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Stubborn Attachments

This is as close to a "Rules for Life" book as we'll get from Tyler Cowen, and if you've listened to his podcast or followed his blog what's inside won't surprise you — but it will make you think. Which is good: surprise is overrated anyway, and things that depend on it don't do well on re-reading/watching/listening. I'll be coming back to this one.

Cowen argues that growth is good even when it doesn't benefit everyone all the time. There are things that can grow that you can't measure (like happiness, life satisfaction, health, culture, feeling of superiority [I may be misremembering some of these]), so don't focus on wealth only but instead on Wealth Plus. Also, distant future is just as important as the near future, so don't sacrifice long-term prospects for short-term gains. Speaking of future, we can't predict it, so even though tiny decisions can influence it in an oversized manner we should stop fretting over those and focus on the big picture: which is to chose policies that provide the greater sustained benefit sooner. Finally, common sense morality can usually steer you in the right direction, but if it feels like it's not, remember everything else in the book and you should be all set.

That's all well and good, except that I kept imagining someone from Serbia — currently a second-world European kakistocracy — living by the standards of this book. Hilarity ensued: for things would be included in Wealth Plus that Cowen hadn't foreseen (the ability to redraw borders, to name one), and common sense morality would include good doses of nepotism, chauvinism, and the desire to cheat the state (yes, yes, I know, #notallserbs).

So the first thing that's keeping this book from being great is that it can't be universally applied — it was written by an American for his fellow Americans who have lost their way — and doesn't explore, or even mention, the implications of his vague concepts of Wealth Plus and common sense morality being different around the world.

The second is that shortly after admitting that economists don't have crystal balls (the twelve-year-old me would have loved to put parentheses around "crystal"), he goes on to compare hypothetical policies based on their projected rates of growth well into the future. It may be my lack of an economic background speaking, but how can those two go together?

But do read the book. After my first pass I can say it's good, if not great. For me as a doctor the idea of delaying gratification for long-term gains felt familiar. The oncologist in me would add that inflicting harm for a known long-term benefit is also reasonable and depending on the alternatives even preferred. Of course, it took centuries of wading in the dark before medicine got to the point where it could with any certainty predict the outcome of its interventions. Are social sciences there yet?

Written by Tyler Cowen, 2018

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