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Stubborn Attachments

Book notes for “Stubborn Attachments”, by Tyler Cowen

That sounds so simple: prosperity and individual liberty. Who could be opposed? In the abstract, few people speak up against those values. But in practice we turn away from them all the time. We pursue many other ends which we should ignore or reject and that is one regard in which we have lost our way. We instead need a tougher, more dedicated, and indeed a more stubborn attachment to prosperity and freedom than is currently the case. When you see what this means in practice, you may wince at some of the implications and you may be put off by the moral absolutism it will require. Yet these goals – strictly rather than loosely pursued – are of world-historic importance for civilization and if we adhere to them they will bring an enormous amount of good into our world.

loc 25-28 I am not going to spend time on what the concepts of right and wrong “really mean,” whether they come from God, or whether we always have compelling reason to act in a moral way. I will not consider what is called meta-ethics, namely the study of the underlying nature of ethical judgments. I’m going to assume that right and wrong are concepts which make fundamental sense. Even if that’s not exactly your view, perhaps you could slot many of my arguments to your favored alternative stance.

loc 36-38 If we are building principles for politics, we need approaches which are relatively robust to human error, robust to the rampant human tendency for self-deception, and which can transcend our own tendencies for excessive “us vs. them” thinking.

loc 60-62 We should not take away one of your kidneys by brute force simply because you can do without it and someone else needs one. We should not end civilization to do what is just, but justice sometimes trumps utility. And justice does not reduce to what makes us happy or to what satisfies our preferences.

surely utilitarianism takes this into account, since such a choice would have indirect negative effects (ie. causing people to rebel, lose faith in the government, etc.)

loc 112-114 For one recent look at rights, which also surveys many of the major questions, see Griffin (2008). Wenar (2013) also surveys some aspects of the current debate, in addition to his original contributions.

loc 177-179 When it comes to making tough decisions, we should try to identify which elements in the choice set resemble a Crusonia plant. If we could find some choices or policies which give rise to the equivalent of Crusonia plants, namely ongoing and self-sustaining surges in value, the case for those choices would be compelling.

yes!

loc 192-194 Wealth Plus: “The total amount of value produced over some time period. This includes traditional measures of economic value, as would be found in gdp statistics, but also measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth.”

this sort of thing can again be reduced to utilitarianism, but I understand why this is not done, since in practice, it is basicly impossible to evaluate the change in utility any choice will cause.

loc 201-203 Most generally, we wish to maintain higher growth over time, and not just for a single year or for some other shorter period of time. Maximizing the sustainable rate of economic growth does not imply pursuing immediate growth at the expense of all other values.

depending on your discount rate

loc 222-225 Keep in mind that the wealthier tyrant will conquer or at least disrupt the noble savage. Even if in principle the life of the noble savage were best, no society following this path will, on its own, keep its autonomy in the longer run. Given the previous path of human development, someone will have tanks and nuclear weapons, whether we like it or not. It is important that the more benevolent societies be both richer and more technologically advanced, and again we see the relevance of sustainable economic growth.

loc 308-309 Although these historical processes have often embodied unfairness and long lags, of decades or more, economic growth nonetheless has brought wealth to the poor and elevated their status.

yes! often people criticise inequal wealth distribution. Who cares if the poorest are many times better off than they would have been otherwise. (see below for mention of positional goods, where people are in fact not better off if one person gains, and everyone else stays the same)

loc 325-328 Sometimes extended periods of growth do not bring full or fair benefits for the poor or lower classes, for instance during the early phase of the British industrial revolution in the late eighteenth century. Still, even given these transitional troubles, the historical record suggests it was better for Britain to push ahead with economic growth, as this eventually drove the greatest boost in living standards the world has seen.

loc 359-361 For instance, had America grown one percentage point less per year, between 1870 and 1990, the America of 1990 would be no richer than the Mexico of 1990.15 At a growth rate of five percent per annum, it takes just over eighty years for a country to move from a per capita income of $500 to a per capita income of $25,000, defined in terms of constant real dollars.

