The Second-Worst Dystopia Ever: Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over

The critic Louis Menand once compared economists to bulldozers, gleefully plowing through the preconceptions of common people. The book Average is Over, by famed economist Tyler Cowen, lives up to that description. Cowen’s subject is the American dream. And by the end of his analysis, he has pretty thoroughly plowed it into a pile of rubble and dirt.

Average is Over is a followup to Cowen’s earlier work, The Great Stagnation. In that short book, Cowen argued that a slowdown in innovation had accounted for many crummy features of late twentieth century life. Wages had stalled, inequality had risen, the national debt was exorbitant.

Most notably, the big breakthroughs of earlier years (radio, electricity, nuclear power, automobiles, antibiotics, mechanical computation) had given way to incremental tweaks. Sure, gadgets were getting smaller. But miracle inventions were at an ebb. We’d already picked all the low-hanging fruit.

In Average is Over Cowen extends his thesis to speculate about the near future. If a dearth of hi-tech wonders slowed us down in the last fifty years, what’s going to happen in the fifty to come?

Bad stuff.

Cowen warns that his predictions will be “uncomfortable” to many people. This discomfort, it turns out, can be roughly quantified. He thinks we’re heading for a world of severe inequality. In Cowen’s future, 10-15% of Americans will have lives of extreme luxury. Everyone else …

Maybe it’s better not to ask.

Some critics have pointed to a seeming inconsistency in Cowen’s analysis. If technological slowdown gave us problems in the past, why should technological advance cause similar problems in the future? Isn’t that a bit like Homer Simpson’s classic declaration that alcohol both causes and solves all life’s problems?

But Cowen’s narrative, though he doesn’t quite hit all the plot points, is consistent. He sticks to the view that we’ve run out of whiz-bang inventions, leaving us to tinker with small-scale upgrades. But in his reckoning, these little changes, each tiny on its own, will build up into huge productivity gains. What we’re facing is not a single, mind-blowing change that will radically alter our lives. It’s a steady drip of apps and bots and programs that will lead to constant economic insecurity. Those who thrive on insecurity will do better than ever, precisely because the grind is so merciless.

Life’s about to get a lot harsher. Get ready to bust your balls.

Cowen has a knack for breezy assertions with alarming implications. If the title of his book sounds like the pat header to a New York Times op-ed, that’s almost exactly what it is. The phrase “average is over” comes from Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who often writes about similar themes.

But Cowen has none of Friedman’s blustering optimism or jet-set hyperbole. “This book is far from all good news,” he writes, and his tone throughout isn’t far from that of an American Idol judge coolly explaining to a group of children why they’ll never get to live their dreams. If Friedman’s the football coach who works you up for a tough game, Cowen’s the laconic theater director who cuts you down at the knees.

Here are just a few of his predictions.

For starters, Cowen thinks we’ll soon be shunting elderly people into Sao Paolo-like favelas, patched-up shantytowns in which the grandmas and grandpas of the future will survive on a diet of cheap TV and canned beans. These taco-munching, Hulu-watching shanty-dwellers, meager as their existence appears, will still benefit at the expense of their grandkids. The aging of the population will create a self-serving, senescent voting bloc that siphons government aid from the young and poor and channels it into wasteful entitlements.

The kids of the future will have a rough time, too. Crashing wages will leave twenty-somethings scraping out a day-to-day existence in grungy bohemias.

And that’s not all. We’ll see a full collapse of traditional media, worsening political polarization, a thorough vulgarization of public discourse, an increase in government gridlock and corruption.

The humanities will wither away, along with most of the university system. College professors will be out of work.

They won’t be alone.

The job markets in nearly every field will crater, leaving marketing and finance as the only healthy sectors. Mad men and bankers will hoard all the wealth.

Just what you hope for, huh? But don’t feel too envious of these professional takers, fakers, and shakedown artists. Their work will be more grueling than ever. Voice-recognition and face-scanning technology will spy on every human behavior, leading to an arms race of manipulation and deceit.

As discretionary income dams up in the accounts of elites, the service and entertainment industries will be forced to squabble for handouts from high-earners, who will in turn be harassed by relentless moochers and hangers-on.

Will STEM careers be the solution to this cyborgian rat race?

Keep dreaming! Science will become so abstruse and bureaucratic that people will give up even trying to understand it. We’ll slowly sink back into medieval superstition.

Silver linings? Try this. The creationism debate won’t much of an issue–because public schooling will have disappeared. Instead we’ll force kids through a gauntlet of relentless machine-drilling and life-coaching–“like the Marines,” as Cowen says.

