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Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals

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Growth is good. Through history, economic growth, in particular, has alleviated human misery, improved human happiness and opportunity, and lengthened human lives. Wealthier societies are more stable, offer better living standards, produce better medicines, and ensure greater autonomy, greater fulfillment, and more sources of fun. If we want to continue on our trends of growth, and the overwhelmingly positive outcomes for societies that come with it, every individual must become more concerned with the welfare of those around us and in the world at large and most of all our descendants in the future. So, how do we proceed?

Tyler Cowen, in a culmination of 20 years of thinking and research, provides a roadmap for moving forward. In this new book, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, Cowen argues that our reason and common sense can help free us of the faulty ideas that hold us back as people and as a society. Stubborn Attachments, at its heart, makes the contemporary moral case for economic growth and delivers a great dose of inspiration and optimism about our future possibilities.

As a means of practicing the altruism that Stubborn Attachments argues for, Tyler Cowen is donating all earnings from this book to a man he met in Ethiopia earlier this year with aspirations to open his own travel business.

127 pages, Kindle Edition

Published October 16, 2018

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About the author

Tyler Cowen

87 books716 followers
Tyler Cowen (born January 21, 1962) occupies the Holbert C. Harris Chair of economics as a professor at George Mason University and is co-author, with Alex Tabarrok, of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution. He currently writes the "Economic Scene" column for the New York Times and writes for such magazines as The New Republic and The Wilson Quarterly.

Cowen's primary research interest is the economics of culture. He has written books on fame (What Price Fame?), art (In Praise of Commercial Culture), and cultural trade (Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World's Cultures). In Markets and Cultural Voices, he relays how globalization is changing the world of three Mexican amate painters. Cowen argues that free markets change culture for the better, allowing them to evolve into something more people want. Other books include Public Goods and Market Failures, The Theory of Market Failure, Explorations in the New Monetary Economics, Risk and Business Cycles, Economic Welfare, and New Theories of Market Failure.

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Profile Image for Charles Haywood.
497 reviews726 followers
December 7, 2018
Finally, the age of sophisters and calculators has fully arrived, and its herald is Tyler Cowen. He, economist and blogger, is here to tell us the purpose of life. It is to die with the most toys. Well, that, plus maximum freedom to do whatever we want with our toys while we are still alive. "Stubborn Attachments" is just about the sort of thing you’d expect from a left-libertarian philosopher, namely a clever and partially accurate construct that is internally coherent, but floats free of human reality and ignores any human value other than that found in the box labeled “Approved By John Stuart Mill.”

Still, while I think much of this book is clueless, it’s brief, to the point, and actually fairly interesting. In particular, time is a critical concept in Cowen’s thought, and his thoughts related to this can be stimulating. And in this book Cowen does not show the childlike faith in technology that he earlier showed in "Average Is Over," although maybe that’s just because he subsumes technology within the general category of his main goal, wealth increase. The primary benefit to me of this book, however, was that it helped me advance my own thoughts on a related question—can a rich society stay a virtuous society?

But before we get there, let’s examine what Cowen has to say. His primary point is to outline his path for maximizing our future value as a species. He is clear about what are the two goals that together constitute that value, such that its increase can be effectively measured. The first goal is material prosperity, meaning individual and collective wealth—not just goods and services, but also such things as leisure time and unspecified “environmental amenities” (by which he appears to mean an unspoiled natural world as some kind of special good, doubtless a form of virtue signaling). All these things together make up “wealth plus.” There is no need to get people to agree on the rank order of different goods; if wealth plus increases, necessarily on average more good things are available, allowing approved “plural values” to flourish. That is, if wealth increases, everyone can have the biggest piece of pie. All that matters is that wealth always increase, never faltering. Thus, the measure of whether any social process is desirable is whether it is “ongoing, self-sustaining, and [creates] rising value over time.”

This leads into the second goal. As can be deduced from Cowen’s focus on “plural values,” which implies the primacy of Enlightenment values of emancipation and liberation from unchosen bonds, that goal is maximized individual autonomy. Cowen also sometimes characterizes it simply as “liberty” or “freedom.” Maximum individual autonomy tends to follow from wealth; the author informs us that “Wealthier societies . . . offer greater personal autonomy, greater fulfilment, and more sources of fun.” But atomized autonomy is, to be clear, an independent, standalone goal. If everyone had to be poor for some reason, autonomic individualism would still be the highest good for Cowen.

In sum, the ground of Cowen’s book is that nothing matters other than wealth and having fun as each person defines it for himself, and nothing can be permitted to get in the way of achieving both, and then increasing their magnitude and scope. However, there is one critical limit. Namely, there exists some set of unspecified “human rights,” which are “absolutely inviolable” and can never be traded for, or eroded in favor of, more wealth and fun. These are trump cards hiding in the wings; they are never actually played in this book, but they appear to be meant as a way to prevent Cowen’s stated goals from adversely affecting other political values he holds dear, presumably roughly those of the left-wing elite that today dictates cultural thought in America. Thus, for example, were someone to have the temerity to point out that allowing unrestricted abortion erodes future wealth because a society with no children has no wealth, Cowen would doubtless slap the “abortion rights” card on the table to silence any discussion or inconvenient wrongthought.

Other sections of this book address mostly technical philosophical matters related to this core structure, such as different theories of consequentialism. Cowen, who is very well read in modern literature relating to ethics and morality, seems keenly aware of the claim that “right” and “wrong” are incoherent concepts when unmoored from some set of transcendental requirements, which is the inevitable end of endorsing consequentialism (of which utilitarianism is the best-known type). He dodges this problem by stating up front that “I will not consider meta-ethics, the study of the underlying nature of ethical judgments. Instead, I will simply assume that right and wrong are concepts which make fundamental sense.” Following this precept, Cowen talks throughout the book about “common sense morality,” which is meant to form a bridge over various thought experiments that cripple modern meta-ethics, such as arguing over when it is morally acceptable to murder a child to achieve some benefit.

