Is Tyler Cowen right to be stubbornly attached to economic growth?

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Tyler Cowen just published Stubborn Attachments in e-book form.

With the book, you get deep exposure to Tyler’s mental model of the world.

As someone who attempts to collect mental models for subsequent application, I came away smarter for having read it.

Below I’ll try and restate Tyler’s main practical arguments (skipping over some of the philosophy) and then end with some questions and concerns.

Tyler’s Primary Thesis: Sustainable Economic Growth Should Guide Our Policy Making

Tyler argues that sustainable economic growth should guide much of our policy making because, over centuries, the gains from economic growth dwarf the gains of just about all other considerations.

He defines sustainable economic growth as gains in “wealth plus,” which “includes traditional measures of economic value, as would be found in gdp statistics, but also measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth.”

Over let’s say a 5,000 years, consider two possibilities:

No economic growth: We stay the same. Poverty is all around us. People are starving. Billions of people barely get by. Life is hard for so many people.

Modest economic growth: We grow at 2% a year. In 5,000 years, future humans (assuming no population explosion) are crazy wealthy, have access to amazing technology, and even the poorest humans view the richest people of today as paupers. No one is losing sleep trying to make ends meet. Every person has every material need taken care of, plus the wealth to pursue their passions and interests.

In other words, the difference between poverty as we know it and each of us feeling like Bill Gates was materially poor is determined by one thing: sustainable economic growth.

So when we’re making policy decisions we should keep our eye on the prize: sustainable economic growth is what will allow us to flourish.

Of course, in order for you to accept this argument you have to be ok with two assumptions: future lives matter a lot (so we should focus on pro-growth policies that benefit future people), and, increased wealth leads to increased well-being (Tyler runs through the research).

While both of these assumptions are contentious, I believe both to be correct.

Other Considerations: Individual Rights, the Environment, and Social Stability 

Tyler’s provides guardrails and depth to the concept of sustainable economic growth.

First, Tyler argues that we shouldn’t harm individuals to achieve economic growth; i.e., no mass murder even if it helps us squeak out an additional point of growth.

Second, he argues that we shouldn’t destroy the planet in order to achieve economic growth; i.e., what’s the point of focusing on the future benefits of economic growth if there’s no place to live.

Third, he argues that societal stability is an important part of sustainable growth. So policies that might not seem purely connected to growth (such as welfare state) should be considered as part of an effort to maintain the continuity of our civilization.

All of these seem correct to me, though as I’ll argue at the end, I wonder if this last point (societal continuity) is actually what we should be most focused on.

Major Shifts in How We Think and Feel: Redistribute for Growth Only 

Perhaps the biggest practical implication of Tyler’s thesis is that, according to him, “we should redistribute only up to the point which maximizes the rate of sustainable economic growth.”

In other words, we should only give a starving person food if this can be tied to maximizing the rate of sustainable economic growth, not because we feel that the starving person deserves something to eat.

While this rationale logically follows from his assumptions, this line of thinking departs greatly from current values. Most of us justify the welfare state in terms of our care for living and breathing humans, not for future humans.

Tyler’s argument for redistribution is a monumental shift from our current moral calculus.

That being said, it’s possible the our current lack of opportunity is reducing sustainable economic growth, so for now Tyler’s thesis may actually call for an increase in certain types of charity and transfers.

But I predict that most people will find his logic emotionally unappealing.

Anti-Fragility > Sustainable Economic Growth 

As much as I appreciated Tyler’s argument, I think I disagree, though I’m not sure both because I’m still grappling with the text.

Ultimately I believe that “anti-fragility,” rather than “sustainable economic growth” should be the language we use to guide our policy decisions, and I think, though I’m not sure, that this puts me at odds with Tyler.

Consider this hypothetical: would you rather have rather have a million years of infinitesimal  economic decline (.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% a year) and then human extinction or a thousand years of 5% economic growth and then human extinction.

I think almost everyone (including Tyler?) would choose the former.

While economic growth will likely make our society less fragile, this is not inevitable, and we need to incorporate this understanding in choosing guiding principles.

This thought experiment points to the idea that it’s actually the sustainability of a healthy society, and not the sustainability of economic growth, that we desire.

Most of us would accept small amounts of negative economic growth for hundreds of thousands of years of additional existence.

Similarly, I don’t think most of us would take high economic growth and a population explosion that had most people living at substance levels, even if this led to a sustainable society with high amounts of leisure.

So I would argue:

  • Sustainable economic growth is a sub-goal of anti-fragility; it should not be the primary goal in and of itself.
  • Economic growth should be considered in both societal and per-capita terms.
  • I would maintain Tyler’s support for individual rights.
  • I would make environmental sustainability, like economic growth, a sub-goal of anti-fragility.

In sum: anti-fragility and individual rights do all the work. Everything else follows from these two principles.

Thanks + Do the Work Yourself

All that being said, economic growth is clearly one of the primary ways to make our civilization less fragile, so in this sense I agree with many of the practical implications of Tyler’s worldview.

And Tyler’s mental model will be present in my head next time I’m trying to unpack an efficiency vs. equity argument on a specific policy.

Lastly, I do think that everyone should go through the process Tyler went through; ultimately, each of us should understand the philosophical underpinnings of our policy preferences.

I thank Tyler for his contribution.

One thought on “Is Tyler Cowen right to be stubbornly attached to economic growth?

  1. Cozzi, John

    As always your extensive reading promotes fascinating debates. I think you may have made a false choice here though. First, go back two hundred years and determine whether you would have wanted no real growth. That growth elevated vast portions of humanity yet many people did not benefit. I think the vote would still be for growth because many more people would have been hurt without it. But perhaps this is not the right argument.

    The real point is sustainable economic growth is everything AND it does not have to be mutually exclusive with anti-fragility. This is for two reasons. First, growth enables you to fund support for those less fortunate. The challenge becomes the prudent and effective use of the funds. Right now a large government and unsustainable promises have created a huge drag on our costs creating a lot of waste and poor allocation of resources. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the K-12 school system. Former politicians wrote checks they never could pay. There are reasonable arguments that the windfall of our growth has been misallocated. It’s actually the one thing I hate in all of the budget discussions – everyone talks about tax revenues but no one ever, ever talks about whether we are pissing away money. Regardless of your view of taxes, you need to be equally balanced on spending.

    Second, even if your revenues do not grow, your expenses do. This is a more insidious disease and eats more rapidly into what is available for those less fortunate. So I don’t think the slow decline model really exists.

    We should design policy to enable growth. It gives you more options. Then is becomes the responsibility of governments and people to prudently allocate those resources. A thought approach would be to ensure anti-fragility in all its forms but it might not include certain wealth transfers.

    This is not as rigorous as your blog but directionally I think you get my point.

    Regards, John

    John F. Cozzi AEA Investors LP 666 Fifth Avenue, 36th Floor New York, New York 10103 (T) 212-702-0504 (M) 908-347-1427 jcozzi@aeainvestors.com

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