Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

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Book Summary: Stubborn Attachments, by Tyler Cowen

A summary of Stubborn AttachmentsA Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, by Tyler Cowen.

Overall, this book was a quick, no-frills read with a style that individuals who follow Tyler’s Marginal Revolution blog will find familiar and newcomers will likely find refreshing and concentrated with substance. The work is a valuable outline of the well-known economist’s philosophical orientation. Readers may or may not subscribe to Tyler’s argument, but it is clear to understand, well argued, and above all intellectually honest. I personally found it persuasive.

Keep reading for a summary of the key ideas (as I see them) and the questions I would ask the author were I to share a meal with him.

Summary from Amazon / Book Jacket

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. 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.

A summary (in my own words)

Creating sustainable economic growth does the most good for humanity (in the long run), so our society should be focused on improving the sustainable economic “growth plus” rate (note: Tyler argues that common measures of economic growth to not reflect welfare appropriately, which is why we need a “growth plus” metric). Consequently, focusing on increasing the sustainable economic growth rate, so long as it does not violate human rights, undermine societal stability, or create environmental destruction is a moral imperative. To do this, we must place much more emphasis on the needs of people who will live in the distant future.

An outline of essential ideas (in my own words)

  • Chapter 1: Tyler makes two “philosophical moves” in this book

    • Don’t take productive economies for granted

    • Rethink moral distance - value future people much more than we do now

  • Chapter 2

    • “Wealth Plus” is extremely important because wealthy periods are when quality of life increases for all people

    • “Wealth Plus” tends to make people happier

    • A lot of happiness studies are flawed because of expectation changes

  • Chapter 3

    • We should maximize the sustainable growth plus rate because that is the greatest way to make everyone better off in the long run

    • There is an important constraint: don’t violate human rights

  • Chapter 4: Tyler argues in detail why we should have a much greater concern for future persons than we actually do

  • Chapter 5

    • We should redistribute (wealth), to a point…for as long as it increases the sustainable economic growth rate

    • If we are optimistic about the future we should redistribute relatively less (because we should deploy capital to where it creates the most growth)

    • If we are less optimistic about the future we should redistribute relatively more (because we can’t use our wealth after the world ends)

  • Chapter 6

    • We are most likely wrong about the long-run consequences of our actions but that shouldn’t paralyze us

    • We should adhere to a common-sense morality (Tyler explains what that is)

Questions I would ask the author (were I to share a meal with him)

I think your view is persuasive, but I find it incomplete. Perhaps that’s intended given the scope of the book. A major shift in thinking is required of a society that subscribes to your point of view, namely that we should value future persons more. How does that actually happen? How do you take “society” where it is and change the thinking of institutions and individual people so that they are more future oriented? How do you make today people care about future people more than they currently do (and then put their money where their mouth is)?

There’s one area that I’d also like to dig deeper. You discuss times in history where high sustainable economic growth rates have lead to lots of quality of life improvements that we value today. In other words (and loosely in your words) we are better off in the long run when we increase sustainable economic growth, even after accounting for uneven gains from growth in individual cases. We are better off because there is less suffering and senseless death, as well as art that’s created and other things of beauty. And this is true.

But is that even a complete picture of what we really want? Isn’t the real dream to have the freedom to pursue our own aspirations and dreams? Couldn’t it be that it’s not the growth in wealth that really creates happiness but that wealth simply creates the space for us to freely pursue the activities which make us happy and give us meaning? Wealth / growth may be a fantastic proxy, but isn’t it merely an enabler of our real aspirations?

I’m reminded of a time I was with my cousin sister in India. We went to a poor neighborhood (in a car, because she is a doctor and relatively wealthy) to purchase some firewood. I do not know whether this neighborhood was considered a slum by Indian standards, but most Americans would probably assume it was a “slum” if they saw a picture.

Nevertheless, she said something to me that has regularly echoed in my head since and will continue to, “they are happy because they have God.” Wealth probably does make enlightenment easier, but isn’t that enlightenment (or whatever spiritual / philosophical term you want to use) the real goal? I’m not disagreeing that wealth isn’t really, really beneficial, but haven’t we missed the point if we increase the sustainable economic growth rate and don’t achieve the mindset we need to actually value the improvements that the growth brings and have fulfillment? As you said, happiness studies are flawed because of expectation changes, but in real life the impact of our expectations and our mindset matters a lot. Isn’t meaning, enlightenment, and our mental orientation at least half the ball game? Isn’t your framework incomplete without a discussion of enlightenment and meaning?

Finally, I think it’s worth unpacking the specific role that different individual and institutional stakeholders have in increasing the sustainable economic growth rate. If the society is a complex system (I think it’s safe to assume that it is) I don’t think we can assume that to achieve a societal increase in the sustainable economic growth rate, individual people, companies, or countries should try to increase their individual sustainable economic growth rates as there are probably systemic dynamics which lead to unintended consequences when those agents act at scale.

Put more specifically, what is the role of individuals, governments, civil society, clergy, politicians, parents, etc. to increase the sustainable economic growth rate? Everyone has a role to play, surely, and what are everyone’s roles? Are there any types of stakeholders where there is a leverage point to really take advantage of? Are there any counterintuitive conclusions about any of those stakeholders’ roles?