This approach is a good one, for otherwise Cowen’s book would degenerate into something of no applicability to real life and of no interest to mainstream readers. I do not quarrel with Cowen’s idea of common sense morality—except for the name he gives it. A more accurate, or the only accurate, name is “Christian morality”—that is, the morality that has underlain the thought of the West for two thousand years. Cowen either doesn’t realize that’s what he is talking about, or prefers to ignore it. For any Western society prior to Christianity, other than the Jews, any aspect of Cowen’s “common sense morality” would be laughed at as weak and stupid. For example, Cowen talks over and over about “our obligation to help the poor.” Where does this obligation come from? The ether, apparently. In the same way, I suspect that most of what Cowen considers unspecified “absolute human rights” are merely Christian beliefs dressed in Enlightenment clothes (as are all other claims of human rights). And thus, he also ignores that such morality is only “common sense” as long as Christianity, or its echoes, are the default moral position of the majority of the people in a culture. In the not very distant future, this will no longer be true in the West, and it already is no longer true for many culturally dominant segments in most countries. At which point, the resonance value of Cowen’s common sense morality will decline to zero, and anybody reading him will wonder what he was smoking, as the vicious morality of pagan Rome reasserts itself.

Fortunately, this decline and end of Christian morality is a problem that will fix itself, because our civilization isn’t going to regress to Roman morality. On its current path, it’s just going to disappear, or be subsumed, since the West doesn’t have children any more. As far as I can tell, Cowen has no children of his own, and the word “children” only appears once in this entire book, in passing, even though this is a book about the importance of making decisions to maximize the future happiness of mankind. That future mankind will apparently generate itself by a form of parthogenesis, fully formed and eager to participate in material plenty and limitless, costless, autonomy. No need to discuss sacrifice now so that they may exist, and no reason to mention that having the future on which this book focuses depends on a sharp increase in the number of children born in the West. Move along, now, or Cowen may play a human rights card to silence you!

Before we get to my musings, I have two objections to Cowen’s analysis, each of which is also a building block for my own thoughts. Cowen takes some time to accurately gloss the material improvements of modern life granted to us by the West, channeling Steven Pinker. His point is that we want to continue these improvements—life expectancy, food availability, reduced working hours, and so forth. (Neither Cowen nor Pinker would have much sympathy with James C. Scott’s claim that primitive man may be happier man.) Such improvements have benefited, typically with a time lag, all segments of our society, and these improvements have also benefited the entire world, to the extent the non-West has adopted what the West has created.

My threshold problem is that Cowen assumes without demonstration that more wealth is always better. “A given individual is likely better off living an extra five years, receiving anesthesia at the dentist, enjoying plentiful foodstuffs, having more years of education, and not losing any children to premature illness. Similarly, people one hundred years from now will be much better off if economic growth continues.” Why? The second sentence does not follow. What, precisely, are the blessings that will show they are “much better off”? Twice as much food? I don’t think so. Anesthesia and low infant mortality? Those things are already asymptotically approaching their maximum benefit. More education? Also already near its maximum, and often modern education is social capital destroying; more would not be better. That leaves us only with the possibility of more life, and while that’s a complicated discussion, it’s not at all clear that very extended lives would be good for society. In any case, there is zero evidence we are making any progress on that front (and, in fact, last week it was announced that yet again American life expectancy had dropped).

True, those not already enjoying plentiful food, etc., that is, those outside the West, may catch up in a hundred years, but that does not depend on us maximizing their opportunities, rather on them being willing to adopt the material blessings offered them by the West, which most of them have failed to do despite plenty of opportunity. The wealth of the West has had, and could have more, “spillover effects,” allowing non-Western cultures to improve their material circumstances. A few cultures have already done that—namely, as Cowen lists, “Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China.” Cowen thinks the economic success of these Asian territories is “the highest manifestation of the ethical good in human history to date.” This seems a bit odd, given Cowen’s demands for individual autonomy, something of far less importance in any of those places than in the West. But in any case, it does not show that more wealth is going to be vastly better for people already wealthy.

In fact, those already wealthy might be much worse off if wealth continues increasing. That leads into my second, core, objection, that Cowen places no possible significance on non-material values. Of what does human flourishing consist? Not of being able to buy more goods, or autonomy or “plural values,” though it is possible elements of those play some part. It consists of a broad recognition of the common good, in which each person achieves a type of happiness, eudaimonia, combined with, I think, lifting our gaze to the stars, figuratively or literally. Lifting our gaze reinforces the common good, for any society that flourishes cannot be stultified, but must have and execute on the common will to achieve. As David Gress wrote of the conquistadors, “Living under [God’s] judgment, men conceived life as an adventure, and their vivid imaginations conceived great tasks—sometimes bloody, cruel, and murderous—and impelled them to surmount great challenges. Hernán Cortes conquered Mexico for God, gold, and glory, and only a mundane imagination would distinguish these impulses, for they were one and the same.”

Flourishing thus consists of material adequacy accompanied by a joint search for transcendence and pursuit of that which is highest and best in man, spiritual and material. Instead, now that we are rich in material goods, and perhaps because we are rich, we seek more fun, we seek nothing transcendent, and we are able to buy five percent more cheap Chinese crap every year. I don’t think that’s human flourishing, whatever Cowen may say, yet all this is ignored by Cowen for a blinkered focus on quantifiable matters. True, the impulse to acquire paves the road to flourishing; material goods, gold or otherwise, are part of the spur to achievement. But the key is not to allow that to overwhelm virtue and the common good.

So let’s examine my own question, whether a rich society can stay a virtuous society? First, we have to define virtue. Now, I am probably the wrong person for this, not because I lack virtue (though perhaps that is also true) but because the philosophy of virtue is a topic to which I have given little thought. No time to get started like the present, and, after all, other, very smart, people have given it a lot of thought.