Unlike the Marines, however, this model will benefit mostly women, as young men continue to slide inexorably into violence and apathy.

These restive lugs will be kept in line, though. Law enforcement will use Minority Report-style methods to predict antisocial behavior before it even takes place–using drones, for instance, to scan people for hostile body language. Talk about profiling. In this future, just walking funny will bring the cops to your door.

Indeed, most people will be under constant surveillance, tracked at work, in public, in their homes, with every peccadillo, every failure of efficiency, recorded and duly punished. Privacy will die.

So will hope. Genetic screening and constant monitoring will sort children into two stark categories: winners and failures. There won’t be much point dreaming of a better future. Machines will tell us all what to do, who to marry, even what to desire. Ideas like authority, dignity, responsibility, and autonomy will fade away. Oligarchs and hoi polloi alike will become “handmaidens to the computer.”

Not that it’s all bad. Some people will manage to evade this totalitarian meatgrinder. Cowen expects that large numbers of Americans will fall out of civilization entirely, railroaded into tent camps and anarchic trailer-slums, living a life of noisy desperation, off the grid, without amenities or water–without, really, much of anything at all, except, one imagines, a rusty machete hidden for defense under a sleeping bag.

“A lot of people will have serious objections to some of these trends,” Cowen writes. “So be it.”

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When Average is Over hit the markets a few years ago, its weird mix of oracular diffidence and appalling prognostications provoked some strange responses.

Matt Yglesias chose to read it as a suite of policy prescriptions hidden inside a Cassandra-esque cautionary tale. Mark Hendrickson, at Forbes, was spurred to a panicked defense of capitalism. William Galston, at the WSJ, compared Cowen’s future to Swiftian satire.

Philip Delves Broughton, also at the WSJ, used his review to fret about how to save his own kids from Cowen’s grisly projections, like an 80s survivalist blueprinting a backyard bomb shelter after watching The Day AfterThe Economist indulged in predictable sneering about the bankruptcy of American exceptionalism.

David Brooks may have had the sanest response. He simply put most of Cowen’s argument aside and wandered off on his usual airport-lounge speculations.

Most reviewers were perplexed that such an acute social critic could be so complacent about the horrors he was describing. Doesn’t Cowen fear social disorder?

Not at all, Cowen says. Americans will have a reliable source of relief: they’ll console themselves with shallow patriotism and bitter xenophobia. That makes a certain sense. In Cowen’s view, the rest of the world will be in even worse shape.

With the exception of NPR, most commentators on the book have focused on the low end of the social divide, accepting Cowen’s assumption that the 10-15% in the elite will be living “fantastically comfortable and stimulating lives.”

Too few have looked at the way Cowen describes those upper-class lives. Shunted into boot-camp schooling, subjected to constant evaluation, competing for opportunities to toady and scrape around beleaguered billionaires, watched around the clock for hallmarks of untrustworthy behavior, until at last they wear out and tumble off the meritocratic hamster wheel into dusty obsolescence: in many ways, Cowen’s elites are worse off than his proles.

Technotopians like to say that automation will free us all to become more creative. Cowen makes short work of that notion. He uses the familiar term “cognitive elite” to describe his tranche of top earners, and his analysis often evokes Richard Florida’s vision of an ascendant creative class. He’s even said in interviews that his future will be much more “creative” than the present.

But Cowen’s is a strange kind of creativity.

What fires creative types, from entrepreneurs to artists to mathematicians, isn’t the production of knowledge itself, but the quest for understanding. In Cowen’s view, all real intellectual work will soon be done by computers. Few if any people will understand what those computers are doing. Fairly soon, a time will come when no human understands much of anything at all.

Computers will handle the real science–the real thinking–while human researchers toil like Pynchonesque engineers at small, hyperspecialized tasks: collecting data, managing inputs, slaving over fragments of giant equations. Elegant models, theories, and leaps of intuition will all be replaced by esoteric number-crunching.

Across the academic disciplines, from hard science to sociology (the humanities, remember, have already atrophied), imagination will give way to an assembly line of knowledge production, churning out IP as a sort of intangible commodity. The life of the mind will become thoroughly mechanical, and the days of true genius will be gone.

Even the robots who run this dispirited puppet show won’t be having a good time. Cowen pooh-poohs dreams of a Kurzweilian singularity, an emergence of mechanical superintelligence. No hard AI in his vision. No transhumanism. No lovable tin-man helpers. No Data. No Number Five. No Asimovian utopia presided over by solicitous robo-nursemaids.

