Coleman Hughes reviews *Stubborn Attachments*

Excellent review, in Quillette, here is part of the closing sequence:

Ultimately, absorbing the thesis of Stubborn Attachments would entail a radical loss of purpose for the politically-minded among us. The small, short-term policy fights that energize us most are precisely the ones from which, on Cowen’s account, we should abstain entirely. Even the smartest among us don’t know what net effect small policies will have; plus very little well-being turns on such policies to begin with. Growth maximization, on Cowen’s view, becomes a moral black hole from which no partisan skirmish, no matter how seemingly important, can escape.

In a cultural landscape where partisan skirmishes regularly induce something approaching bloodlust on both sides of the political aisle, it’s safe to say that most Americans are roundly rejecting Cowen’s thesis at the moment. But perhaps that means the message of Stubborn Attachments is needed now more than ever.

Recommended, here is the link.

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Any chance of Stubborn Attachments shipping to Ireland?

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A very good and thorough review. Coleman Hughes is an undergraduate philosophy major at Columbia. And he is black. I will make one correction/clarification in his review. "Indeed, part of the reason income inequality has increased within developed nations is because it has decreased between nations, due to increased competition from the rising global middle class. In short, it’s not true that the gains achieved from a higher growth rate would mainly line the pockets of the ultra-rich." Inequality is rising not only in the developed nations, but also in the developing nations. For example, inequality in China is at a higher level than inequality in the U.S. I am merely pointing this out, as there isn't agreement as to whether it's a bad thing or just a thing; and even if it's a bad thing, there isn't agreement as to what to do about it. Indeed, I don't know what to do about it, as "solutions" can create more problems than they solve (including lower economic growth).

In any case, I believe that excessive inequality is self-correcting. How so? Well, that rising middle class in developing countries Hughes refers to in his review want more consumption and less savings: if China's savings rate were to fall from 50% to 10%, the increase in consumption would redound to the middle class in developed countries including the U.S. as the U.S. would export more to China. That's a positive self-correction; thus, a trade war with China is short-sighted at best, counter-productive at worst (because it discourages a lower savings rate in China). Then there's the negative self-correction: another financial crisis and collapsing asset prices; it corrects inequality because the wealthy own most of the assets. But the recent financial crisis didn't correct inequality. That's because the Fed intervened and prevented the collapse in asset prices; indeed, asset prices were soon restored to the pre-crisis level. Won't the Fed always intervene in a financial crisis? That's what Piketty predicts in his book. Populists, having elected Trump in large part because the Fed intervened, may have something to say about that.

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Mr. Ghosn is a political prisoner like Solzhenitsyn or Hu Yaobang. Free Mr. Ghosn!

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(Copy of my post on Quillette RE: Stubborn Attachments)

Much as I respect Cowen, his approach to future value of life makes a fundamental ontological error, even if you allow for his utilitarian ethic.

The “utility of future generations” is a seductive but ridiculous concept. Let us be clear: these “people” don’t exist. They may never exist. They have no claim on us, the living. Insofar as “their” utility is a consideration, it is only the utility we ourselves enjoy upon apprehending their prospective utility. That is, our own vicarious utility. We, the living, and our wants, are the only moral units of calculus

If those wants include the existence of future generations, and the happiness of such, well to the good. But such “future generations” don’t exist and have independent claims apart from our consciousness.

Indeed, if the objective is to maximise the utility of some hypothetical entity set at some future state, you don’t have to go far to get to absurdity. Should we prefer a future of great happiness for Billions, or satisfaction for Trillions? Or should we not prefer a future where Billions of Humans are replaced by Quadrillions of intelligent insects? Perhaps numerous future AI’s will constitute the bulk of future experienced utility, and hence our goal should be to immanentise them? And why stop with future AI? Entire realms of hypothetical entities can be arbitrarily conjured into existence and imbued with moral claims on our current behaviour. Suppose I diligently affirm that intelligent unicorns will shortly be created and constitute the majority of future awareness. Surely we should sacrifice all our utility now to ensure lush green future pastures for our pointy-equine successors?