What Cowen offers he does not call virtue, but his goals compete as ends with virtue, and are, in fact, one conception of virtue. Those goals, unfettered autonomy, liberty, and freedom, are in effect the Enlightenment definition of virtue. The pursuit of such autonomy once seemed compatible with human progress, and even (incorrectly) has seemed to many like the ground of the modern world. But this new definition of virtue directly conflicts with the older conception of virtue, which has little to do with autonomy. As Patrick Deneen has noted, that older conception, derived from Aristotle and Aquinas, holds that man is by nature social and political, and thus “to the extent that humans are able to develop true and flourishing individuality, it is only by means of political society and its constitutive groups and associations. . . . [L]iberty is the cultivated ability to exercise self-governance, to limit ourselves in accordance with our nature and the natural world.” Virtue consists of exercising self-limitation and self-governance; lack of virtue is a form of slavery. Virtue, and liberty, therefore, is the opposite of “living as one likes,” and it is the key component of human flourishing as I define it above. Moreover, properly analyzed, Cowen’s “virtue” is the opposite of real virtue. I think Cowen knows that, too: despite the words “responsible individuals” being in his title, that concept appears a grand total of zero places in the book, suggesting Cowen realizes that what he has to offer is shallow.

A deeper examination of virtue would focus on the precise application of this framework. What actual actions must a man take, and from which must he refrain, in order to be virtuous? What other implications does this have? Many, certainly—the need for duty, and for treating reality as real, for treating tradition as valuable, if not actually determinative, and for seeing oneself as part of an integrated societal whole. And for each person in his different circumstances, different applications of the same choices. (Most, and maybe all, of what Cowen calls “common sense morality” is in fact merely applications of the traditional virtue framework, and completely alien to his own framework.) But I will leave that to another day. Certainly, my own political program, tentatively named Foundationalism, will strongly encourage applied virtue through proper definition and incentives. For now, enough to say that the core of applied virtue consists of limitations on personal autonomy, not increases in it.

Can a rich society, then, be virtuous? I doubt if any non-virtuous society can become rich; I mean whether it can then stay virtuous. No society is virtuous all the time; the question is whether, on average and over time, a society can exhibit mass virtue, especially among its ruling classes, who dictate the arc of a society. Past performance may not be a guarantee of future results, but a survey of history suggests wealth necessarily tends to erode virtue. Why? I can think of several reasons. First, the richer you are, the more temptations can be satisfied that run counter to virtue. The richer you are, human nature being what it is, self-limitation is less appealing, and living as one likes becomes ever more easy and pleasurable. Second, by keeping the wolf far from the door, wealth allows us to be stupid and weak, and, what is the same thing but more common today, to allow stupid ideologies to flourish. You can paper over a lot of unreality with money, especially when you can steal money from others who produce value to live your fantasy life. It doesn’t work out in the long run; ask the Carthaginians. But in the meantime, you can pretend. Note, too, that this means in the long run, wealth will, through stupidity, inevitably tend to evaporate. Third, wealth encourages the cancerous growth of the state, for several reasons, among them that rent seeking is an easier way to riches than producing value, which inevitably results in a reliance on government rather than self-limitation. Without going too deep into the details, we can say, at a minimum, that it’s very hard for a rich society to remain virtuous.

This raises the secondary question, what’s the precise relationship between wealth and human flourishing? I have little doubt that for a very poor society, more material wealth leads to more human flourishing. It’s hard to flourish if your children are starving. But that says nothing about whether more material wealth will always lead to more flourishing. Maybe it will lead to less. Maybe flourishing is on a graph, where the x-axis is wealth, and the y-axis flourishing, and the graph shows a normal distribution, with a maximum of flourishing not at either end of the x-axis. Maybe the equivalent to abject poverty on the left side of the x-axis is matched by decadence on the right side of the x-axis, and, past a certain amount of societal wealth, we no longer lift our gaze to the stars. Maybe, in fact, the richer we are, the less flourishing there is, until everything collapses entirely, beginning the cycle again.

Human history is like a cork bobbing on the ocean; sometimes up, sometimes down. Our goal is, or should be, to maximize the ups and keep the moving average getting higher, not try to achieve some utopia. If we can create a virtuous, flourishing society that lasts some hundreds of years, and then falls, or retrenches, but which allows those that follow to build upon it, we have done our duty. We will be the successors to Rome and Venice, and the progenitors, perhaps, of something better in the future, though to be sure without substantial rework our current civilization is imminently doomed. But as to Cowen’s book, it has no relevance whatsoever to this project of illuminating and laying the foundations of future ages; it is merely the vaguely clever musings of a man who thinks his philosophy has a future, but who cannot see that he is sitting on the end of a branch, sawing busily away on the tree side of his branch.
Profile Image for Ryan.
990 reviews
February 6, 2022
In Stubborn Attachments, Tyler Cowen ditches the coy playfulness of his other works and just outlines his priors. More people should take on, or should attempt, this difficult project.

Haidt argues we're not particularly rational: we have impulsive values and rationalize how they shape our decisions. Cowen's top priority is economic growth, but he feels he is rationally and objectively right. As much as he loves growth, he also values rights (individual liberty) and the sustainability of that growth, which is a sort of ethics that he describes as "pluralistic." Let's tease out what that adds up to.

Progress on everything that we care about, says Cowen, comes from economic growth, which here often means global GDP. Human rights and antibiotics arrive in a time of relative (to the past) global prosperity and this is not a coincidence. Economic growth fuels innovations that make life objectively better (e.g. reducing infant mortality), and for a very long time. Psychologists are wrong, btw, on hedonistic adaptation (that increased wealth offers diminishing returns on happiness) and people should try to make more money and then a little more again. People not only under appreciate the importance of economic growth but further struggle to conceive of just how much more productive humanity is now relative to a hundred years ago. Furthermore, argues Cowen, economic growth does trickle down--and in a variety of ways. He might argue, for example, that China's current economic growth on the back of manufacturing has trickled down to them from the Industrial Revolution in Europe. In this sense, their growth has come from intellectual low-hanging fruit. So we should always be pushing at innovation somewhere--why not in the here and now?

Cowen considers himself a two thirds utilitarian, or a pluralist, so he places limits (individual rights and sustainability) on economic growth. It's not easy to see how much these limits matter beyond setting up a sort of shame/ praise framework that holds the elimination of child labour, or whatever other injustice, as admirable but not so obligatory. On income inequality, he suggests that the rich enjoy better returns on their investment and implies that at a certain level it would be ethical to redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich in order to accelerate growth. (There is no worry about inherited advantage threatening the integrity of status or fairness.) On international inequality, he considers that foreign aid might well be kept low simply so that the globe's economic engines can more easily attract the best talent from both at home and abroad. Because Cowen values compounding interest, he is also willing to consider the needs of people in the future, even the distant future, at the expense of people in the present--our growth today will help them so much down the line. He tosses "sustainable" around in the book, but this does not lead him to conclude that we should very seriously combat climate change, nor does he engage with any green thought (excepting an endnote on animal rights).

