Review, Top Stories

Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments—A Review

A review of Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals by Tyler Cowen. Stripe Press (October 2018), 160 pages.

The complexity of the modern world makes it difficult to know what’s worth caring about. We all know that many problems exist, but none of us know for certain which problems are over-exaggerated, which ones are under-exaggerated, which ones admit of solutions, and which ones would only be exacerbated by our meddling. To make matters worse, the increasing partisanship of mainstream media along with the echo chamber effects of social media throws doubt on the notion that information reaches our minds free of slant, spin, or skew.

Onto this landscape of paralyzing uncertainty strides the economist Tyler Cowen with a bold solution. As he argues in his new book Stubborn Attachments, there is one goal we should promote above all else: maximizing the sustainable rate of economic growth. Of course, you’re free to care about other societal issues if it makes you happy. But from the point of view of increasing human well-being, Cowen argues, you can’t do better than maximizing growth; indeed you can’t even come close.

Cowen’s argument has three premises. The first is that wealth is the best thing humans have ever created. If you enjoy living past thirty, not starving to death, not having to wash clothes by hand, talking to loved ones on the phone, air conditioning, and having free time to read articles like this one, then you have the existence of wealth—or rather the people, institutions, and ideas that create it—to thank.

To be sure, there’s more to human flourishing than just wealth. We also care about things like justice, human rights, and emotional fulfillment. But even values like these, which seem to be unrelated to wealth, still ride on its coattails. As Steven Pinker points out in Enlightenment Now, gross domestic product (GDP) “correlates with every indicator of human flourishing” including longevity, health, nutrition, peace, freedom, human rights, tolerance, and even self-reported happiness levels.1

Cowen’s second premise points to the surprising implications of exponential growth. Put $2 on the first square of an 8-by-8 chessboard, $4 on the second square, $8 on the third square, etc., and there will be more dollar bills on the final square than there are blades of grass on planet earth. Now replace squares on a chessboard with years on a timeline, and replace dollar bills with units of “wealth plus” (Cowen’s term for GDP plus immeasurable goods like leisure time and environmental amenities), and just like dollar bills accrue with shocking speed on a chessboard, “wealth plus” accrues with shocking speed over time.

The exponential growth of global wealth starting around 1800.

The difference between the chessboard and global wealth is that, unlike the predictable doubling of dollar bills on each square of the chessboard, the economic growth rate changes every year based to a large extent on policy decisions. A slightly higher rate of growth than we have now—say, one extra percentage point per year—may not matter much in the short-term, but in the long-term, exponential growth makes that single percentage point hugely important.

Cowen gives a hypothetical example: “redo U.S. history, but assume the country’s economy had grown one percentage point less each year between 1870 and 1990. In that scenario, the United States of 1990 would be no richer than the Mexico of 1990.”2 That would mean hundreds of millions of people working longer hours and receiving a lower standard of living in return. On the other hand, if we imagine that the growth rate were one percentage point higher during those years, Americans would be far wealthier than we currently are. “Production could be much greater than it is today,” Cowen maintains, “and our lives could be more splendid.”3

Cowen’s final premise is what he calls “Deep Concern for the Distant Future.” This means that, in a utilitarian calculus, we should not devalue people just because they don’t exist yet. When it comes to money, we all devalue the future. Having a dollar today is worth more to us than having a dollar in a year, which is why banks can charge interest on loans. But if we treated morality like we treat finance—by imposing a “moral interest rate” of, say, 1.4 percent—then a single death today would equal (in utilitarian terms) about one thousand deaths in the year 2518.

Taken to the extreme, devaluing the future in this way would commit us to absurd conclusions like the scenario imagined by Cowen and the late philosopher Derek Parfit: “Imagine finding out that you, having just reached your twenty-first birthday, must soon die of cancer because one evening Cleopatra wanted an extra helping of dessert.”4

The idea that a future life should be worth the same as a present life seems innocent enough. But combine it with Cowen’s other premises and you reach a stunning conclusion: (1) If wealth-plus is the largest driver of human well-being; and (2) if small changes in the current growth rate will lead to huge differences in the amount of global wealth-plus many years from now; and (3) if future people (who will vastly outnumber present people) are just as valuable as you and me; then the most important thing we can possibly do is maximize the sustainable rate of growth so that the majority of humankind—namely those yet-to-be-born—will have much more wealth-plus than they’ll have if we continue chugging along with our current, middling rate of growth.

It’s hard to find an error in Cowen’s argumentative chain. Nevertheless, for many the idea of orienting public policy primarily towards wealth maximization will conjure up images of a soulless, hyper-capitalistic hellscape where humans are treated as dispensable labor-machines. Cowen, however, anticipates this objection by placing one major constraint on growth-maximization: human rights. Under no (realistic) circumstances should we violate human rights to maximize the sustainable rate of growth, he maintains; but, short of that, Cowen believes we should stop at nothing.

At 110 pages in length (minus appendices), Stubborn Attachments makes a careful case without wasting the reader’s time. The discussion of human rights, however, does suffer for its lack of detail. For a start, Cowen doesn’t define the concept of a “right,” which presents a problem given that it’s prone to infinite expansion. Things which didn’t even exist a few decades ago—the internet, for instance—are now seen as universal human rights. If treading on human rights is the one thing we cannot do to increase growth then, in practice, the list of proscribed policies may grow ever longer as humanity invents nice new things and dubs them “rights.” Vis-á-vis humanity, the conceptual expansion of rights is a sign of moral and economic progress. But vis-á-vis Cowen’s argument, it’s a weakness.

Even with a well-defined human rights proviso, Cowen’s thesis might still leave the typical reader somewhat cold. This gut-level discomfort, however, is just an artifact of the mismatch between our apish programming and our modern context. Our common sense intuitions about good and evil were shaped in a context where the nicest thing you could possibly do was share a gazelle you just killed with your tribe. It’s no wonder, then, that our moral itches aren’t scratched by phenomena as recent in our evolutionary history as market competition and incentive structures—even if those phenomena are the deepest drivers of human well-being.

Others may worry that most of the gains achieved by maximizing growth will go to the rich. Since 1980, the share of national income going to the highest tax brackets has skyrocketed, a trend which shows no sign of stopping. If further economic gains will be hoarded by the ultra-wealthy, then the focus on growth is misplaced. Instead, we should focus on fighting income inequality by redistributing what already exists.

Cowen rejects this argument for a few reasons. First, contrary to the idea that “trickle down” economics never works, wealth actually does “trickle down” in the long-run. If it did not, he argues, then poverty in wealthy countries would resemble poverty in poor countries, because wealth at the top would never have made its way to the bottom. But the opposite is true. For instance, nearly all Americans below the poverty-line own a color TV, and over 80 percent have an air conditioner, a video recorder, and a cell phone.5 In less wealthy countries, by comparison, the poor have few or none of these things.

What’s more, when poverty is measured by the real-life goods and services people purchase rather than by the figures that appear on their paychecks, the proportion of Americans who are poor has declined 90 percent since 1960.6 Even if income hasn’t been trickling down in recent decades, better living standards—i.e., what income buys and what really matters—have.