Cowen’s approach is flat out wrong. The future only has value in the present minds of the living. Reifying non-existent entities from “the future” and giving them moral claims on the present is a fundamental error. I think of it as slightly less psychotic version of Roko’s Basilisk.

That's a very clever point Alistair. And it's a good reminder that, in the real world, ethical decisions are driven by intuitions shaped by natural selection, not flawless logic.

I don't think it's an error to attach some value to the happiness of future generations but I can't give you anything like a logical proof of why that's the case.

Tyler is my favorite economist and my favorite polymath. Perhaps because my expectations were unrealistically high I was very much underwhelmed by Stubborn Attachments.

My reaction to the book reminded me of a scene in a Woody Allen movie. A famous guru to many people commits suicide by jumping from a skyscraper. Everyone is desperate to understand the meaning of the act. Then they discover there is a suicide note. Excitement builds. All it says is: "I've gone out the window."

Certainly Cowen's main points that most people fail to appreciate the importance of compound growth and basic human rights are good ones but somehow I expected more.

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Alistair, do you have children? I do so "future generations" is not some make believe thing that you have us believe. Tyler is flat out right for supporting a view that looks beyond our individual selves and looks to the survival of societies and a species as a whole.

LK,

Yes, I have children. Do you?

And....you completely failed to understand the ontological point being made. The issue is that such "unselfish" values as "the survival of societies and a species as a whole" don't have independent existence beyond your (our) own current desires. At best you're reifying abstract entities; at worst you're projecting your desires onto the universe. Both lead directly to category errors for this class of utilitarian argument.

This is all pretty unexceptional stuff, if you, know, you've actually studied ethics at university level? Don't worry - philosophy isn't for everyone.

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LK,

In utilitarianism (which Tyler broadly invokes as a Framework here), values like "beyond our individual selves and ... the survival of societies and a species as a whole." don't have transcendental existence. They are values of extant individuals and groups or they are nothing. That is, the "utility" of a nice future is not the utility of entities consuming in that future - it is the utility of current entities consuming the thought of future entities consuming. Future utility is entirely present vicarious utility.

If everyone alive today hated the future and desired the destruction of civilisation, then that too would be a moral outcome under this ethic. You couldn't weigh the dis-utility of future unborn generations against it because such dis-utility doesn't actually exist anywhere.

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There's a pretty big difference between future humans and unicorns. One will exist and one will not. But I didn't study philosophy in college, so what do I know.

Philosophy these days seems to be the refuge for guys who are slightly clever with words but not clever enough to do math. Tragic if you think about it.

+10

It is a welcome addition to more robust works such as Stubborn Attachments, but when used alone it seems to have the same ability to create profoundly great works as profoundly bad works. The worst part is that it is hard to tell the difference between the two when both use big words and fancy frameworks, and neither use data.

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Tyler's utilitarian calculus rests upon particular philosophical assumptions. Given the very strong demands Tyler places on the present ("consumption should be strongly deferred to saving and investment to boost growth") It is not unreasonable to question those premises.

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It’s bad spin to talk about changes in absolute percentages of growth It’s better to talk about relative percentages.

An increase from 2% to 3% growth is a 33% increase. That is why it is HARD.

Using the relative change accurately shows the difficulty. The whole “one percent makes a big difference” part obscures it.

EH, it probably does not change your point which I accept, but an increase from 2% to 3% is a 50% increase. A decrease from 3% to 2% is 33%. We probably all should have been taught to naturally think in log terms! I

I was going to comment on Utilitarianism, but I would likely go on too long. However, I do agree that being fully committed to an emotional attachment on small political issues seems irrational. Having said that I have two caveats. 1) I feel like we who argue over such small matters are sometimes being played as “useful idiots”. There are likely a small group of people, represented, for example, by lobbyists and legislators for whom these small issues for the typical person, are really critical and important issues for a few people. If it is an issue about where some money goes this is easy to see as possible. But then, why do the rest of us care? One can speculate I presume. 2) Caveat number two. For some reason most people take the side of one party or leader in that Party (e.g., Trump) no matter what their position—-or at least they attach more emotional attachment. It is like rooting for your favorite sports team, which is all emotion (unless one is a gambler). Position A taken by Trump might rile up his base in support of him, but that same position taken by Beto —-or Obama—-is not as important. Then again, some positions are seen as important to many people, like tax rates etc.