Cowen wants sustainable growth, which here probably refers to sustainable economic policies, but sustainability is also an ecological concept. If countries have to move cities from coastlines, in the long run that might be OK for Cowen, so long as net economic growth continues. I note that this move would almost certainly ruin the prosperity of entire generations of people, and one reason Cowen hedges his positions so often might be that he does not want to tell generation 5 that their suffering will lead to prosperity for generation 9. It seems to me that the cheapest time to fix climate change has been either now or ten years ago for most of my life, and it's not as though the cod in the Grand Banks have returned once we harvested wealth from them. But there is no reason for any of this to matter under Cowen's system.

Stubborn Attachments offers an admirable model of clearly admitting to one's priors (i.e. "Economic Growth!") in great detail. I also found many of its arguments bold and intriguing. Then again, Cowen's pluralistic system is supposed to allow for rational, objective values, rather than a method of rationalizing one's values. Cowen nearly always rationalizes economic growth at the expense of his pluralistic system, which eventually feels more like plausible deniability. One of the first claims in the book holds that "we have lost our way in a fundamental manner" and should return to growth principles. And yet, how differently would North Americans be thinking if they found ways to funnel profits to the rich, to rationalize the suffering of impoverished communities, to burn fossil fuels at every opportunity, or to look at ecological systems as capricious?

*A final note. Many of the GR reviews came to this book from interviews Cowen did with other podcasters. The best interview with him, imho, is with the 80000 Hours podcast by Rob Wiblin--it's very detailed and the host did his homework. If Cowen comes across as a bit "mad scientist" in my summary of his book, perhaps give the pod a go.

Update 2022: Noah Smith recently put together a New Industrialist Roundup, which suggests that Cowen's views have become more popular amongst liberals.
Profile Image for Ian Simon.
15 reviews1 follower
June 10, 2017
All authors should write a philosophical treatise like this to give the rest of their work a proper foundation. Since they don't, I'm left with just this one and a few others. And Tyler Cowen's is more densely packed with insight than perhaps any other document I've read, addressing questions like:

-How should you weight the well-being of future people compared to present ones?

-How should you wander through the epistemic fog that makes it exceedingly difficult to know the effects of your actions?

-Does happiness plateau at a certain level of wealth (or "wealth-plus")?

Reading this essay is a really good use of 2 hours.
Profile Image for Miha Rekar.
119 reviews16 followers
February 11, 2022
An economist read a couple of philosophy books, deemed himself enlightened, and wrote this book. Throughout the book, he is gerrymandering philosophies, research papers, and statistics to support his world views and truisms. Such a pile of bullshit supporting his claim that growth is good for growth's sake, just because it has been good in the previous centuries. He is hand-waving about Wealth+, which is supposedly an improved GDP metric, taking well-being and the environment into account, but never really defining it clearly.

What he's trying to say the entire book is that we should more or less support and continue the current game of musical chairs. It was good for "the rich," and because of that, it'll be good for the poor as well when it trickles down in the "long run." There are so many instances of ridiculous thinking like that, completely dismissing life experiences of anyone but the upper classes.

I'm so angry right now, but I was furious reading this stupid book disagreeing with basically every single sentence. Do NOT recommend.
Profile Image for Javier Lorenzana.
101 reviews28 followers
January 6, 2021
A foundation for Cowen's philosophy: one that places utmost value on sustained economic growth for a utopia where individualism, autonomy, and happiness reign.

Cowen's economic, political, and ethical stances are consistent and well-argued. His main point is that sustained economic growth (which also includes leisure and environmental amenities), constrained by a respect for basic human rights, should always be the standard to which we judge our actions. I'd like to see more practical examples though as sometimes it feels as he's locked up in his ivory tower.

Regardless, I enjoyed reading his views on common-sense morality, pluralism, time preferences, and redistribution. Very dense, concise, and clear if not a little dry.

Also, I have the hard copy and the cover is amazing.
Profile Image for Todd Martin.
Author 4 books74 followers
June 17, 2019
I heard economist Tyler Cowen on a podcast not so long ago (Sean Carrol’s Mindscape to be exact) and he struck me as a smart guy with somewhat unconventional ideas, so I decided to read his book.

In Stubborn Attachments Cowen proposes a philosophical/moral system based on the idea of long term sustainable growth. I know what you’re thinking … “Oh great, another emotionally stunted Ayn Rand fan-boy bleating Gordon Gecko’s ‘greed is good’ mantra”. But no, Cowen’s arguments are considerably more sophisticated … and also, considerably less evil. It’s clear he’s thought and read quite a bit about the topic and I think he has some unique ideas (not that I agree with them all).

Cowen proposes a moral system roughly based on a three part foundation:
1. We should maximize the rate of sustainable growth:
Cowen argues that the residents of richer countries are happier and healthier than those of poorer countries. Maximizing sustainable growth should therefore be central to our moral concerns since it maximizes happiness and health.

2. Human rights should be inviolable:
A tried and true method of increasing growth is to enslave populations. But Cowen rules this out by making human rights central to his moral system.

3. We should hold a deep concern for the distant future:
This is the most interesting one to me. Short term gains should NOT be pursued if they hamper long term growth or cause harm to future generations. This has obvious implications for our approach to the environment, but would affect many other aspects of life such as education, politics and economics.

As an example of how this system might be used in practice, Cowen applies it to the example of ‘wealth redistribution’ (a loaded term which is more generally referred to as ‘governmental support for social programs’). Under Cowen’s system we should redistribute wealth only up to the point that it maximizes the rate of sustainable economic growth. Since a healthy, educated workforce is needed to ensure growth, wealth should be redistributed to support education and healthcare, particularly for the young. Since the elderly contribute little to economic gains we shouldn’t redistribute much wealth to old people. What about redistributing money from poor people to rich people? Cowen says ‘yes’ we should, if it can be demonstrated that it increases the rate of economic return.