loc 362-363 Robert E. Lucas (1988, p.5 ), Nobel Laureate in economics, put the point succinctly: “the consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these are staggering: once one starts to think about [exponential growth], it is hard to think about anything else.”

loc 419-421 To some extent the greater reported happiness of the wealthy may reflect a zero-sum relative status effect, namely that the wealthier people feel better but their possessions make the poor feel worse off. Nonetheless it is unlikely that the entire gains from wealth, or even most of the gains, dissipate in zero-sum games.

loc 429-434 On top of all of those considerations, happiness isn’t a single, simple variable which can be measured unambiguously. Happiness means a lot of different things to different people. Some persons may seek temporary stimulations, others may want to feel fulfilled at the end of their lives, and others may seek to maximize the quality of their typical day. Some will seek happiness through the process of out-competing their peers for status, while others will look inward for contemplative delights. Most likely we seek some mix of these ends but with varying emphases and weights. Wealthier societies offer greater opportunities and freedoms to pursue preferred concepts of happiness, even if this privilege does not always show up in the measurement of a single, aggregate number.

yes!

loc 520-531 Choosing the pro-growth policy addresses some outstanding problems in ethics. For instance in traditional economics, at least prior to the behavioral revolution and the integration with psychology, it was commonly assumed that what an individual chooses, or would choose, is a good indicator of his or her welfare. But individual preferences do not always reflect individual interests very well. Preferences as expressed in the marketplace often appear to be irrational, intransitive, spiteful, or otherwise morally dubious, as evidenced by a wide range of tastes ranging from cravings for refined sugar to pornography to grossly actuarially unfair lottery tickets. Given these human imperfections, why should the concept of satisfying preferences be so important? Even if you are willing to rationalize or otherwise defend some of these choices, in a lot of particular cases it seems that satisfying preferences does not make people happier and does not make the world a better place. Focusing on the long-term benefits of growth sidesteps such dilemmas. We might doubt that the marginal fast food cheeseburger is worth $4.89 for me, all things considered, including the impact on my future health. Perhaps the cheeseburger offer is manipulating my evolutionarilyprogrammed desire for more fat, to the detriment of my life expectancy. That may be true, yet at the same time living in a much wealthier society still is good for most people, all things considered, including good for their health. For all the talk about America’s obesity problem, which is indeed real, life expectancy is still rising with wealth and it is wealthy and welleducated people who are most likely to be thin or to succeed in their diets.

instead of worrying irrationality (hard problem to fix), simply make people so well off that their irrationality can’t hurt them too much

loc 543-552 The Principle of Growth: “We should make political choices so as to maximize the rate of sustainable economic growth, as defined by Wealth Plus.” The Principle of Growth would return economics back to its roots in Adam Smith. Smith held a straightforward, common-sense approach to political economy. He understood that the benefits of cumulative growth were significant, especially with the passage of time. It is no surprise that his economics treatise was entitled An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. By the way, I see only one episode in human history where the Principle of Growth was clearly and unambiguously applied, and that is in the East Asian economic miracles, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and China (with a caveat here for sustainability), across the appropriate periods of time in each case. These histories are normally thought of as big economic successes, and of course they are, but I am saying more than that. They also represent the highest manifestation of the ethical good to date in human history. Whereas Hegel saw the 19th century Prussian state as a manifestation of God’s will in history, I am assigning a comparable (but secular) place of importance to the East Asian economic miracles. The word “miracle” truly does apply.

eg. China growth causing many millions of people to rise out of poverty, huge huge increase in well-being

loc 552-559 I call the second principle the Modified Principle of Growth. The Modified Principle of Growth: “We should push for sustainable economic growth, but not at the expense of inviolable human rights.” After all, I am working with a pluralistic rather than a narrowly utilitarian approach. I will return to the status and nature of such rights later, but for now think of such rights as binding and absolute. That means “just don’t violate the rights.” If we were willing to trade off these rights against a bundle of other plural values, at some sufficiently long time horizon the benefits from higher economic growth would trump the rights in importance and in essence the rights would cease to be relevant. In other words, the presence of Crusonia plants means that rights – if we are going to believe in them at all– have to be pretty tough and pretty close to absolute in importance if they are surviving as relevant to our comparisons.

