My Stanford talk on all the problems with my arguments in *Stubborn Attachments*

I was pleased to have been invited to deliver the Kenneth Arrow Lecture for the year on Ethics and Leadership, here is the talk, which consists of steelmanning various critics and creating my own, it has quite a bit of new material, plus Q&A with Stanford attendees:


So, anyone else ever heard of 'steelmanning'?

I had, but only because the steelman guards the slate star codex, inside the motte, inside the bailey.

At the object-level, but not quite the meta-level

Uh no, I'm pretty sure I'm right on this - and the strawman is annually burnt in a pagan rite calling up a less rational worldview.

Another usage is from engineering, where the results of an initial brainstorming process is termed the Strawman proposal or plan, and a more refined, usually near final version, is termed the Steelman.

I have heard the term used by Eric Weinstein.

Never heard of it. Anyway it'll get rusty. Why not choose a metaphor from the great American tradition: a Scarecrow, a Tinman, or a Cowardly Lion?

I think it's a Daniel Denney thing - the opposite of a straw man, it is an improved version of your opponents argument, perhaps later to refute.
I am not sure.

IAC, what's the point? He's arguing that growth is good. Who disagrees with that?

I listened to the whole thing but I had a hard time hearing all of it.

I really don't get it.

Can someone please explain Tyler's point?

Wow - this comes from the first google link for steelmanning definition.

'The philosopher Daniel Dennett outlines an effective process for arguing with someone who has opposing views:

(1) Attempt to re-express the other person’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that they say, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

(2) List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

(3) Mention anything you have learned from your target.

(4) Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

The first step of Dennett’s approach has been called steelmanning. It’s the opposite of strawmanning, in which you misrepresent the other person’s position or argument so you can easily defeat it. In contrast to a strawman, a steelman is an improved form of the other person’s views—one that’s harder to defeat.'

Talk about moral relativism carried to post modern heights. Or was Jonathon Swift just steelmanning the issue when discussing eating Irish babies? Sweet, delicious Irish babies, apparently, suitable for presentation to the finest gourmet to appreciate - '... a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.'

And of course it has to be "manning." Will women ever be treated respectfully at the famously misogynist MR?

Are you kidding? When it comes to hyper focusing on women's this or that, Tyler is an SJW without equal.

It's good that you bring it back to gourmet dining.

"moral relativism"? Like many, you seem to confuse fair, generous debate with capitulation to your opponent.

I'm about half-way through. My thought is that this is a pretty mega-brain view of the world. 'talking about 700 years into the future, and such.

My smaller-brain wonders whether many of us should attempt that scale. Maybe we should think in terms of 3 generations either way? When we are young it is us, our parents, and our grandparents. When we are old it is us, our children and grandchildren. Us, plus or minus 60 years? And in that span, maybe it's enough to desire freedom and success for our family, friends, and the wider communities we share.

I think that's enough to develop a moral philosophy and compatible views on the political economy. And for me, it keeps it people centered, which is hard for me to do on the timescale of centuries.

I had exactly the same thought. If you look at the planet as an asset that your generation rents in some way, your generation is only repsonsible for transferring it on in good shape to the next generation. That's a plausible and actionable moral requirement, contingent on defining good shape. You also plausibly care about your kids and grandkids since you have probably met them. The Parfit/zero discount stuff is just science fiction from a political economy perspective, even apart even from the fact that we zero forecast skill at those horizons.

All that said, broad "sustainable" economic growth makes it more likely that the planet is passed on in better condition, and that the population is in better shape, and that extinction wars can be averted, etc. So all the zero discount stuff can be approached by an overlapping set of shorter term horizons with much better forecasting skill.

Interesting talk but a few things were off with respect to populations:

India's birthrate isn't 2.7 but 2.2.
Mexico isn't "falling off the fertility table" at 2.2. (It was 2.7 in 2000)

Singapore and South Korea don't have shrinking populations. Japan's population began to very slowly decline from 2011 and Italy's population has declined a tiny bit from 2016.

I thought the questions after the talk we're poor. They were narrow statements of today's conventional wisdom, indicating no one listened to the talk or read the book. I would have expected better. My mistake.

I thought the questions were fine. What's wrong with applying an abstract theory to modern day questions? And this is California, many of the conclusions in Stubborn Attachments, as well as the things said by Tyler in passing, would tend to subtly rub them the wrong way.

X. Trapnel - I take it you are not a subscriber to the Stanford Law Review.

Stanford has a pretty good classics department, and their gardening staff is as good at the staff at the best golf courses in this nation, and consequently the universe, so there's that.

I did like Tyler's comments on the possibility of a new religion in the future. Very Nietzsche.

My issue remains that even with zero discounts it still can make sense to reduce the fabulous wealth of the 25th century to improve the lives of some people today. More to the point we do not have a good idea of the trade offs between growth and other values or even what DOES increase long term growth. Should Tyler's perspective make us more or less favorable to a revenue tax on CO2, greater immigration, freer trade, lower structural deficits?

I wish I were half as smart, well-read, and original in my thinking as Tyler Cowen. So it's probably my own lacunae that caused me trouble following his talk. I actually thought him surprisingly lacking in erudition. Anyway, I wish to take issue with two of his early statements. One, I think his zero discount rate is too high. I believe most parents, in making individual choices, sacrifice whatever they can for their children's future well-being, and feel immensely better off for the effort, even knowing it may not pan out. If that is true for the vast majority of individuals, the social discount rate should be negative, and the argument for strong economic growth then becomes even stronger. If we then made social decisions based on democratic unanimity, or something close to it, we'd be able to rid our sordid system of much costly political rent seeking and other inefficiencies. In other words, you can't get from the individual moral imperative to the social policy without radically reforming simple majoritarian democratic decision making. A standard public choice failure prevents this which I think Cowen should make more of. Two, I was not convinced by the point that economic growth should be "sustainable" because that is not a well-defined word, or even objectively definable ex ante. Through the industrial revolution, we've used up huge portions of coal and metals, and continue to do so -- clearly not sustainable. But depleting these resources has given us technologies and scientific knowledge that will force the next set of solutions on us, e.g., better sources of energy, better plastics, what have you -- things that would not have happened without depleting some resources first. So, I think that Cowen's use of the "sustainable" restriction is too narrow -- let human ingenuity, based on a negative discount rate, solve tomorrow's problems tomorrow. Again, I think this gives an even stronger argument for promoting more economic growth.

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