Reply to Tyler Cowen’s ‘Stubborn Attachments’

Disclaimers! First: I (somewhat indirectly) work for Tyler Cowen.

Second, this is a reply, not a review. My review is simple: Stubborn Attachments is a fascinating, thought-provoking work of political philosophy. Given its depth and originality, it’s also remarkably accessible. I strongly recommend it.

Third: there is plenty of interesting material in the book that I will not address at all. This includes narrow arguments about redistribution and environmental policy, as well as more abstract arguments about ethical disagreement and decision-making. I will not touch on these because I either simply agree, or if I have reservations, they’re not all that interesting.

Onto the fun stuff.

Introduction: Cowen’s argument in a nutshell, and map of my response

Essential to Cowen’s position is the claim that the discount rate for the value of the wellbeing of future people should be zero. In other words, the fact that someone doesn’t exist yet does not at all diminish the ethical value of their wellbeing. John, who is alive today, living a life of, say, 100 net utils, is worth exactly the same as Linda, who will live two hundred years from now, living a life of 100 net utils.

Presumably, there will be many, many more people alive in the future than are alive today. So, when we think about hard things like public policy and social organization, we shouldn’t aim to maximize the wellbeing of people alive today. Instead, we should maximize the wellbeing of all people—present and future. Given that there will be so many more future people, in practice this means our focus should be on maximizing the wellbeing of future people.

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Tyler Cowen’s Complacent Class and the Cyclical View of History

Just this month, MR University completed their five-part video series: “Tyler Cowen on American Culture and Innovation.” It’s an accessible – and insanely well-produced – half-hour summary of Cowen’s argument about The Complacent Class. The argument, in a nutshell: Americans have lost their entrepreneurial spirit. As a result, a “great reset” is coming for which we are not be prepared.

Cowen’s argument works off a cyclical view of history. This view is both oddly disconcerting and optimistic.

Stasis and the new segregation

Have we really lost our entrepreneurial spirit? Aren’t we seeing massive innovations in the communications industry? Aren’t companies like Uber and Airbnb disrupting old, complacent industries?

Companies like Airbnb aren’t necessarily a sign that startups are doing well.

Cowen argues that these companies are the exception. The numbers for startup growth and startup success are on the decline. All around, he says, industry is solidifying into monolithic giants whose infrastructure is not well suited for dynamism and change.

The blame largely falls on what he calls the “new segregation.” Thanks to technological progress, we now have algorithms automatically match us with what we like. Want a partner you’ll like? Want a movie you’ll like? Netflix will recommend.

This causes people to amass in like-minded groups. Employers are more effective at finding exactly the kinds of employees they want. Those like-minded employees flock to the same major cities to be near those employers. This jacks up rent and prices out other groups of people from those cities, reinforcing the growing segregation.…

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