I’m not going to offer much of a critique, but here are a few thoughts.
Cowen’s system is built upon the foundation that more money = more happiness. Many studies have shown that happiness levels increase with income up to about $75,000 in annual salary. After that, there tends to be little correlation between income and happiness. Cowen is familiar with this argument and attempts to address it, but I didn’t find the evidence he musters particularly compelling.

With regards to his example of upwards redistribution of wealth leading to sustainable economic growth, I think that is probably true in some circumstances. What I will point out though, is that high rates of income inequality also lead to a rise in authoritarian populism. Authoritarian wannabe dictators loot the treasury, undermine the rule of law and create social and political instability. None of these things is conducive to sustainable growth.

Cowen appears to believe trickle-down economics is effective, i.e. that tax breaks and benefits for corporations and the wealthy will trickle down to the poor over time. I’m not sure you’ll find very many reputable economists who support this conclusion. It’s an experiment that’s been tried again and again in the U.S. with the same result. Tax breaks and benefits for corporations and the wealthy have resulted in the redistribution of wealth from the lower and middle classes to the very rich.

On the positive side, I think a moral system that includes ‘a deep concern for the distant future’ would make the world a better place, particularly with respect to the environment. Of course it’s difficult to predict the long term consequences of any particular action (a butterfly flapping its wings affecting the path of a tornado several weeks later and all that). But, I think that holding the future dear when making important decisions would simply result in better decisions. Over time the effects of these better decisions would lead to a better future than would have otherwise occurred.
Profile Image for Ryan.
1,155 reviews150 followers
June 26, 2022
Interesting (and short) philosophical book/long essay which makes a few good arguments and raises some interesting questions. Essentially, it makes the argument for humanity benefitting from economic and developmental progress, even if those gains aren't always uniformly distributed in time. Raises the question of how much to discount future gains vs. present (and a good way to evaluate -- if there's a period where the gains from a choice produce long permanently higher status). Makes the case for "wealth plus" as a method of evaluating gains, vs. simple GDP or wealth.

Economist's take on some philosophical problems; I am generally on the side of more-practical vs. more-theoretical, so I'll take the economist in this arena, and the technologist in the economic arena.
101 reviews3 followers
February 2, 2021
A concise, lucid summary of Cowen's general philosophical outlook. The most interesting/novel part is probably his belief that there should be little or no "time discounting" applied in consequentialist moral reasoning - that future people are just as important as those in the present, which implies an emphasis on investment, economic growth, environmental preservation, and resilience to rare but devastating risks. This was all pretty interesting, coherent, and well argued. I'm not sure I'm completely persuaded by his case against most forms of economic redistribution, but that gets into the weeds.

Speaking of weeds, there is one point where I thought Cowen's reasoning was downright wrong - he reached approximately the right conclusion, but by what seemed to me pretty illogical means. Before diving in I would like to reiterate that in spite of all that follows, this is a marvelous book and I agree with a lot of it, and what I don't immediately agree with I found thought-provoking.

Okay, so:

[extreme pedantry]

One common criticism of consequentialist moral reasoning that Cowen addresses is the issue of unintended consequences. As he puts it:

"You would probably agree that it's a good idea to teach teenage drivers not to plough through the yellow light. After all, about forty thousand people die in auto accidents each year in the United States alone. But today, when a driver stops at a yellow light rather than accelerating, he likely affects the length of other people's commutes and thus changes the timing of millions of future conceptions. Subsequent genetic identities will change as well. Come the next generation, these different identities lead to different marriage patterns and thus an entirely new set of individuals in the future. So how can we really tell if our yellow-light rule is a good one? Aren't we operating in the dark? If you think about these conundrums for long enough, you'll start to wonder how we can ever judge good consequences at all."

Now, Tyler Cowen's response to this problem, which he articulates in various places in the rest of that chapter, is as follows: he suggests that, since the uncertainty associated with the long-term consequences of our actions is so large, we can only really be sure that the consequences of our policy choices are correct when those consequences are clear and large in magnitude (like saving millions of people from a terrorist attack, or goosing yearly GDP growth by a little). If the differences are small, they're probably swamped by sperm-jostling, so we should just do whatever - abide by deontological maxims and generally not worry about it.

But this is completely wrong! Our knowledge of what child will ultimately result from various traffic delays is not just approximately zero, it's *literally* zero; it is EXACTLY as likely (from our epistemic perspective) that zipping through the yellow light will take the future child from Gandhi to Hitler as vice versa. That means that these consequences *very precisely cancel out to net zero*.

To come at it from another angle: Another example Cowen uses to illustrate this point is due to the philosopher James Lenman, who posits a scenario in which Allied commanders in World War 2 have to decide between two French beaches from which to launch an invasion. The stakes of this decision are astronomical, and yet there seems to be no meaningful strategic difference between the two; they are making this decision blind. However, it *is* known that if they land at the first beach, they will run over a dog's leg, breaking it.

Cowen starts from the assumption that it is obviously absurd to take the dog into account, and then tries to justify that intuition. As he puts it: "Although most plausible moral theories attach some weight to the suffering of animals, it seems that the fate of the dog's leg is not a strong reason to favor the southern beach over the northern beach, and maybe it isn't a reason at all. The matter of the dog's leg and the associated pain just seems tiny compared to what is at stake: the outcome of World War II. And so, even ex ante, we should not elevate the matter of the dog's leg into any kind of deciding position, according to Lenman, because the dog's leg will prove negligible in the final analysis." Cowen says he accepts some version of Lenman's point. But Lennman's point is completely and utterly wrong!

If our state of information about the two beaches is ACTUALLY identical, the dog really SHOULD be the deciding factor! Lenman is tricking us by relying on intuitions based on factors he has assumed away: it seems wrong to decide on the basis of the dog because it seems to us like the generals must have SOME idea of which beach is more strategically advantageous; and that notion of strategic advantage, however hazy and uncertain, almost certainly would outweigh in its expected importance the matter of the dog. In fact, in his problem statement, Cowen only say there is no "strong" military reason to prefer one beach to the other. That leaves plenty of space for weak military reasons, and the generals should be deciding based on those. So this thought experiment tells us plenty about how much we value dogs vs. US Marines, but it tells us nothing about consequentialism per se.