Not only does wealth “trickle down” nationally, but it also does so globally. According to the World Bank, the global extreme poverty rate fell from 36 percent in 1990 to 10 percent in 2015, lifting over a billion people out of officially-defined destitution. This economic miracle was not caused by charitable donation or top-down redistribution, but by the expansion of market economies into the developing world. (That’s not to say Cowen is against charity. To the contrary, all of Cowen’s earnings from Stubborn Attachments will go to an Ethiopian man pseudonymously named “Yonas.”) 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.

The second reason Cowen rejects the inequality critique is that redistributionist policies, though often sold as straightforward solutions to poverty, often require tradeoffs—that is, they might reduce poverty for some while preventing others from escaping it. Consider the contest between reducing poverty for Americans and reducing poverty for migrants: the bigger America’s welfare state becomes, the more voters will feel (rightly or wrongly) that recent immigrants are taking more from the country than they’re contributing. Thus, they will vote to curb immigration, preventing many migrants from achieving a higher standard of living by moving to America.

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.

That said, Cowen doesn’t reject redistribution per se; he is strongly in favor of redistributionist policies that increase growth, like ensuring that the poor are well-housed and well-fed. He only rejects forms of redistribution that reduce growth. The unconditional desire to reduce inequality, growth-be-damned, is “the thinking man’s equivalent of the savage’s short-run gratification,” Cowen writes. “It is our latest adaptive mechanism for feeling good about ourselves, at the expense of letting Rome burn.”7

There is something in Stubborn Attachments for all three major political ideologies—and therefore something for ideologues of each stripe to hate. Conservatives will love Cowen’s appreciation of order and stability (burning the system to the ground is bad for growth), but some will bristle at his deep concern for the implications of climate change. Libertarians will love the emphasis on markets but will hate Cowen’s defense of the welfare state. And progressives will love Cowen’s stances on climate change and human rights but will balk at the idea that capitalism, far from being a scourge on the poor, is in fact the best anti-poverty program ever devised.

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.


Coleman Hughes is a Quillette columnist and an undergraduate philosophy major at Columbia University. His writing has also appeared in the Spectator, City Journal, and the Heterodox Academy blog. You can follow him on Twitter @coldxman


1 Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now, (Viking: New York), 96.
2 Tyler Cowen, Stubborn Attachments, (Stipe: San Francisco), 40.
3 Ibid., 24.
4 Ibid., 65.
5 Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 116-117.
6 Ibid., 117. 
7 Cowen, Stubborn Attachments, 124.


  1. Pingback: Coleman Hughes reviews *Stubborn Attachments* - Marginal REVOLUTION

  2. Chris says

    Another well written, concise, thoughtful article Mr Hughes, thanks.
    At the end, I kinda wanted you to declare your position on the main thesis; but yeah, it’s a book review, so you’re forgiven.
    Keep going Coleman, all good.

    • Michael Joseph says

      Wow, what a goofy premise. Growth at all costs. So the first thought I had was environmental. Humans are displacing every thing else that needs habitat. You can’t live on a planet with nothing but pavement and Starbucks. Then I’m thinking about technology. What happens when almost everything is done by intelligent robots? Why do you need growth? Just build enough for the need of living people. Most societies experience negative birth rates if they have educated industrialized populations.

  3. gregglory says

    Great article, but the two parties in America are not equally agnostic on maximizing growth. That is strictly a Republican concern at this point in the story. Out id’s Trump ‘s entire economic plan!

  4. E. Olson says

    Nice review. The redistribution that almost certainly does the most harm to economic growth are moving from meritocratic to social justice criteria for individual and group selection and advancement. Replacing a 135 IQ Asian/White with a “victim” class 105 IQ applicant to Harvard or Google hiring female programmers with Gender Studies degrees instead of male programmers with Computer Science degrees will certainly hurt productivity by reducing the more efficient distribution of resources, but that is exactly what is increasingly happening with the policy preferences of the Left. The biggest Leftist fallacy is in fact that trickle-down doesn’t work, as if rich people bury their money in the backyard instead of saving it in banks (which make loans to businesses and consumers to buy stuff), or investing in new business (which creates jobs and wealth), or buying stuff (which creates jobs for the people that make and sell the stuff). The desire to “get the rich” means there are virtually no Leftist policies that don’t kill economic growth, but unfortunately much of the public votes on the basis of what feels “fair” and/or whether they get some “free” stuff, rather than what is good for growth.

    • DuppyConqueror says

      “as if rich people bury their money in the backyard”

      Or “offshore tax havens” as they’re known colloquially

      • E. Olson says

        Duppy – yet even the offshore tax havens don’t bury the money – they just hide it from tax authorities. Banks need to lend money to make money (and pay interest on deposits), so the money they get from tax cheats is put into the local or global economy where it hopefully generates growth and further wealth. The question is whether a tax haven bank allocates the money for growth better than the government who would take it through taxation (likely) or banks in developed countries where the tax cheaters live (less likely).

  5. Alistair says

    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.

    • Jack Danzey says


      I think I get where you are coming from, but I think that perhaps you are not seeing the argument quite clearly. By your logic, it seems, there is no reason not to destroy our planet through pollution, deforestation, hunting/fishing to extinction, etc, so long as the effects of doing these things do not manifest until after you are dead. After all, the future generations have no claim on you. They cannot demand anything from you.

      Perhaps your issue is that you think that the argument is too strong, a moral imperative rather than just good policy. Maybe this is so, but good policy it is, nonetheless.

      • Alistair says


        Close, but I fear your example may be a bit misleading.

        “By your logic, it seems, there is no reason not to destroy our planet through pollution, deforestation, hunting/fishing to extinction, etc, so long as the effects of doing these things do not manifest until after you are dead.”

        Except insofar such a course of action would conflict with our current desire to have future generations come into existence and be happy. As our desire for such posterity conflicts and exceeds our short-term gains from trashing the place, the planet is safe-ish, for now. But it would follow that if we wanted, above all things, to destroy the planet and humanity, “future unborn generations” would not have a moral claim to prevent us.

        That is, the reason we don’t do “bad” things is “because we don’t want that future”, not “because we are morally mandated to avoid that future”

        It an argument to recognise that all utilitarian calculations are ultimately selfish (in a formal sense – and this is exactly what we should expect in a utilitarian ethic!).

        • Johan says

          ‘. . . would conflict with our current desire to have future generations come into existence and be happy.’

          Well then.

    • Nick Ender says

      You like Ayn Rand. “We the Living” is one of my all time favorite books. Should be mandatory reading. She would hate this idea as well. But, to your argument, subjecting the present to the future is what creates human flourishing. It is the ultimate human ability to look into the future and plan for it now.

      In fact, any financial expert will tell you the same thing. Save as much as possible as early as possible. Even though you might be dead tomorrow, odds are you won’t be – a new development in human history – so we should not act as though the present is all that we have.

      As Jordan Peterson would say, “act in a way that affirms your family, your community, and humanity generally, now and in the future.”

      I haven’t read the book. But from what this article says I agree with its conclusion.

