Aaron Gertler's Reviews > Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals

Stubborn Attachments by Tyler Cowen
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it was amazing
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(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.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading (Kindle Edition)
Finished Reading
July 13, 2018 – Shelved (Kindle Edition)
January 21, 2019 – Shelved

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