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Matthew 6:34: So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today. How true. Cowen makes the case for a focus on tomorrow because efforts at solving today's trouble are almost always pointless. So much for what Jesus said. One shortcoming of Cowen's thesis is that the way we measure economic growth gives the illusion of objectivity for a concept that is inherently subjective. By that I mean there is economic growth, and there is economic growth. Much of what is included in output and thus economic growth may in the end greatly reduce output and economic growth. Fossil fuels come to mind. Weapons of mass destruction come to mind. The recent rise in economic growth is in large part attributable to residential real estate construction, much of it in low-lying coastal areas; indeed, investment in productive capital (plant, machinery, etc.) has been depressed for many years, but one wouldn't know it unless one reads economic reports critically. Amazon's new headquarters in NYC may well end up underwater, yet it is hailed as promoting economic growth. Cowen may see economic growth where I may see folly. Jesus, being an apocalyptic prophet, focused on today rather than tomorrow because tomorrow would never come. Although Cowen may be correct that efforts at solving today's problem may be pointless, at least we can identify today's problem. How does one identify tomorrow's worries today? As we know, economists are today's soothsayers; but like soothsayers in the past, they aren't very good soothsayers.

+1

"uch of what is included in output and thus economic growth may in the end greatly reduce output and economic growth. Fossil fuels come to mind. "

No projection even comes close to stating this.

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I think that's a good point. The triviality or meaning or lack thereof, of the disputes in the political arena, that TC tires of, should encourage him to scrutinize his marginal economic improvements more, not less. He has thought earnestly and much harder about these things than most people ever could, doubtless, but perhaps ultimately he's thought more about the political matters he finds so inane and hopeless.

It puts me in mind of a paragraph in the Many Worlds critique he linked to the other day:

"A stronger objection to the proliferation of worlds is not so much all this extra stuff you’re making, but the insouciance with which it is made. Roland Omnès says the idea that every little quantum “measurement” spawns a world “gives an undue importance to the little differences generated by quantum events, as if each of them were vital to the universe.” This, he says, is contrary to what we generally learn from physics: that most of the fine details make no difference at all to what happens at larger scales."

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Very good. First sentence from the excerpt is a killer.

However, this paragraph:

"Cowen also highlights the tradeoff between current poverty and future poverty. Imagine that we institute some policy intended to help the poor—say, a new entitlement program funded by a tax increase. Imagine, moreover, that this new policy has the unfortunate side effect of slightly reducing the economic growth rate. What we will have done, in effect, is prioritize some number of today’s poor over a far greater number of tomorrow’s poor. This is because a slightly lower growth rate today means much less national and global wealth-plus hundreds of years from now, which in turn means billions (upon billions, upon billions…) of future people who will be much poorer than they could be."

But "poorer than they could be" is still a lot richer than us today, given any compounded growth, so I rule in favor of today's disadvantaged even if it means a haircut on growth.

And by definition, slower growth is more sustainable. Pace is important, directionality is more important than speed.

But "poorer than they could be" is still a lot richer than us today

True only if you focus narrowly on the industrialized world. In what year will the median sub-Saharan African be as wealthy as the median American of 2018 under max growth vs your preferred approach of sacrificing future growth for redistribution?

...slower growth is more sustainable.

Yep, pre-industrial stagnation was extremely sustainable.

directionality is more important than speed.

Says the guy who doesn't live in sub-Saharan Africa.

