Stubborn Attachments - by Tyler CowenISBN: 1732265135
Date read: 2019-04-15
How strongly I recommend it: 8/10
(See my list of 320+ books, for more.)
Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.
Subtitle “A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals” gives a hint of its contents. I love these kinds of books: full of well-considered, smart, rational and surprising ideas from an economist.
When we condemn a man who beats his wife, must we really calculate whether the suffering of the victim exceeds the pleasure of the hitter?
If individuals are poorly informed, confused, or downright inconsistent - as nearly all of us are, at times - the notion of “what we want” isn’t always so clear.
Be skeptical about the powers of the individual human mind.
When we decide whether and when to break a given rule, we’re back to judging individual cases, which is what rules were supposed to get us away from in the first place.
The Crusonia plant: a mythical, automatically growing crop which generates more output each period. If you lay the seeds, the plant just grows.
A Crusonia plant would be more desirable than a plant that dies after a month and leaves no successors, even if this short-lived plant were quite lovely or brilliant.
The unceasing free yield of the Crusonia plant has to prove the better choice.
The ongoing growth of the Crusonia plant dominates the comparison.
A principle of both ethics and prudence: when in doubt, choose the Crusonia plant.
When it comes to making tough decisions, try to identify which elements in the choice set resemble a Crusonia plant.
If we can identify certain choices or policies that give rise to the equivalent of the Crusonia plant’s unceasing yield, namely ongoing and self-sustaining surges in value, the case for those choices would be compelling.
Social processes which are ongoing, self-sustaining, and which create rising value over time.
GDP statistics have a bias toward what can be measured easily and relatively precisely, rather than focusing on what contributes to human welfare.
“Wealth Plus”: The total amount of value produced over a certain time period.
This includes the traditional measures of economic value found in GDP statistics, but also includes measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth.
A database on civilizational survival that catalogues sixty civilizations shows the average civilization endured for 402.6 years.
Decline comes more rapidly over time.
Since the collapse of the Roman Empire, the average duration of a civilization has been only 304.5 years.
Human beings can and indeed do experience significant and ongoing losses of their prosperity and freedom.
Our positive opportunities in life often matter more than the amount of cash in our bank accounts.
If you ask the people of Kenya how happy they are with their health, you’ll get a pretty high rate of reported satisfaction, not so different from the rate in the healthier countries, and in fact higher than the reported rate of satisfaction in the United States.
The correct conclusion is not that Kenyan hospitals possess hidden virtues or that malaria is absent in Kenya, but rather that Kenyans have recalibrated their use of language to reflect what they can reasonably expect from their daily experiences.
In similar fashion, people in less happy situations or less happy societies often attach less ambitious meanings to the claim that they are happy.
Evidence based on questionnaires will therefore underrate the happiness of people in wealthier countries.
A fast-food cheeseburger is not actually worth $4.89, considering its potential impact on my future health.
The cheeseburger offer is manipulating my evolutionarily programmed desire for more fat, to the detriment of my life expectancy.
Yet at the same time, living in a much wealthier society - even one rife with fast food - is still good for most people, including good for their health.
Derek Parfit’s “Mistakes in Moral Mathematics”:
If a firing squad of six shooters kills an innocent person, all of them firing accurately at his heart, can we say that any one of the shooters is a murderer?
After all, the “marginal product” of any single shooter was zero.
Should we punish or invest resources into preventing the actions of any one of the shooters?
Does it matter whose bullet arrived first?
The marksman example is stylized, but it fits many real-world situations.
Maybe a single act of corruption has no harmful effects, but corruption in general is harmful, and many corrupt acts will destroy a polity.
Would we be justified in condemning a single act of corruption with a fair degree of strictness and severity, without worrying too much about whether the single act of corruption is really going to matter in the long run?
Numerous violations of the rule or law may seem harmless enough, but enough of them can be dire once we consider the longer-run expectation and incentive effects.
Some rules, such as “never lie,” face embarrassing counterexamples if lying can bring about significant practical benefits in particular instances.
But a rule of “maximize the rate of sustainable economic growth” does not face a comparable problem.
By definition, the rule is telling us to follow outcomes with a preponderance of benefits over costs.
When they are given a choice between the immediate present, the future, and the more distant future. Very often they are biased toward the immediate present.
For instance, a person might realize that a benefit in two years’ time is about the same in value as that same benefit in three years’ time. That’s a rational posture.
That same person, however, may prefer a dollar today to three dollars three weeks from now.
But when the comparison is between ten years from now and twenty years from now, people exhibit much more patience, and many people would even say that a benefit ten years from now is about as valuable as the same benefit twenty years from now.
