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February 28, 2017

Economic Migration and a Decline in American Nerve

Tyler Cowen has a new book out and an excerpt is available on Time. (One of Time's other big stories today: "Why Applying To Be On 'The Bachelor' [Reality-TV Series] Was the Best Choice I Ever Made." I suggest you skip that in favor of the Cowen excerpt.)

Cowen frets about a loss of dynamism, vitality, and nerve in the American people. The stat he focuses on here is the percentage of Americans who have moved out-of-state -- it's fallen by 50% since the 80s.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating leaving a hometown just to become a Cosmopoplitan. I have nothing against hometowns. But I have long sort of wondered why more Americans aren't pulling up sticks to move to states with dynamic economies, like Texas or North Dakota.

That was an impression I had before this article, that what was once commonplace and just something an American man, woman, or family -- move to where the work is, take that chance, suffer that temporary dislocation -- just didn't seem to be happening much anymore.

It's not the moving that missed so much as the spirit and guts that makes the move thinkable in the first place.

One of my more extravagant hopes for Trump is that at least his prosperity-first, let's-get-rich kind of energy and audacity might do something to re-invigorate that in Americans.

There's nothing wrong with this country that a little nerve won't cure.

Immigrants, legal or otherwise, by the way, obviously have a lot of that. Relocating to a country whose language you don't speak (or don't speak well, anyway) is a scary proposition.

Moving to North Dakota shouldn't be. It reminds me of Michael Keaton's Act III speech in Gung Ho -- "Yeah, the American can-do spirit is alive and well. It's just that they [the Japanese, in this movie] have it. And we've got to get some of it back."

David French uses Cowen's book as a jumping off place for his own thoughts on the subject. (Or maybe he's just expanding on Cowen's points -- I don't know.)

I recently read Tim Ferriss' book from a bunch of years ago, The Four Hour Workweek. It's a get-rich-quick-and-easy book, but, eh, I kinda liked it.

One point he made early (chapter 3) is that many people complain of a feeling of a lack of fulfillment. They set out to be "happy," and did things they thought would make them "happy," but are not in fact happy. They feel a void. In fact, many such people look back on their years of struggling as happier than their more-stable present, after they've mostly "made it."

Ferriss made what I think is a good point: People have a vague understanding of what "happiness" is in the first place so they have a very poorly-defined end-goal from the start of it.

What he suggests is that what people really mean when they think of "happiness" -- though they're not aware this is what they're thinking of -- is excitement. And I don't mean riding on roller coasters or even skiing or sex. He summons up the Greek word eustress, which is the positive sort of stress ("eu-" being a prefix associated with positive things, like euphoria).

What he's getting at is that what people think of happiness -- putting all challenges behind you -- is not in fact happiness. It's stability, yes, and it's achievement, yes. But it's also something else -- a bit boring. Lacking in important things -- excitement. A bit of danger. Stakes at play. Forward motion.

Happiness is, he's suggesting, the feeling we have when we feel we're working towards a goal or overcoming a challenge. A mix of sense of partial achievement, forward momentum, and hopes about the golden future.

The golden future isn't as golden as we ever think it is. It is better, an old saying goes, to travel hopefully than to arrive. Having a goal one is working towards permits the somewhat-deluded belief that accomplishing that will bring about happiness.

It won't, actually. It'll bring some good things, but not that sense of actual happiness the way people mean it, but don't realize they mean it that way.

And then people do dumb things to fill this void like having extramarital affairs or drinking too much or taking a few too many drugs.

When what they really should be doing is saying, 'Well, I accomplished X, Y, and Z. Now it's time to start working on what my real plan should have been all along -- Double Secret Probation Plan ZZZ."

The human mind is built to confront challenges and muddle its way through puzzles and dilemmas. Just as dogs and cats need stimulation and challenge to keep them healthy -- they need to retrieve the ball or stick, they need to hunt the mouse or the toy mouse -- humans need that too. A well-fed dog with no running and retrieving is an unhappy dog. A well-kept cat with no new nooks to explore or perches to climb is a cat with a case of feline ennui.

I think soft, easy, and unchanging has been badly confused with "happy" and it's causing problems of economic, sexual, psychological, and spiritual dimensions.

BTW: Not that I'm interested in get rich quick schemes, but, just out of curiosity, how much would you pay for an App that alerts you everytime someone you don't like (an enemy, an ex-) posts something indicating a negative emotion or setback on FaceBook?

I'm calling it ShadenFaceBook.

Few Points from the Comments:

1. Government welfare payments reduce the "stick" of being pushed to move, reducing the appeal of the "carrot" of finding new and better employment.

2. Divorced families with kids will find it very hard to move very far from each other or else they're lose most custody (or, even if they keep partial custody, it will be very onerous to visit the kids).

3. This decline in economic migration seems to track pretty closely with the rise and then domination of the two-income family. In the one-earner model, well, just the dad had to find new work. But when there are two-earners -- and they need to keep earning two incomes -- then relocating makes less sense unless you are pretty confident you can find two superior jobs, which is obviously a shakier bet than just finding the one.

I don't know if the book answers these objections, as I haven't read it, and just heard of it an hour ago.

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posted by Ace at 01:32 PM

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