    • Stephanie says

      Unlike unicorns, children do exist, and it is inevitable that more shall be born. The existence of these people isn’t really hypothetical – it is guaranteed, save some species-destroying cataclysm. The argument presented is a natural extension of the argument we must pass on a better world for our children. We already aim to operate in a way that benefits them, or at least reduces our negative impact on them. Aiming to extend our vision past those currently alive is synonymous with planning for the future.

      • Alistair says

        Well, that’s nice, Stephanie, but until the children exist, they don’t. And their “inevitability” doesn’t give you the right to project your value preferences into their mouths.

        Look, I agree with your values, I have kids etc. But you’re missing the ontological point at the core of this. The point is that these are our values. They are NOT the values of the future (non-existent) children, unicorns or whatever. We shouldn’t deceive ourselves into thinking we are “speaking with the voice of the future” when we plan for it. We are speaking for ourselves, today, and our present values. When we speak of “our children’s utility” we are actually speaking of our vicarious utility apprehending their prospective utility.

        Making transcendental claims that hypothetical entities have extant utility is tosh. Consider if everyone alive today was instantly replaced, Thanos-style, by deep greens determined to suicide and remove the “cancer of humanity from the earth”. Would “unborn future generations” have any moral claim against their action? Or what if I gave you a choice between two 100-year futures; with equal per capita wealth; one with 6 Billion humans including your descendants, and 7 Billion humans with none of your descendants? Which would you pick…? If hypothetical beings have extant utility, you must choose the latter, right?

        Sorry. Philosophy grad. Precision in language matters, because it is precision in thought. People are being sloppy here.

        • Stephanie says

          Alistair, I don’t see what’s sloppy about taking the common motivation to do right by your kids and extending that to generalised future generations. Yes, that depends on what you mean by “doing right,” but as the article describes, greater wealth is the surest path to higher standard of living. Unless you’re arguing that it’s possible our descendents might enjoy starvation, I don’t see what there is to dispute in that. We can project that value “into their mouths” as surely as we know our own children will enjoy food. If by some horror our children fail to pick up these values, they are free to choose to starve, but there is no reasonable cause to think their values on this will diverge from ours. It is highly unrealistic that the biological urge that drives us to survive and thrive will disappear.

          If everyone on the planet turned suicidal, that would be a great tragedy for many reasons, including the many people who would not exist. From a biological perspective, continuing the species is our only vital task. It would be immoral to fail in that responsibility, as objectively immoral as you can get.

          The existence of future generations and our responsibility to pass on the best we can doesn’t necessitate that the future is immutable. It’s not hypothetical people as individuals who have value, because they don’t exist as individuals. Instead, I’d say that it’s generalised future generations that we have a responsibility to.

          Sorry, science grad. I don’t see the benefit of assuming unprecedented changes in animal nature for the sake of making a semantic argument. Nor in impossible hypotheticals.

          • augustine says

            I’m wondering if this perceived concern for future generations is akin to a lateral consideration for all human beings on the planet at this time? Billions of people we will never meet or even know of… how do our feelings in this regard differ across time or across the seas?

            As far as being careful about leaving behind the things we value today to future participants, well, yes, of course. In the meantime, I want to be able to revisit a lake (e.g.) teeming with fish and surrounded by healthy forests, for myself and to share with others multiple times in my lifetime. That is challenge enough for those of us here now.

            We should be prudent in our stewardship of resources, but in truth after the witness generations have died out, the memory will be lost to the culture and remembered only in a few publications. What will be left to distant generations, who they will be and how they will look upon it, is certainly unknowable.

          • X. Citoyen says

            Stephanie and Alistair,

            You both seem to be drawing on different ideas about obligations to future generations. Stephanie appears to be thinking of something like Burke’s covenant between the living, the dead, and the unborn. This is a value or worldview, a way of understanding one’s place in the cosmos from which obligations follow. I happen to sympathize with this view and, judging by his remarks about his own children, Alistair seems to share some of it too.

            Utilitarianism, however, is a different worldview altogether. And Alistair is right about the problem with the version presented in this book. I can perhaps state the absurdity it creates even more succinctly: If the utility of possible future people must be counted in the hedonic calculus, then every woman alive today has an obligation to have as many children as she possibly can. After all, anything else she might choose to do instead must necessarily be of lesser value than the lives of her children and her children’s children and so on. Needless to say, this violates the principle that ought implies can in a dozen different ways.

            Of course, this is yet another example of the absurdities and paradoxes that arise from utilitarian thinking in general.

  6. A commentator above hits on it, but real committed feeling to the future mostly takes the form of wanting the best for ones children. This takes on a somewhat generalized sense in wanting the society they inhabit to be one good for their welfare, but it’s still about ones children.

    If I believe my society is working towards the welfare of a generalized and I’ll defined future people’s who may or may not include my children and their welfare then I’m less committed.

    If you want people to play cooperate rather then defect you need to convince them that you are playing cooperate too. Particularly radical views of the future don’t fit that mold.

    • Alistair says

      “If you want people to play cooperate rather then defect you need to convince them that you are playing cooperate too. Particularly radical views of the future don’t fit that mold.”

      It certainly raises the suspicion that your counter-party is clueless, vulnerable to invasive defection strategies, and likes to advertise this.

      It is extremely dangerous to live amongst a tribe of co-operative pacifists when there are predators about.

  7. Andrew Leonard says

    So Capitalism is to economies what compound interest is to money

  8. The reviewer points it out, but what exactely are “human rights” is a big sticking point. Also what is “good for stability” or “good for growth”.

    Is an expensive education for everyone good for growth? Probably not since it would fail an ROI for most people. Is it a human right anyway? Is it possible for people and politicians to rationally determine an ROI on emotionally charged “pro growth investments”.

    Redistribution that is bad for growth probably won’t take the form of flat transfers, but expensive yet useless “investments” in public goods that don’t pan out but are sold as “human rights”.

    • Nick Ender says

      We need to get a grip on this whole “human rights” business as a species. It used to be understood that your rights end where mine begin, generally speaking. That no longer seems the case. You could argue that the welfare state helped destroy that world view. It’s hard to argue that your rights can’t impinge on mine when your “right” to a certain standard of living means I must give up my right to the income I have earned. I think maybe that the responsibilities over rights conversation that is being had in some corners of the IDW is the answer. Maybe it’s the case that instead of demanding more rights as a people, we should be demanding more responsibility…

    • Stephanie says

      @Asdf Good point. Few people will admit to advocating for restrictions on growth, the problem is people disagree on how to get growth. The left thinks tax breaks are a waste of money that could be spent on infrastructure projects, the right thinks redistribution and regulatory burdens hamper growth.

      I nonetheless appreciate that someone is making the argument that wealth generation is itself a virtue.

