Of all the many changes to American society since the 1960s, one of the most unexpected is also one of the most overlooked. Between 1969 and 2009 the median income for men in the US fell somewhere between 9 and 28 per cent, depending who you talk to. This is the departure point for Tyler Cowen’s new book, Average Is Over.
Having chronicled the US’s economic vulnerability in The Great Stagnation, Cowen, an economist at George Mason University in Virginia, says we have entered the age of “hypermeritocracy”, in which the top 10 to 15 per cent of Americans are “extremely wealthy” and lead “fantastically comfortable lives” and the rest work in “stupid and frustrating” jobs for falling or stagnant wages.
These trends are clearly evident in the US today. He writes that 60 per cent of the jobs lost during the recession were mid-wage jobs, while 73 per cent of the jobs created were for workers on $13.52 (£8.36) an hour or less. In the longer term, intelligent computers will further dampen demand for mid-wage jobs and only those with the ability to work with intelligent machines, or whose skills are irreplaceable, will benefit.
Free online education – something that Cowen is already pioneering with his online economics courses at the Marginal Revolution University – will offer opportunities to those from deprived backgrounds to join the new elite, and so the future will be both “more meritocratic and more unfair”.
Cowen says that many will struggle to reconcile this tension between meritocracy and fairness. “This juxtaposition is a kind of deliberate confusion,” he says to me when we speak over the telephone. “The point is that this world will be confusing and it will be disorientating . . . The final picture is one with both utopian and dystopian elements.”
He says he doesn’t want to tell his readers what to think, but argues that the US needs to start looking at inequality (as, indeed, do other developed economies) in a more dispassionate and analytical way. “There are many books on inequality but quite quickly they tend to run on the left to preaching some message; and on the right, maybe a kind of denialism or moralising about people who aren’t doing as well,” he says. “I tried to avoid both directions to see if we can get our understanding a bit further.”
Cowen was New Jersey’s youngest-ever chess champion, aged 15 when he won in 1977, and he devotes a whole chapter to the intrigues and wider implications of freestyle chess, in which players are allowed to use computer programs to improve their game. In the future, the “wisest” of us will entrust computers to make decisions for us, not only on chess moves but for affairs of the heart, he believes.
For Cowen, algorithms can hold the key to a happy marriage. He met his wife through the online dating site match.com in 2003. She is a liberal but he describes himself as a “libertarian” and “conservative”, and admits that his wife might have been less keen on a first meeting if she had known his political leanings. The medium of online dating forced her to abandon her usual intuitions – to their mutual benefit.
“I have quite a few friends who are single and I find a lot of them have quite arbitrary standards,” he says. “Over time, programs are going to nudge us out of that. The people who are willing to be nudged will on average marry better and they will make a lot of better choices.” If average is over, so is romance.