again, utilitarianism should take in account. People would not sacrifice rights for future growth

loc 562-564 As I see it, virtually everyone believes in rights of some kind or another, and thinking in terms of Crusonia plants and aggregation problems helps us identify how those rights fit into moral theory, namely they have to be pretty strong and nearly absolute.

loc 552-559 I call the second principle the Modified Principle of Growth. The Modified Principle of Growth: “We should push for sustainable economic growth, but not at the expense of inviolable human rights.” After all, I am working with a pluralistic rather than a narrowly utilitarian approach. I will return to the status and nature of such rights later, but for now think of such rights as binding and absolute. That means “just don’t violate the rights.” If we were willing to trade off these rights against a bundle of other plural values, at some sufficiently long time horizon the benefits from higher economic growth would trump the rights in importance and in essence the rights would cease to be relevant. In other words, the presence of Crusonia plants means that rights – if we are going to believe in them at all– have to be pretty tough and pretty close to absolute in importance if they are surviving as relevant to our comparisons.

loc 592-596 A single bad tax may not stifle economic growth, but a large number of bad taxes will. Numerous legal “exceptions” may seem harmless enough, but only if we fail to consider the more general consequences of those exceptions; for instance arguments for the rule of law often depend on expectation and incentive effects. In many of these cases we judge the apparently indifferent individual act in terms of the broader pattern of behavior to which it belongs, and so we can imagine a moral imperative to try to bring about the larger set of grouped actions.28

loc 618-622 At the end of these arguments, we are led to a surprising conclusion. If the time horizon is sufficiently long, the only non-growth-related values that will bind practical decisions are the absolute side constraints, or the inviolable human rights. In other words, ethics will involve the dual ideas of prosperity and liberty at its center. I’ll be returning to some arguments for inviolable human rights later, but in the meantime we have a relatively straightforward, exclusive (“worship no other gods”), and also practicable formula of “Growth and Human Rights.”

loc 624-625 29 An interesting piece on some related issues is Väyrynen (2006). Chapter four: Is time a moral illusion?

loc 650-653 Very often the choice between the present and the future takes place at the social level. Many social policies influence whether benefits and costs come sooner or later and if we are to make a choice we need to decide how impatient we are going to be. I worry about the logical implications of impatience, if we were to apply such impatience to a longer time horizon.

futarchy could improve this

loc 667-669 At the social level, if we are wondering how hard to fight climate change, or how much to invest in preserving biodiversity, the correct decision depends on the discount rate. If we dismiss the importance of the distant future, action will not seem imperative, but if we pay heed to the distant future we will see these as major issues of concern.

loc 674-676 Political time horizons tend to be very short, often extending no further than the next election or the next media cycle. Voters are keen to receive more government spending now and to postpone the required taxes to the more distant future. Few governments do everything they can to promote economic growth for the more distant future.

futarchy

loc 696-698 An example from the table shows what is at stake. Let’s say that the event under consideration is a human death or some greater number of human deaths. If we discount the future by five percent, a given death today is worth about 39 billion deaths five hundred years from now.

loc 722-728 Einstein’s theory of relativity suggests there is no fact of the matter as to what time it is. Any measurement of time (when is “now”?) is relative to the perspective of an observer, and to the velocity of that observer, relative to the speed of light. In other words, if you are traveling very fast, you are moving into the future at an especially rapid rate. Yet it seems odd, to say the least, to discount the well-being of people as their velocity increases. Should we pay less attention to the safety of our spacecraft, and thus the welfare of our astronauts, the faster those vehicles go? If for instance we sent off a spacecraft at near the velocity of light, the astronauts would return to earth, hardly aged, many millions of years hence. Should we– because of positive discounting – not give them enough fuel to make a safe landing? And if you decline to condemn these brave astronauts to death, how are they different from other “residents” in the distant future?

