A Complex World and Its Discontents: Who’s lagging behind in the modern economy, and what can we do about it?
Every year in the United States, the amount of new information stored on paper, film, and electronic media reaches roughly 2 trillion megabytes—or 15,000 new book collections the size of the Library of Congress. Think about the mind-boggling number of e-mails, phone calls, and text messages that Americans send each other every day, and you’ll realize that our lives have become more complex and interconnected than ever before. However, some social groups have fallen behind in the increasingly complex modern economy. In his short and highly readable book, Brink Lindsey tries to explain why this happened and what can be done about it.
Formerly vice president for research at the Cato Institute, Lindsey is now a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, a think tank focused on promoting entrepreneurship. He has devoted his career to talking economic sense to those on the political Left, with whom he shares some views on social issues.
Lindsey’s central argument focuses on the increasing complexity of modern societies. As we get richer, our world gets more complicated. In pre-industrial societies, the accident of birth broadly determined social roles, and technology remained stationary. People did things the way they or their ancestors had always done them. In today’s world, such a mindset obviously wouldn’t get you very far. In the United States, for example, as a larger part of the economy revolves around processing information, competition is fiercer than ever before.
The economy thus places increasing pressure on our cognitive abilities. Psychologists believe that if we gave American children in 1932 an IQ test normed in 1997, their average IQ would come out to about 80—borderline deficient by today’s standards. The secular trend in measured IQ, known as the Flynn effect, is, according to Lindsey, a result of the rising complexity of the environments in which humans operate.