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

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

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 VšŤ▓yrynen
(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

> 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

> 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

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.