  9. Imagine a simplified society in which there are 5 rich people and 50 poor people. Suppose that in the growth-maximizing scenario, each rich person has $100 and each poor person has $5, resulting in total wealth of $750. To address inequality, policy makers enact various measures that make public investments and redistribute wealth, resulting in a new society in which the 5 rich people each have $85 and the 50 poor people each have $6. As a result of deadweight loss, reduced growth, etc., the wealth of the new society now measures $725. Couldn’t it be the case that the incremental dollar to the 50 poor people is worth more (in terms of well-being) than the cumulative loss of the rich people? Don’t wealth and income have diminishing marginal utility (food > golf club membership)? I’m sympathetic to the notion that capitalism is the best anti-poverty program ever devised, but I’m not sure that simply maximizing economic growth guarantees the most desirable outcome, no matter what currency you care about. John Rawls certainly had a lot to say about this sort of thinking, I’m sure he’d have a thoughtful rebuttal if he were still with us.

    • Alistair says

      I was waiting for someone to point this little problem out.

      Wealth-maximising is not guaranteed to be utility maximising. In fact, I’d hazard that the utility maxima almost certainly isn’t the wealth maxima. You don’t need Rawls to see that.

      It’s no use Cowen protesting positive correlation between welfare measures and GDP, because so long as the response surface was smooth and monodirectional, that’s what we would see from any function that was actually welfare-maximising instead.

    • E. Olson says

      Tim – you make the mistake of assuming that wealth earned has diminishing returns, which suggests the wealthy eventually get tired and bored as they buy their 75th Rolls Royce, and 59th mansion, the 4th private jet, etc., but such extravagant consumption is typically among their less important expenditures. Rather the bulk of their wealth is typically used to provide capital for the next Google, or Amazon, or McDonalds, or buy bonds that underpin government spending, or given to charities the help the poor, support artists, cure diseases, or paid out in taxes, and all but the taxes and government bonds rarely suffer from diminishing returns to the wealth holder or society at large. Thus instead of giving each poor person the extra dollar for merely breathing, growth oriented investments provide jobs so that the poor person can earn 2 or 5 or 15 dollars more from work that also provides personal benefits (sense of satisfaction/achievement, social involvement, etc.) and societal benefits (less crime, less welfare dependency, and increased tax revenues).

      • Totally acknowledge that my example was an oversimplification and I agree with much of what you said. That said, I still think it’s reasonable to conceive of a society that has higher costs of capital (to your point on the savings of the wealthy), lower total output, etc. but has higher utility than the output-maximizing society. Perhaps this hypothetical society is one in which the rising tide doesn’t lift the right boats to maximize utility? Perhaps some boats are anchored to the sea floor? Or maybe the tide doesn’t sufficiently rise because wealthy consumption/investment leaves the local economy? Also, as Alistair indicated, I think it’s a very open question as to whether or not maximizing wealth maximizes utility. Nothing wrong with assuming it does for the sake of bounding our conversation, but it remains the elephant in the room.

        • E. Olson says

          It is an interesting issue, because the “poor” in Western countries are not poor by any historical standard. Thus giving an obese, closet full of clothes, large-screen TV owning “poor” person in today’s America more money for breathing (aka welfare) does not necessarily provide higher marginal utility to the individual than letting the rich people keep their money through lower taxes, because the poor person is more likely to “waste” the money (i.e. buy lottery tickets, designer sneakers, abuse drugs, smoke) than the rich person since their basic needs are already taken care of. The case for marginal utility would be stronger if the poor were going from starvation to satiation (which would provide health and productivity benefits), or shoeless and wearing rags to having a decent wardrobe (which would provide health and social benefits), or could be trusted to invest the money in education (productivity benefits) or property or retirement savings (financial security), but that doesn’t describe the vast majority of today’s “poor”. The best evidence indicates that the poor are poor because they make more bad decisions than the middle and upper classes, and giving them more money with “no-strings-attached” is not going to fix the problem, or provide higher growth to the economy.

        • Farris says

          Concern for wealth utility is a canard. If the wealthy place their money in country clubs and Lamborghinis, then there becomes more country club and Lamborghini manufacturing jobs. If the wealthy place their money in savings, banks become more able to write loans for new upstarts. Banks that have a 20% loan to deposit ratio fail as they are paying out more in deposit interest than they are taking in from loan interest. Money that ends up off shore accounts benefit the banks and residents of the countries in which that money resides. If there is an unfulfilled demand, rest assured that an up start business will fill that demand an become wealthy. The idea of wealth utility is the support mechanism for luxury taxes. However it has been consistently demonstrated that luxury taxes harm the luxury providers and workers, not the wealthy. The best way to harm an economies is to remove capital from them. Over taxation takes money from the economy and places into a bureaucracy. The more layers of bureaucracy the more money is lost before its ultimate return to the economy. Anyone concerned with utility of money should be more concerned with tax rates than investment vehicles of the rich.

    • simon... says

      If that was a possibility, it would be a real problem. Luckily in capitalist (AKA free market) system, 5 “rich” people can only be as rich as 50 “poor” people are willing to consume products and services 5 “rich” people are offering, which in turn makes 50 people richer too!

  10. Even if we focus on the future only as far as our children and their children (who will live during our lifetimes) Cowen’s prescription still makes a lot of sense. I will not give two hoots right now for people of 22nd century, but what I do and the growth policies I support will affect them – to Cowen’s point.

    As far as defining human rights that is a real problem in that it’s an unknown future variable, and basic common sense is not guaranteed to prevail. If something like UBI becomes a ‘right’ it will affect economic growth.

    I can get on board with the growth thesis, but I’d prefer the dubious global warming bent be modified to good stewardship of the planet/environment. The kind of money and resources they propose chasing climate change down the rabbit hole will definitely affect economic growth – where anti-pollution measures and conservation are likely to be benign if not helpful.

  11. c young says

    This doesn’t seem to address the biggest hole in this kind of thinking. What’s growth for? Its not an end itself. Economic growth doesn’t increase happiness levels once GDP per head passes $25k, for instance.

    • If that were true, why don’t most people donate all money earned over $25k? Because it’s not true?
      Growth means a person tomorrow has more options and choices than a person today, which few would think a bad idea.
      But we do need to figure out how to balance economic growth without humanity being a cancer upon the Earth.

    • Happiness is mostly a signal that things are moving in the right direction.You could have been the happiest person in the world 1000 years ago with just 100m² house and a few dozen possessions. There is nothing magical about $25k – it’s just that it’s what you expect.

      Growth lets us feel like we are making things better because we can do things we couldn’t before, like explore the galaxy. It’s a rather objective measure that can’t be faked.

  12. The notion that wealth generally increases happiness, clearly lacks an understanding of the human animal.

    What to make of the affluent Trump supporters, who brim with rage and fear? Or affluent westernized young men who join ISIS?
    Why the complaints about the Kelo decision, where the government seized land and gave it to a more productive entity?

    Status and dominance are every bit as critical to the human person as housing and food. What Cowen is trying to do is argue that humans should stop being they way they are.

    • Most prefer that their babies don’t die, that the mothers don’t die, that children don’t die, that we’re not starving, not fighting disease, not fighting each other…

    • Peter from Oz says

      WHat to make of affluent lefties who want to whine about everything all the time in fear and anger that is completely absent on the right.
      That’s the difference between the right and the left. The left whines and fears everything. The right faces up to challenges and overcomes them with ingenuity and skill.