The butterfly effect stuff is so *literally* incalculable that we do in fact just have to rely on the calculable impacts, with all the rest netted out to zero on account of our ignorance. That's reasoning under uncertainty! Now, if (like Cowen) the conclusion you draw from this sophistic attack on consequentialism is that we should exercise epistemic humility, and respect human rights in all remotely realistic circumstances - well, I can only agree with your conclusions. And I think that most real-life situations are well-served by the assumption that your decision should be based on close scrutiny of the information you do have about their largest consequences, not by obsessing about much smaller but easier to measure outcomes - but that means that you should actually examine those larger consequences, and not wave them away by lumping them in with silly concerns about jostling someone's testicles. And if it's all the same anyway... save the dog's leg!

[/extreme pedantry]
Profile Image for Brahm.
468 reviews55 followers
November 29, 2022
Purchased with a handful of other beautiful Stripe Press books because I read their edition of Where Is My Flying Car? and loved it.

Who would have thought it possible for a book to not live up to the quality of its cover and binding!?

Cowen's thesis, crudely distilled, is economic growth is morally good for current and future peoples' flourishing and happiness. I think this book mostly fell flat because for one, I broadly agree with the thesis, and two, I've read more interesting and/or provocative works on the same topics lately.

(J. Storrs Hall of the aforementioned flying cars book has the best and most concise supporting argument for growth = good: growth enables cooperation and non-zero-sum interactions. In a no-growth society, you can only improve your position by taking from someone else)

Morality: The Righteous Mind re-read
Flourishing and happiness via growth: How the World Really Works, Fossil Future, even The End of the World Is Just the Beginning covered it.
Future people: What We Owe the Future (Cowen's argument is mercifully shorter than MacAskill's)

At least it will look good on my bookshelf?
Profile Image for Aloke.
198 reviews52 followers
January 12, 2019
I look forward to seeing this as a “The Good Place” episode one day!

Short and mostly clearly written although readers of Cowen’s blog will probably know to expect that not everything is spelled out for the reader. Definitely full of interesting ideas and even if you are not convinced it still makes you look at the world differently.
Profile Image for Aaron Gertler.
194 reviews70 followers
February 5, 2019
(Note: I read this when it was still available on Medium for free, so my quotes may be worded differently from those you'll find in the published work.)

This has many, many reviews from intellectual types already (there's even an arch-conservative review from one of the most erudite citizens of Goodreads). My points here won't be original, but they are what stuck with me most, more than a year after I first read the online-essay version of the book.

Stubborn Attachments is unusual in that it thinks about what the world may look like hundreds of years in the future, without much reference to modern technology. This lets Cowen avoid the problems of many past prognosticators (picking the wrong technological horse to back and looking silly in two decades). Instead, he picks a very old technology, with a better track record: money.

"Do not take the existence of wealth for granted."

Cowen's summary of how wealth really does seem to make life better is worth the price of admission, though I think his In Praise of Commercial Culture also did this well, with more detail. You may find it hard, after reading, not to carefully track world GDP (or whatever other metric you think best captures the notion of "people having access to more of the things they want").

Another strong point of Stubborn Attachments: It is a serious attempt to respond to Yuval Harari's concern that progress may not have made us any happier than we were a thousand years ago, or ten thousand. (On that topic, also read Harari's Sapiens, Ache Life History, and How to Be Happy.) Since I think Harari's is one of the most important concerns we can have as a species, I'm pleased by Cowen's ambition.

This book makes lots of gigantic claims very quickly, and since Cowen would need thousands of pages to mount an adequate defense of the full claim-cluster, I suspect he deliberately went the other way, leaving others to argue in his wake. But these are arguments worth having, and his latest book is an excellent conversation-starter. In case you still don't plan to read it, I'll leave you with some of his other conclusions:

a. Policy should be more forward-looking and more concerned about the more distant future.
b. Governments should place a much higher priority on investment than is currently the case, whether that concerns the private sector or the public sector. Relative to what we should be doing, we are currently living in an investment drought.
c. Policy should be more concerned with economic growth, properly specified, and policy discussion should pay less heed to other values. And yes, your favorite value gets downgraded too. No exceptions, except of course for the semi-absolute human rights.
d. We should be more concerned with the fragility of our civilization.
e. The possibility of historical pessimism stands as a challenge to this entire approach, because in that case the future is dim no matter what and there may not be a more distant future to resolve the aggregation dilemmas involved in making decisions which affect so many diverse human beings.
f. At the margin we should be more charitable but we are not obliged to give away all of our wealth. We do have obligations to work hard, save, invest, and fulfill our human potential, and we should take these obligations very seriously.
g. We can embrace much of common sense morality, while knowing it is not inconsistent with a deeper ethical theory. Common sense morality also can be reconciled with many of the normative recommendations which fall out of a more impersonal and consequentialist framework.
i. When it comes to most “small” policies, affecting the present and the near-present only, we should be agnostic because we cannot overcome aggregation problems to render a defensible judgment. The main exceptions here are the small number of policies which benefit virtually everybody.
68 reviews1 follower
March 16, 2019
I came across this book after I heard Tyler Cowen’s interview with Amit Varma on The Seen & The Unseen podcast. It was my first book on moral philosophy and it is a good place to start if you’re a newbie like me in this genre.

Even though the book is small in size it took me a while to read as the content was a bit heavy for me.

Overall, I Enjoyed reading the book and it poses some really interesting questions which would make you sit and think about them.

However, I think that I will have to re-read this book 5-6 years from now as I really feel that I don’t have enough maturity yet to grasp the contents fully nor do I have the wisdom to understand all the layers of the thought that has been presented to us.
Profile Image for Sandy Maguire.
Author 2 books157 followers
September 17, 2019
I just read this a few days ago and can't even remember enough of it to write a real review. Not a good sign. The entire book is an argument that a strong economy is the only thing that matters, and it presents it pretty OK. I wasn't convinced, but did move slightly towards his point of view. I originally rated this 3/5 when I finished it, but in retrospect am giving it a 2/5 because if it were so good I probably would have remembered it.
Profile Image for Kyle.
328 reviews
December 31, 2018
This is a fast and interesting read. Tyler Cowen is admirably clear in what he is proposing, and it is hard to argue with in the abstract. He thinks we undervalue future generations, that we should try to improve economic growth (sustainably), and also respect human rights.

