The Critical American Experience

Dynamism is a word used by two groups of people—those trying to impress you and those trying to impress something upon you. Those in the first group are trying to sell you something. Their business. Their book. But, mostly, themselves. The second group is far more interesting. They’re concerned and critical, observant and open to the multitude of ways you may respond to them.

Tyler Cowen is in the latter camp. Cowen is an economist at George Mason University, a school that lies just a few miles from our nation’s capital. A public Virginian institution, it takes its name, oddly enough, from an anti-federalist. It is the victors who often name our institutions (though, Confederate monuments are a notable exception). But for libertarian thinkers like Cowen, perhaps the university’s name is just right: rebellious, thoughtful, and, most importantly, different.

The Complacent Class

Cowen’s latest book, The Complacent Class, is an attempt to bring the subject of economic dynamism to the center of our policy discussions. He cites lower rates of geographic mobility and mediocre progress in technological innovation as evidence. I buy this argument.

Despite his claim that he views himself as merely a Tocquevillian observer, he was sure to include the normative policy implications of this worldview. For example, immigrants have high rates of geographic mobility. Relaxing zoning standards would allow more people to move into cities, improving their productivity. These are standard libertarian positions. Less government, less regulation. More growth.

However, Cowen’s theme of dynamism is more important than just its economic focus. Dynamism is not just an important quality for an economy. It is important for a polity and a society.

American Criticism

Privileged with the opportunity to study abroad, I found myself conversing with a brilliant Italian student in the middle of LSE‘s campus. She recounted how, when she had lived for a short while in Miami, she concluded that Americans are not critical. In Milan, she told me, she can discuss philosophy in the streets with her neighbors. Growing up on the edge of suburban and rural America, I cannot tell you if I have ever discussed philosophy with a single one of my neighbors.

Being critical allows yourself to change. To read, listen, watch, and experience the world around you is but a single step in becoming fully aware. To contextualize sources, ask questions, and weave together your own experience with those of others and quantitative data is a journey in discovering the truths of not just the world but ourselves. Being critical means that you incorporate new information into your worldview. And changing your mind.

American Experiences

For immigrants, being critical is not an option, a goal, or a lofty intellectual exercise. It is necessary for survival. They must take all they know about their worlds and quickly figure out what it means to live in the United States. Which advice is worth taking. Who is trying to scam them. Who is friend. Who is foe. They must constantly contextualize complex and diverse customs to figure out the underlying truth. They must figure out how much of their identity remains from their home country and how much of their identity is American. And that question—what it means to be American—I hope is answered within this essay. But for now, a statement we can agree on: for immigrants, there is a relatively high propensity toward robust economic and intellectual dynamism.

But, then, what can we say about those Americans who are not immigrants? Some of them, perhaps, are so disconnected from foreign lands that they do not fully know the roots of their ancestry beyond the borders of the U.S. Can they also be dynamic? Economically, they are not, if we accept Cowen’s argument. And intellectually, they too often fail the test.

So we are doing something wrong here. If there is one defining American principle it is dynamism itself. It is the willingness—and even the urge— to change yourself. To change the world around you. To constantly learn more and question everything. That’s how we get innovation. That’s how we get a just society where people can shed the previously deeply held prejudices passed down to them. America has changed much over the last 50 years. But will it change over the next 50?

That is a question of policy, of society, and even of technology. Can we produce a critical culture? Can we foster the critical minds of kids who both are both first and last in their class? Can we live in a society where face to face discussions of philosophy, politics, and global affairs are discussed at kitchen tables, in public parks, and schools? This is not an easy question to answer and I do not have one.

McDonald’s and What it Means to be an American

I leave you with a parting idea. University of Maryland sociologist Kurt Finsterbusch has argued that there are two ways that firms reduce labor costs. They educate, develop, coach, and train their workers to complete more advanced work, thus increasing output per worker. Or, they “McDonaldize” their workforce. They break every job down into a very simple task. Something so easy that it’s impossible to mess up. There’s no decision-making. No creativity. No respect for the brilliance that all human minds have to offer.

How can we create an American society where our institutions and our communities never opt to McDonaldize our fellow human beings? Let’s opt to elevate them to their proper role human beings.

America’s immigrants are some of the most critical, dynamic parts of American society. They are perhaps, at present moment, the most American part of the United States. How can we get the rest of society to be just as critical, just as dynamic?

The American experience is not that of boring stability. It is of movers and shakers. Risk-taking entrepreneurs and experimental artists. The American experience is one of recognizing the American journey that we are all on: the one where we constantly rethink our past, reimagine our future, and reframe how we see the world around us. The American experience is a critical one.

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