  13. A utilitarian moral argument based on the projected well being of future generations combined with a projection of exponential growth into the deep future is absurd on many levels.

    Making moral decisions on the potential benefit to massive numbers of future people allow the justification of almost any action based on a supposed future benefit. As an example I could argue that If we eliminated all people who were not a a single ethnic group we would have eliminated racial conflict in the future with massive benefit outweighing the short term cost of billions of lives with thousands of billions of lives saved and enhanced in the future. A less extreme version of this would be a eugenic argument to sterilise all those with any genetic disease.

    Any forecast deep into the future is inherently suspect because we simply can’t forsee the future. Moral decisions based on a projected future lack any foundation because we know the assumptions behind the decision are almost certainly wrong without knowing in what way they are wrong.

    Assumptions of indefinite exponential growth must be suspect. It may be a long way off but there must be some limit to the benefits of human ingenuity and resources of any physical sort are finite.

    • Ah, but that is where the non specific vague reference to undefined “human rights” comes in. Not to mention a vague notion of “stability”. What are human rights? What will bring about stability? If we can’t get specific, what does this really tell us that we don’t already know? I already wanted to vaguely increase growth provided it doesn’t conflict with other things I find important…like everyone else.

      I think these things remain vague so that people can read in whatever definitions they want, this appealing to the widest audience even as the assumptions of that audience may be irreconcilable.

  14. R Henry says

    ” he is strongly in favor of redistributionist policies that increase growth, like ensuring that the poor are well-housed and well-fed”

    How do we determine if housing and feeding the poor increases growth?

  15. R Henry says

    ” gross domestic product (GDP) “correlates with every indicator of human flourishing”

    Correlation does not equal causation. As such, this is an excellent place to begin some research…what is creating this correlation, and is there an element of causation?

    • True, but growing GDP suggests people are creating more things/services that other people want/need. Imagine trying to care for 7.5 billion people today without non-muscle energy…we’d all be farming and foraging…

    • Stephanie says

      @ R Henry, while correlation is not the same as causation, correlation with a likely causal mechanism implies causation. The causal mechanism in this case is obvious. More money means people live better.

  16. cacambo says

    This is a very interesting discussion. Well-informed, well-supported arguments from a variety of perspectives. It’s a pleasure when the internet actually works like this.

  17. Ray Andrews says

    Except that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet. Also, there is no such thing as trickle-down anything. The workers of the world produce a certain amount of goods and services. Those G&S are then consumed. The more that is consumed by anyone the less is consumed by anyone else. Labor can go into making Patek Philippe watches for the 0.01%, or the same labor could go into making perhaps 50 decent houses for the working class. It really is more of one and less of the other or more of the other and less of the one. I’m told that the amount of money rich Americans spend on their pets would be enough to feed all the world’s poor quite adequately.

    • Peter from Oz says

      So the fact that capitalism and free markets have caused more people to rise out of poverty than any government or charitable programs means that trickle down doesn’t work?

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Peter from Oz

        Your logic has never failed before this Peter, I’m quite surprised. You straw man me and flavor it with a false dichotomy. I’m a big fan of capitalism and free markets but they are only related to trickle down as a slight of hand. In fact trickle down is a fraud and not really capitalism at all. It is a smokescreen, a lie and a pretend excuse for too much unearned wealth being basically stolen by a class of people who are not capitalists but moneyists. Andrew Carnegie would piss on them. He made steel, they make nothing. Or few of them do, anyway. Musk is a capitalist. Goldman are a den of thieves.

        • Irrational Actor says

          Well said Ray, and I agree with the Musk example.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Irrational Actor

            Thanks. Capitalism is the world’s most successful method of generating wealth and creating innovation, but it is also a mad dog. It is dangerous, utterly irresponsible, ignores externalities, tends to gross concentration of wealth (beyond any notion of what has been ‘earned’) and is generally to be kept IMHO under very close surveillance — which makes me a conservative conservative perhaps. Liking capitalism and trusting Goldman, and/or people like Trump, are not the same thing.

    • augustine says

      This planet’s resources are in principle finite in absolute terms but there is no limit on how those resources can be configured, with or without humans on board. The question is how do we manage those resources to our liking to appreciate the marvels of nature, meet energy needs, etc. The end of lush rainforests or lemurs argument doesn’t seem to have fazed many people thus far, globally speaking. I recall a figure for pangolin scale imports to China that was measured in tons.

      “[capitalism] is dangerous, utterly irresponsible, ignores externalities, tends to gross concentration of wealth…”

      I think you mean some of the people in the process exhibit these tendencies. In a gun crime we usually ask “Who is the shooter?” and not “Is the gun maker a leader in the industry?”

      • Ray Andrews says


        No, I mean exactly what I said. I suppose one might attempt the correction that you make, but it seems pedantic to me. We ascribe moral characteristics to social systems and movements all the time. For example, few would protest if I said that Nazism is a racist ideology, whereas only individual people can actually be racist. I might have said that capitalism tends to encourage those tendencies, but it seems to me that the way I put it is quite clear.

        • augustine says

          Moral characteristics can be ascribed that way, yes, but not actions. A belief system or ideology is acted out through the agency of human beings. It cannot not act directly. Capitalism is not irresponsible or dangerous, and any danger posed by particular capitalists is mainly dependent on their individual characteristics and circumstances.

          People often direct their objections toward an abstraction of group membership rather than the people involved. The indirect meaning may be clear enough but it clouds the distinction between man and his ideas.

    • “Workers of the world” is a bold stroke! But your argument is a bit simplistic. You might be happy with a watchmaker building your house, but I probably wouldn’t. They are not “the same labor”.
      And the more that is consumed by, say, me, the more money is earned by the producers of what I consume, and the more they consume from other producers, and so ad infinitum. The workers being, of course, consumers too.

      I grew up in the UK in the fifties and sixties. Everybody consumed less then. Everybody consumes more now. And in the meantime, both the proportion and absolute number of the world’s population living in desperate poverty has decreased dramatically, despite the huge increase in absolute number of people.

      The money rich Americans spend on their pets prevents the pet food producers’ numbering among the world’s poor. Likewise the money spent on books, music, art, carbon-fibre bicycles, television sets, food processors, or any of the other myriad things we use beyond the strictly necessary. The amount of money spent on almost any of them would be enough to feed the world’s poor – but where would the money come from?

      I’ve always thought that “trickle down”was one of the more unfortunate expressions in economic argument. It speaks of a lack of agency at any point in the process. What in fact improves the lot of the poor is their engagement in production and consumption, work and trade. The capital generated by myriad economic activities is an essential enabling factor. It makes possible, for example the programs of small loans in places like Bengal that allow peasant farmers – and their wives – to step into the larger economic flow by funding their tiny businesses. It makes possible programs to eliminate debilitating diseases, to develop more resilient staple crops, to provide energy, health care, communications and transport.

      So no, none of that happens through the “trickling down” of cash. Business, government, law and civil society all have active roles to play in promoting growth, managing its downsides, and extending support and protection and incentive to those at risk of being left out. And for all its flaws, and the long way still to go, the economic order of the postwar years has been extraordinarily successful at doing so across most of the world.