I definitely like that Cowen puts out what his thoughts and goals are with the book. The ideals are hard to argue with in the abstract and he does a good job of defending them in more concrete situations as well. They make a good amount of sense and coincide with common sense morality, which I think is a good step forward. Still, he deals with utilitarian ideas with the respect they deserve.

What I must argue with a bit is the claim that we discount the future because we value it less. I guess I have always just thought of the discounting as discounting because of the huge uncertainty of the future, an aspect that Cowen even deals with later in the book. If we can't predict the effects of our interventions, then it makes sense to discount things in the future because it is not clear that they will exist, or will exist as we conceptualize them. I don't think this really undermines any of Cowen's points but I feel like it is an important aspect to keep in mind. Cowen is also fairly vague about what sort of calculations for future growth we should consider since prediction is such a tough game. My final criticism is that human rights are never really defined in a way that makes it clear how absolute the nearly absolute rights are.

Still, for the shortness of the read, Cowen provides a lot of food for thought.
Profile Image for Kruti Munot.
31 reviews38 followers
February 27, 2020
The key point of Cowen's book is that sustainable economic growth is good - and that this economic growth, "Wealth Plus", is the only way towards improving quality of life and prosperity for humans.

He explores this idea a little further breaking down what economic growth considering sustainability and human rights really entails - but in my opinion this book was too short to substantiate any of his points sufficiently. Interesting arguments, but lacks depth and coherence to make these points well.

Good short-flight read, though.
Profile Image for Anu.
372 reviews54 followers
February 3, 2021
Tyler Cowen makes a surprisingly compelling argument about why economic growth is a good proxy for overall progress, while defining human rights as the circuit breakers for balancing feedback loops on runaway compounding of growth. I was largely convinced with his reasoning in comparing utilitarianism to common sense morality, something that was a recurring theme and a struggle for me through my 20s and 30s. "Deep concern for the distant future" is a good articulation of the baseline manifestation of his stated fundamental tenets of growth and freedom. Good read - will likely read more from the author.
Profile Image for Sebastian.
152 reviews5 followers
May 2, 2021
Cowen lays forth a simple moral philosophy: maximise sustainable economic growth, not at the expense of human rights. In macro terms this has as its broad strokes investment in education, infrastructure, the environment, decrease spending on welfare for the elderly. Realistically, it only provides a guiding principle for the individual which is 'maximising your wealth is good'. On what policies we should support it seems to kick the can further, we're no longer thinking about how to maximise human welfare, we're thinking about maximising growth which is just as tenuous, and poorly reasoned about.

I'm inherently wary reading 'Stubborn Attachments', as this philosophy is relatively self-serving. Yes, I'd love to keep striving to make money and not feel bad about it. Yes I'd love to make marginal decisions in my life rather than grandiose changes. Cowen does push for bravery and faith in some ways, such as thinking about people and our ancestors in the far future, but this book seems to almost be a whiplash to recent utilitarian all-vegan, effective-altruist maxims. And in a good way too.
Profile Image for Chad.
65 reviews
December 26, 2021
One of the few books I've read where I would forget the content of the current page almost before I finished reading it.

Though I agree with a few core ideas in the book, such as the extreme importance of economic growth for society, and the lack of far future planning, Stubborn Attachments reads like a collection of mostly pointless philosophical thought experiments.
Profile Image for Akash Kumar.
7 reviews
July 14, 2022
Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in understanding policy tools to navigate the world we are headed towards and how we can make it a better place.
Profile Image for Julie Seager.
28 reviews
February 17, 2023
The structure of the arguments and use of metaphors/ insane thought experiments rly pissed me off, and more importantly I think it ignored the most important critiques to the idea of the supreme importance of economic growth. Mainly he so heavily caveats his whole argument by saying he only is talking about “sustainable growth” but literally provides no real reckoning on the idea of whether this phrase might entirely be an oxymoron (especially with regards to environmental issues whcih he continuously brings up but avoids deep engagement on). But it gets 2 starts cuz some of the basic ideas in it are right / at least thought provoking. But if I had to read the word “crusonia plant” another time I was about to jump out the fucking window
Profile Image for Ryan .
35 reviews
April 14, 2021
Tyler Cowen is one of my favorite thinkers, and I listen to his podcast religiously. However, this book was disappointing - not much more substance than an essay on Medium defending economic growth.

One star higher than I would otherwise give it because of Tyler's Straussian subtext, and because such a book is important today.
Profile Image for Pete.
809 reviews52 followers
October 20, 2018
Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals (2018) by Tyler Cowen is a book where the author, a Libertarian leaning academic economist who also writes the Marginal Revolution blog and the podcast Conversations with Tyler.

In Stubborn Attachments Cowen writes a sort of philosophical treatise. As a philosopher, Cowen is a very good economist. His philosophy wouldn't get far with serious philosophers however the book provides a very thoughtful and insightful look at a philosophy for economics.

The book looks at just how important growth, and long term growth is. The book really makes a great case for growth by demonstrating how much better off people will be after years of stronger growth. Cowen doesn't diminish all other values though, and says wise that fundamental human rights are critically important.

In thinking about the future Cowen looks at how growth and the discount rate interact. This section is especially insightful. Cowen seems to have altered his views about 'the social discount rate' and thought about what we should think about for very long term discount rates.

Stubborn Attachments is well worth a read. It's short, well written and really provides some insights from a very smart economist.
12 reviews4 followers
May 13, 2019
I agonized a little about what rating to leave this book. I was inspired to read this book by the 80000 Hours podcast episode in which Cowen promoted this book and talked about a lot of the key ideas. You'll get most of the key ideas if you listen to that podcast, which is available here: https://80000hours.org/podcast/episod...

Those key ideas are basically: The most important priority for human civilization is to ensure our survival into the future, and the best things we can do to ensure that we make it there are: protect the environment, continue economic growth, prevent ourselves from going extinct, promote human rights. He makes a pretty compelling case for these, and his practical advise (get a job, donate a little to effective charities, don't abuse your kids) seems really doable for the average person.