lovely

loc 736-742 That said, discounting for risk is justified in a way that discounting for the pure passage of time is not justified. If a future benefit is uncertain, we should discount that benefit accordingly because it may not arrive. But such a practice does not dent a deep concern for the distant future. It is precisely because we discount for risk that we seek to protect our future against great tragedies, thereby making that future less risky. For instance if we boost the long-term sustainable growth rate, we are making the future less risky. Rather than ignoring risk, a futureoriented perspective is taking risk into account and trying to lower long-term risk. The factor of risk will tell you to spend your money now, if otherwise someone might steal it. But it won’t push us away from caring a lot about long-term sustainable growth.

loc 767-772 To be sure, as I have argued at length, this is a conclusion suggested by reason and not running against reason. But in the real world of actual human motivations, the application of abstract reason across such long time horizons is both rare and unconducive to getting people emotionally motivated to do the right thing. The actual attitudes required to induce an acceptance of such long time horizons are, in psychological terms, much closer to a kind of faith. We cannot see these very distant expected gains, but nonetheless we must believe in them and hold those beliefs close and dear to our hearts. In this sense we should strongly reject the modern secular tendency to claim that a good politics can or should be devoid of faith.

interesting!

loc 865-868 I’ll instead focus on the broader conceptual question of comparing growth to redistribution – public or private sector – as ways of helping the poor. When framed in this manner, we’ll see there are some strong and strict limits on our obligations to redistribute wealth, even if we accept a full utilitarian framework. In other words, I’ll end up siding with common-sense morality, which allows us (mostly) to pursue individual life goals.

loc 868-873 It can be argued very plausibly and I think correctly that we are obliged to help the poor more than we are doing now. But the correct approach to our cosmopolitan obligations does not lead to personal enslavement or massive redistribution of our personal wealth. Most of us should work hard, be creative, be loyal to our civilization, build healthy institutions, save for the future, contribute to an atmosphere of social trust, be critical when necessary, and love our families. Our strongest obligation is to contribute to sustainable economic growth and to support the general spread of civilization, rather than to engage in massive charitable redistribution in the narrower sense. In the longer run, greater economic growth, and a more stable civilization, will help the poor most of all.

loc 873-877 we should redistribute only up to the point which maximizes the rate of sustainable economic growth. This may mean more redistribution than we currently undertake, and sometimes redistribution of a different kind, namely growth-enhancing redistribution. (By no means do allof today’s government programs actually redistribute to the poor, much less boost economic growth.) It will not, however, suggest that a utilitarian or consequentialist approach is obliged to redistribute most of national income to the very poor. Nor are productive individuals typically morally required to spend most of their years serving the very poor.

loc 887-890 Beyond some point a sufficiently generous welfare state limits the rate of growth. It withdraws some individuals from the labor force, weakens productive incentives, necessitates higher tax rates, and is often combined with static, insider-oriented labor market regulations. Furthermore if everyone approaches government looking for grants of money and resources, basic mechanisms of governance can break down, leading to rent-seeking, corruption and fiscal bloat.

loc 895-898 More subtly, high levels of welfare make it harder for wealthy countries to afford large numbers of poor immigrants from around the world. Many immigrants increase government revenue in the short run, but many, especially the poorer ones, do not. They require resettlement assistance, emergency medical care, extra police and public works expenditures, or they otherwise tax the resources of the state. The more we spend on domestic welfare, the less we can spend on absorbing immigrants. Yet immigration is by far the most effective anti-poverty program that has been discovered. So even if a specified set of welfare expenditures brings some growth benefits, alternative investments may do more for human welfare.