    • hooodathunkit says

      Proven time and time and time and time again: there is no known limit to produced resources. Whether food, machinery, or services; if there is enough demand it will always be provided. If there is a run on your watches (say 1000 of them) it provides wages equal to 50,000 houses to all involved in making them; from the sales force to the craftsmen, from the janitors to the metal miners, the food vendors and gas station clerks, etcetera.

      The point being that the “more that is consumed by anyone” simply makes the supply increase.

      A prime example is provided in your last sentence about pet food. In the last century teams centered around Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution improved crop yields to relieve hunger. Now there is grain grown every year (your quote) “enough to feed all the world’s poor quite adequately” twice over! There is no more world hunger in that sense. There is still starvation and malnutrition; a result of policy, war, and crime that sending dog food money will have no effect on.

      • Although you are right to praise Borlaug, we don’t really produce twice the amount of grain needed to feed the world. Why would we? Nobody gets paid for producing grain that isn’t used, and it spoils pretty quickly.

  18. Steve says

    “But from the point of view of increasing human well-being, Cowen argues, you can’t do better than maximizing growth; indeed you can’t even come close.”

    Almost all human beings realize how false this statement is. Billionaires commit suicide from time to time. Kids in Haiti play joyfully much of the day.

    Economic growth and material well-being are good things to be sure, however the sort of extremely impoverished intellect that believes this is the most important thing for human beings is truly worthy of pity.

  19. nit: it’s vis-à-is not vis-á-vis. (You have the wrong accent on the ‘a’)

  20. Nate D. says

    Always enjoy Mr. Hughes’ contributions to Quillette.

    I’m assuming the book fleshes this out, but Hughes’ statement that, “We also care about things like justice, human rights, and emotional fulfillment. But even values like these, which seem to be unrelated to wealth, still ride on its coattails,” jolted me.

    Is Cowen suggesting that wealth is a self-starting, a priori, commonality among mankind? This struck me as a horse and cart problem. Wealth seems to only germinate and grow within a petri dish containing a certain type of values, and it will quickly die when those values are removed. This is why some cultures seem to be perpetually impoverished. And, mind you, you can pump as much money as you want into these cultures, but until new values are imported, the wealth will never perpetuate. It will wither and die, every time.

    This struck me as a glaring error. So obvious that I wondered if I was missing something. Am I missing something?

    • Peter from Oz says

      I don’t think you are missing anything. But this is a bit of a chicken and egg argument. Did we become civil because of markets or did our pre-existing civility cause markets to grow?
      Maybe it’s a bit of both. We were civil enough to start on the road to capitalism, and once we got onto that road we became more civil.

    • It is a sine qua non. Without wealth, you don’t get any of that other stuff. You just wind up struggling to find enough food for the next day.

  21. It is as if “man” or “person” were a box of interchangeable parts, that we could send a group of Swedes by teleport to the Australian Bush or we could take a group of aborignals and teleport them to Moscow and it didn’t make a difference.

    Most peoples have a sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and anyone who has ever traveled will discover that those notions change when you cross the river. How one tribe who believes up is good and down is evil can coexist with another tribe who believes up is bad and down is good, and further make collective political decisions on the commonwealth is beyond me.

    I suppose a good old fashioned fascist dictatorship with a council of scientific experts could rule this international order, but when you put it like that–an International Fascist world state–it doesn’t sound so appealing. But it would be wealthy, the trains would run on time, and the factories wouldn’t pollute.

  22. “[I]t’s safe to say that most Americans are roundly rejecting Cowen’s thesis at the moment.” Really? To my mind, the party that produces better economic growth, all other things being equal, is typically rewarded politically, and vice-versa. You didn’t go into the details of the extent to which imagined reductions in future economic growth due to projected climate change figure into that calculus, but so far, even though “climate change is already here”, there’s no evidence that it’s had any appreciable effect on economic growth.

    • Circuses and Bread (Solutions, not politics ??) says


      That comment was spot on. Many Americans, although I don’t think “most” most, believe in politics on a level that approximates religious faith. That seems to be particularly true within academia and amongst intellectuals.

      I believe that will change over time. Politics will fail to deliver beneficial ends to society as it normally does. And people will walk away from it. Aided I hope by people such as myself who will point out the failings of politics as frequently as possible.

  23. D Bruce says

    You want growth, wealth maximisation and human rights?
    Henry George’s Single Tax gives you all three … for the price of a bureaucratic tweak.

  24. Pingback: Coleman Hughes reviews *Stubborn Attachments* |

  25. Trickle-down economics is unfortunately an abused misnomer. A better term should be something like “ever-cheapening technology,” which leads to economic empowerment at various scales. Color TVs were mentioned in the essay, but more banal things like a cheap box of nails also contribute our accelerating standard of living.

    It’s difficult to understand the various time scales which can span decades or generations to produce an ever-cheapening contribution. The problem is that authoritarians typically want to short-circuit the evolutionary process in favor of results that they can control immediately (redistribution of wealth, planned economy, strong regulations).

  26. Leo Strauss says

    Thank you for a lucid and insightful review. I found this paragraph of yours to be the most illuminating:

    “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.”

    Can human beings be “rational” enough to let go of their small scale moral battles that give them a reason to wake up every day?

    Interestingly enough, Cowen’s argument (as presented by Mr. Hughes) is not essentially different from Locke in the Second Treatise. The purpose of government is to preserve life and property. We have a duty to acquire as much as we can because it will raise the common stock of mankind. Income inequality will inevitably occur, but, as Locke puts it, a day laborer in England, is better clothed, fed, and has more comfort than Native Americans across the pond (in the 1600’s). Thus, we have to accept income inequality because even the poorest are much better off than they would be had no income inequality ever come to pass. Locke makes acquisition a moral imperative.

    One last thought: was Socrates, who claimed to live in ten-thousand-fold poverty, less happy than we are? We are infinitely more comfortable, entertained, and live longer lives than ever before, but wealth is still only a means, not an end. Self reported happiness indexes by social scientists tend to able only to measure what is measurable (duh): material things. There are articles on Quillette every week that indicate that, in addition to the great gains in material prosperity, there is a lot of anger, loneliness, and disconnectedness that many people in technologically advanced countries are experiencing.

    As Bret Stephens put it in the NY Times today:

    “Part of the reason is that we tend to forget that technology is only as good as the people who use it. We want it to elevate us; we tend to degrade it. In a better world, Twitter might have been a digital billboard of ideas and conversation ennobling the public square. We’ve turned it into the open cesspool of the American mind. Facebook was supposed to serve as a platform for enhanced human interaction, not atool for the lonely to burrow more deeply into their own isolation.”

    and: “Tweeting and trolling are easy. Mastering the arts of conversation and measured debate is hard. Texting is easy. Writing a proper letter is hard. Looking stuff up on Google is easy. Knowing what to search for in the first place is hard. Having a thousand friends on Facebook is easy. Maintaining six or seven close adult friendships over the space of many years is hard. Swiping right on Tinder is easy. Finding love — and staying in it — is hard.”

    In any event, thanks again for the thoughtful article. This was MUCH better than the article on “deepities.”

