matching’ so that, for example, people choose partners who belong to their class and locate in similar parts of the city. The following chapters then ask ‘Why Have Americans Stopped Moving, Or Is Your Hometown So Special?’ and discuss the related issue of the reemergence of segregation’ as bothersome causes of social divisiveness.
In chapter 4, ‘Why Americans Stopped Creating’, Cowen worries about the implications of the stagnation of the US economy over recent years, which include greater economic, social and racial differences than in the previous generation. Productivity has fallen resulting in the death of the American dream of rags to riches, or at least of upward social and economic mobility. He believes that Silicon Valley and the ICT revolution are exceptional in their dynamism and drive; the ‘supercompanies’ innovate and pay their workers well but they are ‘embedded in a sleepier culture overall’. This leaves the poor with little hope of improving their situation and that poses a potential threat to the wider society that the complacent class has ignored. ‘The Respite of the Well-ordered Match: Love Music and Even Your Dog’ spells out the reasons for both complacency and the increasing divisions in US society. Chapter 6, ‘Why Americans Stopped Rioting and Legalized Marijuana’, argues that even the poor and Afro-Americans seem relatively complacent despite their worsening economic situation. Next, the book turns momentarily to China and its economic dynamism and high mobility, once the prerogative of the USA, as the opposition to present-day stasis in America.
In chapter 8 ‘Political Stagnation, the Dwindling of True Democracy, and Alexis de Toqueville as Prophet of Our Time’, Cowen refers to the foresight of the 19th-century French observer of the USA in predicting the difficulty of sustaining capitalism over the long term. Moreover, as Cowen avers, ‘Static America has a static government’. He now turns to his main prediction: given that the Federal government has half its budget tied down in statutory spending on social programmes and its own bills, it has little flexibility to deal with any impending crisis without raising taxes or making cutbacks, which the complacent class would not tolerate. Yet the problems associated with the stasis outlined earlier could blow up or implode into crises, which is why in the final chapter, ‘The Return of Chaos and Why the Complacent Class Cannot Hold’, Cowen looks at possible crises – the decline in Americans’ trust in their own government, the threat of greater chaos from the outside world and the return of the business cycle.
Why is the quest for the American dream self-defeating according to Cowen? Because, having obtained what they desired, better-off Americans have stopped striving so hard for greater wealth and are now content to enjoy it in the comfort of their homes and, despite the resulting greater economic and social divisions, the disadvantaged do not protest. As Sunstein argues, the compulsive habit of choosing personalised and filtered social media also leads to cultural and political segregation and complacency – the connection between these two books and their authors. These books deal with the USA, but it is surely the case that both authors’ concerns can be applied to economic stability and democracy in Europe too.