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Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Will underachievers have to eat more beans?

Zombies on Wall Street.
Emmanuel Dunand | AFP | Getty Images

Tyler Cowen's new book, Average Is Over, apparently paints a bleak picture for American underachievers, a group which he thinks will eventually include everyone except the top 10 percent to 15 percent.

Here's an excerpt from the review of the book in the Wall Street Journal:

To sum up, Mr. Cowen believes that America is dividing itself in two. At the top will be 10% to 15% of high achievers, the "Tiger Mother" kids if you like, whose self-motivation and mastery of technology will allow them to roar away into the future. Then there will be everyone else, slouching into an underfunded future of lower economic expectations, shantytowns and an endless diet of beans. I'm not kidding about the beans.

Poor Americans, writes Mr. Cowen, will have to "reshape their tastes" and live more like Mexicans. "Don't scoff at the beans," he says. "With an income above the national average, I receive more pleasure from the beans, which I cook with freshly ground cumin and rehydrated, pureed chilies. Good tacos and quesadillas and tamales are cheap too, and that is one reason why they are eaten so frequently in low-income countries."

...In his final chapter, "A New Social Contract?," Mr. Cowen cruelly lays it all out. "We will move from a society based on the pretense that everyone is given an okay standard of living to a society in which people are expected to fend for themselves much more than they do now." The top 10% will have it better than ever. The majority will suffer stagnant or falling wages but have more opportunities for cheap education and cheap fun. The rest will fall by the wayside, with government less and less able to take care of them. It will be dazzling at the top, and "meh" to miserable for the rest.

If that doesn't propel you and your children out of bed, you deserve all the beans you get.

I haven't read the book so it's possible the review isn't fairly characterizing Cowen's point. But if it is, I think Cowen is making a heroic assumption about the passivity of the American people.

Look. It's possible that 90 percent of Americans will permit their wages to fall to the point where they have to eat beans. That they'll sit passively by while the top 10 percent grow even wealthier and the bottom 90 percent grow ever poorer. And that they will support a government that is less and less able to "take care of them."

(Read also: How to misunderstand capitalism)

But that's not likely. What Cowen describes is a situation in which America is ripe for a political and social revolution. You can keep some of the people down most of the time, you can keep most of the people down some of the time, but you can't keep most of the people down most of the time. Not in the United States.

Far more likely, long before we ever get to Cowen's ugly world, people will decide that there are better ways of taking care of themselves than submitting to a economy that only has room to keep the top 10 percent comfortable. That could mean hugely redistributive taxes. It could mean some form of economic protectionism. Or perhaps some Very New Deal we haven't yet conceived. Even if these are in fact economically destructive, I think many people would prefer to live in a society that is poorer overall but in which the middle-classes and lower-classes aren't impoverished.

In his 1957 book The American Cause, Russell Kirk defended the American economy against the "baseless fabrication" that "five percent of the people own ninety-five percent of the wealth in the United States."

"Never before, in any civilized society, has their been a greater equality of incomes than there is now in America," Kirk wrote. This was, he explained, the American economic accomplishment that conservatives needed to defend against the charges coming from the left.

Cowen, or at least the Cowen on display in the WSJ review, says that accomplishment has come to its end. Now we're entering an era in which the "baseless fabrication" of radicals will define our new way of life.

Don't bet on it.

Capitalism has been the most successful program of the modern era. It has improved the lives of millions. If Cowen is right and it's next phase is widespread lowering of the standards of living for most Americans, its days are numbered.

—By CNBC's John Carney. Follow him on Twitter @Carney