    • Circuses and Bread (Solutions, not politics ??) says

      @Leo Strauss

      I agree, that was the best paragraph in the review. While I claim zero influence on Mr. Hughes viewpoint, it is greatly rewarding to see folks start poking around the idea that maybe, just maybe politics isn’t all that it’s chalked up to be.

      In answer to your question, I don’t think the point that was being made is that people should give up their small scale moral battles. Why shouldn’t people want to order their world on a more moral basis? Is that all that much in conflict with the idea of growth maximization? I don’t think so. The point seemed to be more focused on political behavior.

      • Leo Strauss says

        @Circuses and Bread

        In response to your first paragraph, would you be willing to say more about why it is that politics is not all that it is chalked up to be? Aristotle, for instance, insists at different points that we are political animals–i.e., we will find our highest fulfillment in (smaller) political communities in which we rule and are ruled in turn, and in which we have reasoned discussions about the good and bad, and hence, just and unjust. That is the height of political life, but, a height, that Aristotle thinks most political communities will fail to reach, though, they ought to strive for it. Modern liberal theorists (Hobbes, Locke, etc) tend to focus on us as individuals, insisting less on our political or social natures, and more on our rights as individuals and what we are allowed to demand from our political communities. So, then, why is political life bad? Or what is it lacking? Or if it is deficient, what do you propose as an alternative?

        To your second paragraph, what you do make of Mr. Hughes’ final paragraph, which follows the one that we both found interesting: “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.”

        Am I wrong in taking Mr. Hughes to be saying that our small partisan battles are precisely what present us from taking part in Cowen’s wisdom? I would be genuinely interested to know if I am not catching the thrust of the argument at the end of the article.

        • Circuses and Bread (Solutions, not politics ??) says

          @Leo Strauss

          Thanks for the reply.

          I guess where I should start is by giving a definition of politics that I like and use: those actions taken to gain, hold, or influence power in a government. I realize that others want to define politics more widely, but I don’t. My position is pretty straightforward: I’m anti politics. In my view politics is not a reasonable way to achieve beneficial ends in society. Politics fails any reasonable return on investment analysis. I’ll go further and say that pretty much any moral endeavors outside of politics will have a far better end result than what could be achieved with comparable resources and effort within politics. So for folks who are looking for a better solution than politics, my answer would be try anything else, confident in the knowledge that you really have to work hard to do a worse job than politics. And I do think people should put in serious efforts to develop a better society, I don’t advocate a sort of limousine libertarianism where we tut-tut other folks efforts without offering to pitch in with our own hard work.

          As for whether people are political animals, I don’t see anything that indicates that they are inherently political, and indeed if you take voting as the litmus test of political activism, either a plurality or majority of those eligible to vote don’t bother. I do believe however that people are social animals, and tribal ones. Hence, we will likely be stuck with the various political factions, or as I refer to them, political cults, until such time as there are some viable alternative “tribes” for folks to attach themselves to.

          I believe that Mr. Hughes is correct in noting other alternative strategies will have a hard time reaching prominence in the US so long as the politics virus is running rampant like a bad fever. But I do think it will run its course eventually. There is already a bulwark of abstention, people who refuse to be involved in politics. I’m also heartened by a recent note of skepticism I’m seeing here and elsewhere amongst academics where they’re trying to be a little more objective in their treatment of politics. There is a little less of the “we gotta believe” and more healthy skepticism. I find it refreshing. If I were to come up to an academic and say that my magic potion cures cancer, they would rightfully demand evidence, studies that could be duplicated, and would approach my claims with a air of professional skepticism. So why should politics be any different? So you say politics achieves beneficial ends in society? Fine. Where is the evidence? Where are the duplicable studies? Where is the air of professional skepticism? Advocating faith in politics as a solution doesn’t make you an academic, it makes you a shaman.

          Thanks again for the very interesting reply.

  27. Circuses and Bread (Solutions, not politics ??) says

    I really liked this article. No surprise there, huh? ?

    The author of the book offers a solution, unlike politics which offers us little but misery, evil, and despair. The solution is not what I think is the absolute best, but it’s good enough. That’s the beauty of offering solutions; it’s not hard at all to come up with a better plan than what politics has to offer us. Pick one. It’ll be hard to do any worse.

  28. Luke Lea says

    I disagree that maximizing the sustainable rate of economic growth is the goal we can all agree on, or even should agree on. Why? Because it favors maximum saving and investment over consumption, which amounts to sacrificing the present for the sake of the future. Indeed, if favors maximum income inequality because the wealthy can afford to save a bigger percentage of their income without hardship.

    A better goal, it seems to me, would be maximizing the general welfare of this and future generations, not valuing the welfare of one over the other. For any hard corp econ buffs out there, here is one element of a policy aimed at achieving that goal, at least in theory:

  29. Growth like we have now can’t continue forever. The per capita energy usage is about 6 MWh / year and our population has been doubling every 53 years. Assuming that continues, in 10000 years we’ll be using 4e69 Wh / year.

    If we figure out 100% conversion of mass to energy, that’s 1e56 kg of fuel, which is a lot more than all the matter in the visible universe.

    • Ray Andrews says


      Yet the infinite growth people continue to peddle their wares. A child can see that this is folly yet many of our leaders cannot see it.

  30. Michael Lardelli says

    “It’s hard to find an error in Cowen’s argumentative chain.” Really? Both Cowen and Hughes appear to live on a world that is flat and extends infinitely in all directions. Only in such a world could the delusion of continuous economic growth be real. Unfortunately, it is pretty well certain that the planet is a sphere with a finite surface area to grow food on, finite atmosphere to dump CO2 into, and finite energy and mineral resources to dig up. Also, if you look at the current trends in fossil fuel extraction and atmospheric CO2 increases, it looks likely that energy production is peaking and so we are highly likely past the peak of net energy. Get ready for decades of “negative economic growth”. That’s the only “sustainable” economic growth you’ll be seeing.

  31. Kenneth Hunt says

    Wealth and value, come to a workable parallel. Then build a global inference engine that is capable of steering our actions to the path of our intent. And,
    some encarnation of these ideas may be a part of of its governing philosophy.

  32. ga gamba says

    maximizing the sustainable rate of economic growth.

    I have not read the book so I’m uncertain of sustainable in this context. I will assume its common meaning that whatever resource being used there is a sufficient quantity left for the foreseeable future gathered using the established technology of the day that allows the economy to chug along.

    Now, I’ll argue it’s our unsustainable demand that unlocks our amazing potential and demonstrated talents. It’s because we behave in ways that in hindsight appear to be, or are proved to be, recklessly unsustainable that drives our creative genius and innovation. Thank the heavens we dance on the precipice.

    I’m sure many know that whale oil was once a very important resource. It made our spermaceti candles, so bright they were it created the new measure of the total quantity of visible light from a source called the lumen. It lit our lamps and also lubricated our early machines. We had little to no knowledge of how many whales swam the oceans, and it was mainly due to whalers having to sail further and further from home, often at sea for years at a time, that caused some the realise the resource was rapidly decreasing. Burning a single spermaceti candle for five hours a night all year when George Washington was living cost well over $1,000 in today’s money. Whale oil went from thirty cents ($8.78 today) a half gallon in 1831 to $1.92 ($57.80 today) a half gallon in 1854. Note the prices. Our energy needs today are met far more safely at a much lower cost.