I was a little disappointed that this was not the "Hegelian defense of liberty" that Cowen promised in the 80KH podcast, so having listened to that first, I almost gave this book 2 or 3 stars, but I bumped it up from that since I was pretty biased by listening to the podcast first.
40 reviews1 follower
August 4, 2019
Mostly, given the premises, the conclusions are obvious. Maybe some people would benefit from reading this book, but I didn't find most of it very surprising or interesting.

One premise seems very uncertain to me and it was not extensively defended. We don't know that the increased wealth of countries will benefit their poor. That it has in the past is evidence, but not sufficient evidence.

Less central to the thesis, but also questionable and insufficiently defended, was the notion that we aren't morally obligated to donate large sums of wealth abroad. "Common sense" morality proves little. It seems to me that donations abroad would likely hasten economic development more than domestic spending as the money can buy more abroad and because poverty wastes people.
87 reviews17 followers
February 7, 2020
The philosophical foundations for Tyler Cowen's view of economics, life, etc. I found it pretty inscrutable, mired in arcane details. As someone who generally goes for philosophical foundations AND arcane details, I don't know what went wrong here for me.
Profile Image for Mathew Madsen.
77 reviews
November 3, 2020
I recently reread this after being left uninspired by Paul Collier's The Future of Capitalism, an important book but not one that resonated with me like this one does. This is a book that challenges your assumptions about the world while challenging you to think bigger to make it better.

I have long been a fan of Tyler Cowen since being introduced to him in high school via an old interview with philosopher Peter Singer in an intro to ethics class. Since then his blog Marginal Revolution has been my browser homepage and I've read several of his books. He is quite simply an intellectual juggernaut: respected economist, prolific blogger and author, amateur food critic, and the most insightful interviewer I've ever seen (his podcast Conversations With Tyler is excellent). For those familiar with his work, the ideas in Stubborn Attachments aren't surprising, but it is refreshing to have them very clearly articulated. His usual cryptic style often makes you work to understand his meaning (largely by design) which doesn't lend itself to a straightforward introduction to his thinking. However, Stubborn Attachments is just that: a succinct articulation of Cowen's moral philosophy and supporting arguments for the resulting implications of that philosophy.

The main argument is this:
- We have no moral basis for discounting the value of the future (even the distant future) and have have equal obligation to the wellbeing of those who come after us as to our own
- Because of compounding over long time horizons, economic growth is the most effective means we have to affect the wellbeing of people in the distant future
- Therefore, our primary objective should be to maximize the rate of sustainable economic growth, limited only by a set of absolute human rights

There is much more than that: from explorations of utilitarianism and consequentialism to implications for climate change and more. Though I will forgo a detailed discussion of the specifics because you should read it for yourself! It is not long and Cowen does a better job of clearly explaining the concepts than I could ever hope to do. (If you absolutely can't make it through the ~200 pages of the book, this podcast is a great introduction to the ideas). Don't read expecting detailed policy specifics or a lot of data, though there certainly is some of that. This is fundamentally an ideas book. A philosophical treatise that is simultaneously provocative and intensely optimistic about the future and our ability to improve it. With scriptural texts as notable exceptions, Stubborn Attachments is the most inspiring book I've ever read.
Profile Image for Vincent.
107 reviews3 followers
November 2, 2020
This was definitely a book I read. It was ok. Probably more like 3.5 stars. I think in a lot of ways I agree with his premise/conclusions that we should care a lot more about long term growth, future investments, and the future in general, in ways that we currently don't. His ways of getting there are mostly philosophical thought exercises, which I am not terribly interested in.

There's a few thought lines he uses that don't make a lot of sense to me, but overall I don't think it's terribly minded. Although, the chapter about redistribution I found to be pretty bad all things considered. That was the one part where I thought he made a lot of rushed conclusions or ignored some low hanging fruit. I also thought the appendix A with math equations was fairly funny. He premised it with "for the mathematical thinking folks" and it's this extremely basic series equation with some pattern recognition. I think any moderately talented math folk should have been able to explain that formula with ease. Or he could have illustrated the explanation of his overtaking criterion fairly easily with a graph and a few lines. I also felt like he could have used more mathematical or data based support for his latter chapters. He seemed prudent on using it in the early chapters to defend the virtues of economic growth over human history, but those examples disappeared a bit when he criticized redistribution more.

I appreciated the final conclusions, especially the repeated concern over climate change and the desire for more long term investments. The thought that we get too defensive and absorbed in policies who's effectiveness we can't actually be sure of resonates with me as well. There's also probably something interesting in the idea that Democrats and Republicans are mostly arguing from contradictory platforms and not focusing on helpful conclusions like how to best spurn economic growth or whatever. Thinking in terms of Wealth Value Plus over GDP is good too.

That said, I think my issue is more that, for me, it didn't really say anything. Or rather, it didn't say anything new. I wanted more from Cowen about what conclusions he reaches from these priors, or base thoughts. Perhaps, the point was to prove exactly that this base can lead to a number of economic models, but ultimately that leaves me largely unfulfilled.
Profile Image for Ben.
10 reviews
January 1, 2019
This book is like 60% of a brilliant book. Cowen starts a few different interesting ideas about how to make choices between competing policy alternatives. The book is fairly short, ~125 pages, so I still think it's worth reading just for exposure to these ideas.

The main takeaways are:
1. Even small economic growth of 1% a year has huge impacts on overall human wellbeing in the long run, so we should give lots of weight to policies which enable economic growth.
2. Economic growth isn't inherently good, but it helps most of the non-monetary things that rich countries care about. For example, more money means more culture is created and shared.
3. Economic growth is fairly easy to agree about politically. While we may disagree about who gets the bigger share of the growth, and work to improve this, most people would still agree that growth helps the poor even while it helps the rich.
4. Human society should care more about its own collapse than it does, even if the collapse will happen in the distant future.
5. Predicting which policies will work is impossible. We should try what seems most likely to work but be ready to change our mind if it doesn't. Everyone is operating in the dark, and admitting this will help our politics to be less contentious.

Unfortunately Cowen doesn't follow a single thread long enough to actually build an argument in favor of concrete ways to implement his changes.
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