Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Interview from the Archive: Tyler Cowen says Donald Trump offers much "talk about change" but "very little action"

Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 11, 2017.

This is the second half of my discussion with Dr. Tyler Cowen. The first part is available here. 
Story by Joseph Ford Cotto
Libertarianism has seen better days.
A few years ago, certain political forecasters claimed that the future of America's center-right belongs to libertarians. Since the 2012 presidential election, however, protectionism surged -- not only in the GOP, but among Democratic ranks as well. Now, amid the age of Donald Trump, libertarianism's once-ascendant nature seems a distant memory.
"I fear that the classical liberal/libertarian idea and ideal will be seriously tarnished by the policies and politics of the Trump Administration," Dr. Richard Ebeling, one of our time's greatest Austrian School thinkers, recently told me.
He continued: "Virtually all of Trump’s proposed policies involve a continuation or an intensification of government involvement in social and economic life. He acts as the all-knowing government central planner when he calls in business executives and tells them where to invest and what products they should make to 'create jobs.' He undermines respect for and protection of essential civil liberties when he ridicules the freedom of the press and their way of reporting on his administration’s actions and his words."

Ebeling went on to state his worry "that with the assistance of the mainstream media the Trump Administration’s anti-freedom policies will tarnish the real case for a free society and a free market. That is, people who want lower taxes and fewer regulations on business will be identified as the people who also believe in torture, discrimination against immigrants, violations of civil liberties, and the instigation of trade wars because of aggressive nationalist attitudes."
One of the most capable emissaries libertarian thought has known is Dr. Tyler Cowen.
"Cowen is Holbert L. Harris Chair of Economics at George Mason University and serves as chairman and general director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University," the biography on his website explains. "With colleague Alex Tabarrok, Cowen is coauthor of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution and cofounder of the online educational platform Marginal Revolution University.
"A dedicated writer and communicator of economic ideas who has written extensively on the economics of culture, Cowen is the author of several books and is widely published in academic journals and the popular media. Malcom Gladwell described Cowen’s latest book, The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, as “brilliant.” The book explores why the change that drives America forward has stopped. He writes a column for Bloomberg View; has contributed extensively to national publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Money; and serves on the advisory boards of both Wilson Quarterly and American Interest. His research has been published in the American Economic Review, the Journal of Political Economy, Ethics, and Philosophy and Public Affairs."
Cowen recently spoke with me about many of the matters raised in The Complacent Class. The first half of our conversation is included below.


Joseph Ford Cotto: Some might believe that the premise of your book -- in which a large number of complacent Americans come to define a culture of stagnancy -- has been thwarted by the election of Donald Trump, popularity of Bernie Sanders, and rise of grassroots populism in both major parties. Given such radical changes over the last year-and-a-half, what do you have to say about your book's relation to current events?

Dr. Tyler Cowen: I call Donald Trump "The Placebo President."  Lots of talk about change, very little action.  He doesn't know how to make change work in Washington, doesn't have the staffing or the knowledge of policy or how politics operates.  So he serves up more rhetoric and now the strike on Syria, which is something he can simply order.  He is the new version of "bread and circuses."  And that is actually better than what a lot of people were expecting -- he won't bring a new fascism to America.

I wonder also how much change Bernie Sanders could have accomplished -- probably not much.

Cotto: While writing The Complacent Class, what was the most surprising thing you discovered about contemporary American society?

Cowen: The most surprising thing I learned was how much we have bureaucratized protests, required more permits, and higher organizing costs, restricted available spaces for protest, and thereby chipped away at the very important right to public assembly, as stated in our Constitution.  This saddens me greatly.  NIMBY seems to be ruling in all or most spheres of American life.

Cotto: How do prevailing marriage trends in the United States relate to grand-scale complacency?

Cowen: Marriage trends in this country seem to have split.  Well-educated people are divorcing at much lower rates, which implies they are matching pretty well with spouses to begin with.  That's great, but it also is going to mean super-powered household incomes, kids propelled to the Ivy League and other top schools, enormous bequests, and a rise in income inequality.

Less educated people are not managing to have the same successes with marriage, and that is one reason why social and economic mobility are proving so disappointing.

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