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America’s Middle Class: Why Average Is Over

Average Is Over by Tyler Cowen

George Mason University economics professor and Marginal Revolution blogger Tyler Cowen’s new book “Average Is Over
offers a diagnosis and a remedy for the economic attenuation of the American middle class. Like Charles Murray did in “Coming Apart,” Cowen argues that the vast increase in very rich and very poor people is mostly due to the high financial rewards for individuals with elite educations and technological know-how who work in computer programming, law and finance.

To reverse course, America needs to embrace high-tech innovation like the self-driving car, data-driven analytics technology in healthcare, education, and business and a marketing sensibility in virtually every area of life. A failure to do so will leave millions of middle class Americans in the digital dust. Says Cowen:

It might be called the age of genius machines, and it will be the people who work with them that will rise. One day soon we will look back and see that we produced two nations, a fantastically successful nation, working in the technologically dynamic sectors, and everyone else. Average is over.

But Cowen wisely also recognizes that initiatives like intellectual property law reform, sound monetary policy and a digital disruption of K-12 education aren’t the only factors that go into rebuilding a competitive economy. He also notes some of the cultural dynamics that are valuable to the effort.

First, Cowen extrapolates what we already know about single mothers and their children’s chances for economic prosperity:

A recent Pew Research study examined exactly who in modern America falls out of the middle class, and it found that women who are divorced, widowed, or separated are an especially vulnerable group. And children don’t help single mothers’ incomes…Younger women in the lower end of the income distribution will probably be some of the biggest losers, especially if they have a strong “baby lust” that induces or compels them to have lots of kids early in life.

Many of these women will also find it harder to move to cheaper areas with lower-quality infrastructure because they may still desire good schools for their children, especially if those kids are not self-starting learners from the internet. To top off all these problems, the desire for cheaper preferences and lifestyles may induce more lower-income men to abandon their children or at least to scale back financial support…

The abandonment of family responsibilities by men is part of a bigger problem of male responsibility. Cowen makes an incisive observation about the waning participation of men in the labor force, whether it is a product of their own laziness or evaporation of traditionally male jobs:

Imagine yourself as an economist back in 1969, being asked to predict the course of American male wages over the next forty years or so. You are told that no major asteroid will strike the earth and that there will be no nuclear war. The riots of the 1960s will die out rather than   consuming our country in flames. Communism would go away as a major threat and most of the world would reject socialism. Who would have thought that wages for the typical guy were    going to fall? It’s a stunning truth.

As readers of “Average” will discover, Cowen’s economics reflect a libertarian-technocratic perspective that eschews doctrinaire political and social conservatism. Consequently, family policy is not a main thrust of the book.

Personally, I would have loved to see more commentary on how family dynamics will inform the economic growth of the 21st century. But if the economic consequences of family breakdown are evident to an economist who is not particularly devoted to a refined study of these issues, then it should send a signal to the rest of us just how important strong family formation and solidification is to cultivating those workplace attributes that will prove indispensable in the future.