In Cowen’s future, humans will be slaves to machines, but machines will still be slaves to humans. Everyone will be a slave, really, laboring in service to what he calls the “numerocracy”–a tyranny of statistical formulas.

What fun.

Paul Ryan might be licking his chops, but who else would want to live this way? The science fiction writer C. M. Kornbluth once described a world in which people had come to worship sadism as the only virtue. In his tale, Americans slowly tortured themselves to death over thirty-two generations.

That confers on Cowen a dubious distinction. He has now described the second worst society imaginable.

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Let’s back up.

For all the talk of a hypermeritocracy, Cowen’s future looks drearily similar to history’s most corrupt regimes. At the bottom, a giant mass of abased peons. Further up, a much smaller class peons, hustling to keep above the wretched hordes below. And in some dwindling fraction of a percent at the top, the kingpins, buttressed by control of some finite needed resource, land or fuel or technical savvy.

Cowen does indeed see his future as a return to a kind of historical baseline. “There are many other historical periods,” he writes, “including medieval times, where inequality is high, upward mobility is fairly low, and the social order is fairly stable.”

Ah, yes, the Dark Ages. What a time to be alive.

The word “medieval” is rarely employed as a flattering adjective. Cowen’s use of it here points to a strange lacuna. What, apart from monstrous oppression, made the medieval order so cohesive?

Religion receives no attention in Average Is Over, apart from a brief suggestion, part Marx, part Obama, part Richard Dawkins, that people cling to faith when other sources of hope have died. Ditto for art, philosophy, and any other discipline that asks not what life is like, but what it ought to be like. Ethics gets no love in this book. Politics has been reduced to policy: perusal of polls and superintendence of the economy.

At the opening of his chapter on education, Cowen writes:

“We as a nation have been thinking about education without knowing what we really want from it. Do we want well-rounded young adults to emerge? Or good citizens? Role models? … For the purposes of this chapter, I’ll keep the goal simple. One goal of better education is to procure better earnings. How we might achieve that is the question.”

If that seems like an awfully big simplification, it’s symptomatic of the book as a whole. Throughout, Cowen uses chess as an allegory for economic affairs. And life, as he sees it, is exceedingly gamelike, with established rules, clear winners, and a lot of big, big losers.

Not that this is unusual. Today’s technocrats shy away from such scary, antiquated words as belief, morality, character, and duty. Even the word culture scares them, at least when it implies something to be valued and not merely indexed. Faith, for today’s elites, serves as a useful appurtenance to a political career, like a natty suit or a devoted spouse, but it’s rarely a call to deep reflection. The reigning ethos of our time is a bloodless libertarianism, which celebrates overweening narcissism not because anyone thinks this is a good trait, but because it’s the only trait everyone has in common.

A common mistake in speculation about the future is to focus on material innovations at the expense of social upheavals. Tools, agricultural methods, communication techniques, machines, plagues, and weapons are treated as the true drivers of society, while innovations in law, morality, manners, art, politics, and yes, religion are waved away as surface effects of economic forces.

This brings to the futurist an air of coolheaded disinterest, but makes for a sterile sort of history. Social and technological inventions have always been entangled. People have always sought not only to advance their fortunes, but to improve their souls.

The connection between ethics and technology is regularly misunderstood. Both are seen as natural enablers of individualism. But technology makes people less individual, not more so. In a technological world, tools are standardized, work is regulated, people are organized into classes and subjected to strict routines. Even the design of a hammer implies a “normal” hand.

A hunter-gatherer who travels in a band of thirty people, each of whom he knows personally, who fashions his own tools and instruments, makes his own music, tells his own stories, kills his own food, pits his own body against a wild environment, is much more individual, if not necessarily better off, than a modern man crushed into an airplane seat.

The trend of technological advance is always toward anonymity, enslavement, the dissolution of self. That’s why social and intellectual revolutions are so important to the modern world. They’re needed to guarantee a dignity that technological advance threatens to strip away.

Cowen’s predictions represent another tick of this old, old gear. It’s probably true that if we allow ourselves to become the slaves to our computers, the future will be as he describes. But how likely are we to do that?

Orwell famously portrayed the future as a boot stamping on a human face forever. Cowen’s future looks more like a human finger pushing one gray button into eternity. What does it say when the predictions of today’s top thinkers are bleaker, in their way, than the most nightmarish dystopia a survivor of two world wars could imagine?

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