In other words, individual time preference usually focuses on the immediate vs. the only somewhat distant.
If we can get over our initial impatience for receiving a reward now, our intellect is very often capable of seeing that we should care about the more distant future as much as we should care about the less distant future.
For the most part, we’re actually fairly rational about time, except for this fixation on the “now” moment and the “very soon/right away” horizon.
Human beings evolved under brutal hunter-gatherer conditions; they had good reason to pay special attention to the now moment. If you didn’t get the “now” right, there might not be a tomorrow. If you let a piece of meat sit, it would spoil or be seized by your neighbor or consumed by marauding animals overnight.
So we may have an innate biological preference for the “now,” but we will do better if we can get past it, if we can tap into the part of ourselves that recognizes that a benefit in twenty years’ time is about as valuable as that same benefit in thirty years’ time.
Markets do not reflect the preferences of currently unborn individuals.
If we were to imagine future generations engaging in such contracting, current decisions might run more in their favor.
Political and economic decisions, and the general existence of prosperity, have persistent effects that stretch for centuries into the future.
Colonial policies from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have persistent effects on prosperity today.
Good institutions and a history of prosperity tend to have enduring effects.
Wealth can fund and enable better government, and that in turn gives rise to further wealth and better institutions.
Institutional memories of economic success and good governance can persist for long periods of time.
Cultural practices such as business savvy or an interest in external markets can last for centuries.
One approach to restitution problems applies a standard rate of positive discount to the previous costs to convert them into a present value.
Let’s say the discount rate is seven percent. If my ancestor stole a thousand dollars from your ancestor back in the year 1854, I should have to pay you seven percent compounded for each year between 1854 and 2018.
Presumably that would undo this harm or rectify the injustice. But if you do the math, that amounts to more than $65 million.
Most of us should work hard, be creative, be loyal to our civilization, build healthy institutions, save for the future, contribute to an atmosphere of social trust, be critical when necessary, and love our families.
Our strongest obligations are to contribute to sustainable economic growth and to support the general spread of civilization, rather than to engage in massive charitable redistribution in the narrower sense.
In the longer run, what will help the poor most of all is greater economic growth and a more stable civilization.
We should redistribute wealth only up to the point that it maximizes the rate of sustainable economic growth.
Rather than redistributing most wealth, we can do better for the world by investing in high-return activities like supporting immigration and producing new technologies with global reach.
Non-infrastructure government spending is correlated positively with lower growth rates.
Be skeptical of ideologues who claim to know all of the relevant paths to making ours a better world.
How can we be sure that a favored ideology will in fact bring about good consequences?
Given the radical uncertainty of the more distant future, we can’t know how to achieve preferred goals with any kind of certainty over longer time horizons.
Our attachment to particular means should therefore be highly tentative, highly uncertain.
How confident should you really be about the details of your political beliefs? How firm should your dogmatism be about means-ends?
Not very; better to adopt a tolerant demeanor and really mean it.
As a general rule, we should not pat ourselves on the back and feel that we are on the correct side of an issue. We are still more likely to be wrong than right.
Our particular views, in politics and elsewhere, should be no more certain than our assessments of which team will win the World Series.
With this attitude political posturing loses much of its fun, and indeed it ought to be viewed as disreputable or perhaps even as a sign of our own overconfident and delusional nature.
Radical uncertainty gives us the freedom to act morally, without the fear that we are engaging in consequentialist destruction.
Our actions will have consequences we cannot possibly predict.
We do not have the “Best Ethical Theory,” as a philosopher might wish to derive, but rather some good decision-making rules to live by, as well as some standards for how we might imagine a much brighter future.
Political competition within relatively short electoral cycles relative to the time horizons over which policy matters.
(The U.S. House of Representatives has a two-year voting cycle for policies which may have effects over twenty or thirty years, or, in the case of environmental policies, longer still.)
Derek Parfit’s repugnant conclusion compares two population scenarios:
The first outcome has a very large, very fulfilled, and very happy population. The world also has many ideal goods, such as beauty, virtue, and justice.
The second outcome has a much larger population but few, if any, ideal goods. A world of “Muzak and potatoes.” The lives in this scenario are still worth living, although perhaps by only the tiniest of margins.
If the population of the second scenario is large enough, the second scenario could welfare-dominate the first.
No matter how good we make the first world, quantity can weigh in on the side of the second.
Why should we choose flourishing and more complex human lives over a larger number of slightly happy animal lives?
Might we not consider voluntarily extinguishing the human race to make more room for a greater number of non-human animals?
Very small utilities, no matter how large in number, ought not to add up to something with great moral significance.