To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Sunday, September 15, 2013

‘Average’ Is So Not Over

I always have to be careful when I’m reacting to an argument I don't like that I am distinguishing between whether the argument is sound or if I just don't want to hear it. Lots of things out there I'd prefer not to hear, and none of them are going to change, soon at any rate.

I'm thinking of this after reading NPR’s excerpt from the new Tyler Cowen book, Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. As the NPR gloss says, the book “Describes the post-recession job market that is erasing the middle range, leaving only high-earning jobs that utilize machine intelligence and data analysis and low-earning jobs for those who are not learning and adopting the new technologies.”

According to Cowen: “The maxim (“Average is Over”) will apply to the quality of your job, to your earnings, to where you live, to your education and to the education of your children, and maybe even to your most intimate relationships. . . . They will either rise to the top in terms of quality or make do with unimpressive results.”

Given current trend lines in the global economy, I think there’s a lot to Cowen’s argument, and if it challenges our culture of mediocrity and our culture of complacency, it'll be doing necessary work. Still, I really don’t like to entertain some of the implications of what he’s saying.  

In the wrong minds, this kind of thinking justifies an undesirable sort of elitism, Tiger Momming, and cut-throat educational competiveness. It leads to the kind of elite myopia and moral disconnection that either fosters indifference to the broader social welfare or concocts schemes in its name that work against it. As much as it might encourage a "cult of achievement," it also might promote a fecklessness toward those who don't have the advantages to join it. And just on its face, dissing "the average" might not be exactly the right intellectual basis upon which to launch a much discussed "middle class revival."  

The disparagement of average certainly runs against the grain of democratic politics, the ideal of "community"  and the core egalitarianism that is part of, or at least has been part of, the American identity and ethos. As George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) said in It’s a Wonderful Life:Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? “ Among other conveniences, for those willing to consign people to a future of structural unemployment---which is no small problem, now or in the future--- the end of average seems just too convenient.

It also seems just plain untenable. Not everyone can be “above average,” the residents of  Lake Woebegone notwithstanding. To predicate a society on that ignores a basic truth about human existence--- social existence at any rate. 

Hearing people jibber about the end of average reminds me of the How Thick Is Your Bubble,” quiz in Charles Murray's Coming Apart, which scores your level of social and class insularity. A response to the notion that “average is over” might be added to the questions on Murray's list.  

I’m as much concerned for the argument's literary and artistic implications, however. What about the understanding and acceptance of the “average”--- indeed its celebration, to the point of apotheosis--- that swells inside Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, James Joyce’s Ulysses and almost every song ever written by Bruce Springsteen?   

There’s genius in the ordinary, great art to be located in “the average.” Cowen is probably right, but there's a cynicism that follows in the wake of his argument that makes the world a lesser, and certainly less lyrical place. This makes me melancholy.

So it was buoying to read Leon Wieseltier’s take in the New Republic (“Oprah Lied at Harvard,” August 9) although he writes in a far more evocative and beautiful way than I. The man can be a horrible literary snob. But the soul on display here is a powerfully democratic one.

According to Leon (like Madonna, he's a first-name-only phenomenon), the notion that  “average is over,” is “the catchphrase of our age,” reflecting a “lack of interest in unglamorous existence, which is to say, (a) collapse of sympathetic imagination.” He explains:

Cowen is concerned that we are not prepared for the new economy, which will require a high level of digital competence, and I am not here to gainsay his concern. I am here only to say that average will never be over. We will never be a nation of innovators and consultants. (Neither will China.) There will always be schoolteachers and nurses and shopkeepers and cooks and mechanics and custodians and the old-economy rest; there will always be people who do not write code (how else will the hapless codewriters get through life?); there will always be people who work for other people. The sum total of all these people, and their skills and their labors, is called a society. A society is not an economy, and an economy is not an activity of futurist geniuses.

The ferocity about economic competitiveness, its promotion into a standard by which to measure things it cannot measure (“intimate relationships ... to the top in terms of quality”), is resulting in a loss of respect for ordinary work and a soft contempt for ordinary people. What sort of imprecation, exactly, is “average”? Sometimes it sounds like the talk of a snob. Average, with respect to what? The cult of “achievement” has blinded many people to the diversity of the realms in which we may achieve. Economic mediocrity is not human mediocrity. There are men and women whose “intimate relationships” are “to the top in terms of quality” who spend their days driving cabs and cleaning houses. The streets are crowded with lovers; there are thinkers on the subways. The other day I found this in the galleys of a gorgeous “prayer journal” by Flannery O’Connor, from 1947: “Can we ever settle on calling ourselves mediocre—me on myself? If I am not this or that that someone else is, may I not be something else that I am that I cannot yet see fully or describe? ... Maybe I’m mediocre. I’d rather be less. I’d rather be nothing. An imbecile. Yet this is wrong. Mediocrity, if that is my scourge, is something I’ll have to submit to.” What humility, what lack of utility.

The streets are crowded with lovers; there are thinkers on the subways.

These are giant things, however pedestrian. We make ourselves and our world smaller by losing sight of them.  

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