To your first point, we're getting there:

https://www.gapminder.org/tools/#$state$time$value=1800;;&chart-type=bubbles

Why sacrifice today's poor for rich people who haven't been born yet?

To the rest, yeah I've had it pretty easy like most Americans, but ma was born into wretched poverty in 1930s rural Ireland with four siblings, a widowed mom, and no electricity -- probably not so different from very poor people today -- but she managed to live a flourishing and happy life.

"Why sacrifice today's poor for rich people who haven't been born yet?"

Why sacrifice the prospects of the poorest people on earth (present and future) by choosing redistribution within wealthy countries (whose poor are already well-off by global standards) rather than high growth rates that could bring the global poor up to industrialized levels?

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Just look at Mr. Friedman, in another languishing Op-Ed about a non-American journalist. Need I remind you the absence of Kellen Winslow Jr. Of Richard Jefferson Sr. of Police Chief Thomas Houston. Still, "to write critically about Zionism in Palestine has therefore never meant, and does not mean now, being anti-Semetic; conversely, the struggle for Palestinian rights does not mean support for the Saudi royal family....but its negative, interdictory character...the tendency to repeat cant phrases ad political clichés (this is the role Gramsci assigned to traditional intellectual, that of being "expert ins legitimation"...regulating enforcement of almost unanimous support for Israel." -- Edward Said

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I looked in vain for some explanation in this review of why, since we don't understand what produces economic growth, the agnosticism should extend to all political issues rather than "small" issues.

Well, we certainly know what stops economic growth.

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In America, environmental protection has been driven and funded by rich white people, and as their influence wanes, those achievements may be undone. Particularly as the population continues to grow without any thought of whether rapid growth is sustainable.

In Africa, outsiders (Brits, mostly) created national parks. Some of them are persisting under local management but with the projected population growth, the outlook even for charismatic animals like elephants and rhinos is dim. And the prospect that the Chinese will exert more influence in Africa is not promising, given China's mixed environmental record.

Many animals were thriving in Africa, having co-evolved in harmony with the people there, before the recent population growth. They didn't need national parks. (The expansion of humans into North America was obviously very different and spelled the end for many creatures.)

Writing a book like this seems strange, with thought experiments about passing on a piece of pie so that a thousand years in the future, more pies are baked for more people - but without, as far as I can tell, much thought about the other living things residing with us on the planet right now - many of which we depend on in various ways.

When I read about efforts to hear a signal from space I think, are the animals here on Earth not interesting enough aliens for us? Similarly, enthusiasts about the future seem to me to lack a normal, healthy interest in the good things we have now - and certainly don't think enough about conserving them.

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I am reminded of the Parable of the Telephone Sanitizers.

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The reviewer is a philosophy major but still the second part of this is way off:

"Since 1980, the share of national income going to the highest tax brackets has skyrocketed, a trend which shows no sign of stopping."

The Gini index has barely increased since 1997.

1980 37.5
1990 38.0
1997 40.8 (this increase was partly due to better data from 1993)
2000 40.4
2005 40.5
2007 41.1
2010 40.4
2013 41.1
2016 41.5

So flat from 2007 and almost no increase in inequality over the past two decades - far from "skyrocketed, a trend which shows no sign of stopping."

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Hughes continually misspells the word vis-à-vis in his review. Bit embarrassing.

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I'm still waiting for the book to ship in the EU but I listened to the (excessively long) podcast / interview on CWT.

Seems to me that the "let's not sweat the small stuff, long-term growth is most important" mantra rests on the assumption that long-term growth will continue to have social consequences similar to those it has has over the last decades. Yet these consequences have been shaped/negotiated by a lot of people fighting about "small stuff" all the time.

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I guess I'll have to read the book, but genuinely curious how Tyler reconciles his argument for economic growth and his concern for environmental protection. Not sure how we expand trade, for example, without burning fossil fuels and furthering the worst climate change trends.

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I am not so sure Americans have rejected it as abused it for their own ends while ignoring any evidence to the contrary.

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