Complacency and Cheeseburgers

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

This post will include notes on both Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class and the (burger) books In-N-Out and Grinding it Out (McDonald’s). Reading them sequentially (accidentally) was a juxtaposition.


Cowen’s book is good, fans of Marginal Revolution or the podcast Conversations with Tyler will like it. His thesis is that things are pretty good for a lot of people and they want to keep it that way. This manifests as self-segregation and less risk taking.

Not all this segregation is obvious or explicit. For example, Cowen writes that colleges are often places where a form of self-segregation happens. Reading this jogged a memory of walking across campus and noting the unofficial school uniform; white Apple earbuds, black Northface jacket, and brown Ugg boots (It wasn’t only me that noticed this).

I hadn’t considered the many ways we form groups but I do know that groups affect how we solve problems. One theme of this blog is that new things (non-complacency) come from people who have one foot in the old and one in the new. Milton Hershey moved from caramel to chocolate. The Wright brothers were inventors who dabbled in aviation, not aviators who invented. Phil Knight was an accountant and runner.

To come up with new things we need new ideas and those often come from new people.

“To put it bluntly, most successful social structures are pretty good at re- producing themselves.” – Tyler Cowen

Cowen also writes that we’re innovating less and “for all the talk about Silicon Valley, we are less a start- up nation than before.” There’s availability bias in technology news. Chris Dixon said that many people are surprised at the small scope of venture capital.  Even the start-ups we recognize as successes like Harry’s or Instagram, are small beans. Those things have made our lives better, sure, but by how much? Technology hasn’t – yet – been used to solve big problems of housing, healthcare, or education.

We explore (flaneuring) less too. Cowen calls this “matching” and notes the options for; dating, dog adoption, and bike/car riding. This isn’t all bad Cowen notes, but it does mean future outcomes are based on past experiences.

In The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly praises matching. “Every year I own less of what I use.” Kelly calls this a switch from ownership to access. This is thanks to matching. I asked on Twitter about this and there were many more instances of matching that I realized:

This tool – like any tool – involves trade-offs. Amazon’s book matching is okay but imperfect. I try to find other good sources like this: .

I also wondered how much matching effects exploration. Lyft rides make planning a trip one bit easier. I’ll get there and figure it out.

Cowen is optimistic in general, but not necessarily for you.

Part 2: Hamburgers


There was much less complacency in the early part of the twentieth century. Harry Synder’s father lived in Amsterdam, Seatle, and California before settling permanently. Unlike today – where, Cowen notes, there is less migration – Synder had nothing to protect so he moved. This was the case for Kroc too. In the 1920’s he left a decent job selling paper cups in Chicago to play piano at a Miami club owned by a rumrunner. Why would Kroc leave a good job for an adventure? “I was driven by ambition. I hated to be idle for a minute,” he writes. Kroc was a traveling salesman and when he wanted to learn more about McDonald’s he went to California from Chicago and watched the restaurant from across the street.

“A new city or state forces people to rethink their assumptions about the best ways to do things and about what their lives really should consist of.” – Tyler Cowen

It could be that Kroc and Snyder were non-complacent because it was a good time for it. After World War 2 the United States was ripe for growth. Cowen calls this mindset “aggressive dreaming.” What are the conditions?

  • The United States is the last industrial nation standing with a manufacturing base that’s no longer making tanks.
  • Women have entered the workplace, for good.
  • Eisenhower builds out the interstate system after seeing the Autobahn.
  • The GI Bill subsidizes home ownership and college.
  • Babies begin to boom.

Daniel Kahneman said that success is a mix of luck and skill and great success is a mix of great luck and skill. This was true for Synder and Kroc. The post-war period was the perfect situation for the hamburger drive-thru (especially in southern California). Synder and Kroc were lucky.

But, the two-jar model reminds us to consider the skill involved too. Synder and Kroc excelled here too.  Stacy Pearlman writes that while Esther Snyder was religious, “Harry’s faith was in hard work.” Kroc put it this way, “If you are running a hundred-yard dash you aren’t thinking about God while you’re running. Not if you hope to win. Your mind is on the race. My race is McDonald’s.” Both men built up a deep understanding of their niches, experimented, and expanded. Neither was complacent.

Our story starts to change in 1973. The oil embargo shakes America out of “aggressive dreaming.” By this point, both McDonalds (nationwide) and In-N-Out (California) are entrenched companies. They have moats thanks to brand and economies of scale. Both restaurants entrench further with ‘Universities.’ This is the start of stasis. We have the companies that Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger look for, ones that can’t be upended by any amount of money.


If you want to understand the entrepreneur, wrote Yvon Chouinard, study the juvenile delinquent. That’s a person who says, this is bullshit, I’m doing things my own way.

Ray Kroc wasn’t a juvenile delinquent but had the attitude. Kroc, like Buffett, Munger, and John Boyd wasn’t the most present husband or father.  It’s hard to find balance said Stephanie Linnartz, “My family is first, my job is second and that doesn’t leave a lot of roomful hobbies and book clubs.”

Non-complacents believe that things need to change and that takes time and energy. Maybe we’re too distracted by Twitter?

I don’t fully get Cowen’s book because I’m part of the things-don’t-look-that-bad-to-me group. But I do get that stasis is bad for the mind, body, relationships, or culture at any scale.

“Apparently peaceful environments are often not so peaceful once you scratch the surface.” – Tyler Cowen

We need some volatility in our lives. It shakes out debris. Greg Ip wrote about the risks when we avoid or control volatility. Chris Cole talked about it too. It’s also a big idea behind Nassim Taleb’s work.

My kids know not to say certain words. One is the ‘b’ word. Bored. After reading Cowen I wonder if I should add a ‘c’ word too, complacent. My daughters probably won’t understand that, the oldest is nine. Maybe it should be a word for me.

Thank you for reading. If you want to see all the books I suggest you can sign up here:

10 thoughts on “Complacency and Cheeseburgers”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.