    It should be apparent to you that not many people could afford the equivalent of either $8.78 or $57.80 per half gallon of lighting oil then… or now for that matter. But those who demanded well lit but not smokey rooms were prepared to pay, even $1000 per annum for a sole candle. Poor Martha, sitting in the dark. I hope George had another $1000 for her candle.

    Meanwhile, petroleum, then called rock oil, was being used for folk remedies. I reckon some of them were “sacred” too. Quacks also passed it off as a cure for numerous ailments such as tuberculosis. Alternatives to expensive whale oil were sought, but many proved to be more expensive or inferior alternatives. The West’s first energy crisis loomed as linseed oil, lard, coal oil, turpentine, camphor, and others were greasy or dirty, smokey or smelly. How many of you have heard of camphine?

    With the invention of petroleum-based kerosene a viable and economical alternative was found. The industry’s ability to quickly commoditise and refine the production process resulted in the price of petroleum to drop from thirty cents ($4.66) per half gallon in 1865 to an astonishingly low 3.5 cents ($1.05) per half gallon in 1895. A byproduct was gasoline, which later was used to fuel the combustion engine. Petroleum-based products from plastics to fertiliser were invented and entered the market. You know the rest of the story.

    The term “Peak Oil” was born in January 2001 when geologist Colin Campbell formed the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas. Throughout the noughties peak oil was used thousands of times a day by journalists, politicians, industry leaders, economists, scientists, and countless others around the globe. The experts. Their conventional wisdom had everyone convinced it was game over. Lights out, developed and developing world.

    In 2016 a Google search for the term “too much oil” outranked searches for “peak oil,” marking a notable reverse in trends when searches for “peak oil” outnumbered “too much oil” by nearly 100 to 1 in 2005–2006. Peak oil passed.

    I’m of the opinion that there’s a correlation between the bigging up of peak oil and the Great Recession. Oil at $100 per barrel disrupted the economy by adding to inflationary pressures, so the Fed kept pushing rates higher that increased the cost of borrowing by both businesses and home buyers. Increasing unemployment (or the fear of it) led to a crash of consumer and business confidence. Potential home buyers exited the market and those who had taken out subprime loans with variable interest rates to buy their homes were up the creek without a paddle. By mid-2008 oil was at $140 per barrel.

    Economist James Hamilton, of the University of California, San Diego, has identified numerous periods since the late 19th century in America when an abrupt rise in the price of oil or petrol coincided with recession. Many of these were caused not by an interrupted supply, but by demand growth colliding with unresponsive supply. Often the unresponsive supply was caused by previous meddling by humans hell bent on keeping Mother Earth… virginal. The leave no footprint fetishisers not only want to stop all future energy development, even of clean and green hydroelectric dams, they want to tear down the ones already built and ably reducing our carbon emissions.

    Human ingenuity figured out innovative ways to extract previously unextractable oil. New fields were discovered. Agriculture was improved in numerous ways. Even a resource that’s much far more finite such as gold has been overcome. A tangible gold substitute wasn’t invented; fiat currency was created.

    By 2012 the experts were singing a different song. Environmentalist George Monbiot of the Guardian: “The facts have changed, now we must change too. For the past 10 years an unlikely coalition of geologists, oil drillers, bankers, military strategists and environmentalists has been warning that peak oil – the decline of global supplies – is just around the corner. . . . Governments, businesses and voters who seemed impervious to the moral case for cutting the use of fossil fuels might, we hoped, respond to the economic case. . . . Peak oil hasn’t happened, and it’s unlikely to happen for a very long time.”

    How convenient for them that their “facts” are malleable whilst those of their opponents are only lies. Still, it needs to be asked: Since the fact of peak oil was wrong, what else do they get wrong?

    Again and again and again we find doomsdayers’ assertions don’t pan out. Two hundred years ago it was Malthus forecasting not enough food for the then world population of less than one billion. Mass starvation, everybody. Nope. The Luddites claimed machines were going to destroy humanity. Smash the looms! That failed. That one’s so popular it’s currently being reprised by the neo-Luddites demanding free money in the form of a universal basic income. When California was a state of 15 million people it built its water projects, ones that allowed Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Stanford, Cal Tech, and the agricultural Central Valley to not merely survive but to thrive. A contemporary California of 40 million paradoxically swears it will build no more dams to fulfill its promise to save the Earth.

    As the world scrambles to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, the environmental impact of finding all the lithium required for those batteries is becoming a major issue in its own right. It takes approximately 500,000 gallons of water per tonne of lithium extracted at arid salt flats. Golly! And that’s not the least of it: look up cobalt. BTW, how’s lithium recycling handled?

    Make no mistake, I’m not opposed to solar energy and electric vehicles. But as we shift from carbon-based energy to one deemed more environmentally beneficial it’s going to reveal many consequences that spur accusations over the lack of sustainability. Many of these issues will be overcome, but not without incurring a lot pain for some and perhaps a few catastrophes along the way. The worst thing we can do is to stymie innovation by regulatory gridlock or social bullying. The appeal of over emotive environmentalism and the celebration of the myth of man as Earth’s custodian is a fool’s errand. The flat earthers are those who refuse to see its man’s ceaseless tinkering to reach beyond the declared limits that is his excellence.

    • The term “peak oil” was first used, AFAIK, by M. King Hubbert in a 1956 paper on nuclear power. He forecast that peak U.S. oil production would occur around 1970 and peak global oil production around 2000. The term may have been used even earlier. Colin Campbell used it too, but not until the forecast was looking like it was way off.

  33. Pingback: Planning or Searching for STEM and Foreign Aid? – Economic Thinking

  34. Charles Berger says

    All I’ll say is that I’d rather live in Costa Rica (GDP per capita $17,044) than in Saudi Arabia ($53,845). Especially if I had no assurance that I would be among the male Saudi elite before making the choice.

    There’s so much wrong here… GDP ignores non-market production (esp. ecosystem services and household work), correlates poorly with human happiness once basic subsistence needs are met, and it’s a throughput measure rather than a balance sheet measure – which is why GDP typically goes up after natural disasters. Economic activity increases, driving up GDP, without taking into account the destruction of wealth that occurred when the disaster hits.

    The limitations of GDP are all very well hashed out, and indeed were well known and acknowledged by the inventors of the measure, who would be horrified to find it is used today as a proxy for national progress.

    • So would anybody in their right mind, although I’d choose Mexico ($20,000) over Costa Rica because Mexico is a larger and more diverse country with a richer culture. Cowen said that growth should be subjected to a constraint of not violating human rights. Saudis have no rights, making their average $53,845 income worthless unless you are “among the male Saudi elite,” and even then it doesn’t sound like much fun, women being under those veils and all.

  35. This can’t be as simplistic as it sounds. Growth as the focus of everything—isn’t that just Republicanism at its most basic level?

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