loc 959-966 The current political opinions of social scientists do not always match up to the conclusions which I am suggesting. My informal polling over the years suggests that many advocates of greater state spending– especially non-economists – like the idea of a very low discount rate. Many of these individuals would like our government to devote more resources to education, to infrastructure, and to improving the environment, all positions associated with the political left overall, at least in the context of the United States. They see a lower discount rate as providing support for all of these policies. Yet they also tend to favor redistribution, even when such policies conflict with economic growth. In this sense the political left does not have a consistent attitude about the importance of the future. Many thinkers on the right suffer from the opposite inconsistency. They often favor market-based discount rates, which are relatively high, but when the topic is redistribution they worry much more about the longer-term consequences.45

loc 978-982 To cite a simple example, Martin Luther King brought much good to the world, with respect to both justice and long-term economic growth. It is likely King did the right thing, rather than playing golf all day for fun, even though he lost his life in doing so. The same can be said for Gandhi. Nonetheless such obligations to sacrifice cannot be universal or near-universal. If we all went around sacrificing to an extreme degree, there would be no civilization left to advance. As we saw before, we should reject collective sacrificial recommendations that will lower the rate of sustainable economic growth.

loc 1006-1011 In any case, individuals are more likely to sacrifice too little than too much, and too few individuals are willing to sacrifice much at all. So we can look to a specific recommendation of another kind, even if it cannot always be calculated which individual should perform a given sacrifice. We should strengthen our consciences, and strengthen social norms, to increase the probability that the appropriate individuals would be willing to make a needed sacrifice, if it turned out to be best, all things considered, that they be the ones who should step forward. We ought to honor and reward such sacrifices more, to increase their likelihood, and again this is not so far from common-sense morality.

loc 1017-1022 utilitarianism may support the transfer of resources from the poor to the rich. A talented entrepreneur, for instance, can probably earn a higher rate of return on invested resources than can a disabled great-grandmother. Indeed it is a common complaint in the literature on inequality that “the rich get richer,” while the “poor get poorer,” or at least more or less stay put. If this portrait is to be believed, it implies that the rich earn higher returns on their accumulated wealth, as indeed has been stressed by the French economist Thomas Piketty. If there is a trickle-down effect from the wealth of the wealthy, combined with a zero rate of discount, it is easy to generate scenarios where utilitarianism recommends redistribution to the wealthy.

loc 1223-1227 The epistemic critique suggests consequentialism cannot be a useful guide to action because we hardly know anything about long-run consequences. While it is true we can calculate expected value, such a calculation is typically based on a very limited range of information about present consequences or consequences in the near future. Like many philosophers, I wonder if we have the correct moral theory in the first place, if we cannot know ninety percent, or perhaps 99.9 percent, of what is to count toward a good outcome.

loc 1340-1349 We also find The Principle of Roughness in some of our judgments of goodness. We might, for instance, be choosing between a new health care program, and a new poverty reduction program, each with significant and complex benefits for different groups of people. We might judge that the two policies are roughly equal in value. We might then discover that one of the policies was slightly better than we previously had thought, perhaps because it cost a thousand dollars less than expected, due to an initial calculation error. Yet we would not then have to declare that the now-cheaper policy suddenly is clearly better than the other policy. It is still likely, by construction of the example, that the two policies are roughly equal in value. Of course at some cost differential, this judgment of rough equality no longer will hold. We might say the programs are roughly equal in value if one turns out to be a dollar cheaper, but not if one turns out to be $100 billion cheaper. I would not defend The Principle of Roughness when we have very exact information and measurements and a well-defined, single dimensional standard of what counts as good. But how often is that the case? Our judgments, as we find them in the real world, very often seem to be rough, if only for practical reasons such as lack of good data and the incomplete nature of moral reasoning.

loc 1373-1380 Given the radical uncertainty of the more distant future, we do not usually have a good idea how to achieve our preferred goals over longer time horizons. Our attachment to particular means therefore should be highly tentative, highly uncertain, and radically contingent. Our specific policy recommendations, though we believe them to be the best available, will stand only a slight chance of being correct. They ought to stand the highest chance of being correct, of all available views, but this chance will not be very high in absolute terms. We should think of the details of our political views as analogous to betting on a slightly crooked roulette wheel, designed to land on the number seven more than a proportionate amount of the time. We should bet on the slightly favored outcome, namely the number seven, and by doing so we improve our prospects. But most of the time we are likely to predict the wrong number, as we will be betting on seven and some other number will come up.