The Radicalism of Stubborn Attachments

I would like to thank all three discussants for their excellent and thoughtful contributions.

Joshua Kim asks me to get more specific. I would note I have written about more specific policy topics than almost any other economist who has lived, and that is on my blog Marginal Revolution, and also earlier for The New York Times and now Bloomberg Opinion. Stubborn Attachments was my chance (for a change!) to be more abstract and philosophical, but odds are I have covered a given specific topic elsewhere and in a searchable fashion. More generally, the existence of the internet and Google should make our books much more streamlined, and less concerned with all of the specifics, at least provided we are filling in the gaps elsewhere.

On education, I would stress to Joshua that wise investments in education should also be expected to boost the economic growth rate, so the tension there between growth and equity is less than he is suggesting. A similar point should hold for most other economic policies.

I agree with Eli Dourado about the importance of the aesthetic for how we understand our world and shape our normative views, though I wish he had mentioned Beethoven, and brought us back closer to the Enlightenment.

I am more of a radical than Agnes Callard realizes. She doesn’t consider the portion of Stubborn Attachments which argues we should spend much less on the elderly and much more on the young. Since spending on the elderly is a major part of the federal budget (Medicare, Social Security, parts of Medicaid, and arguably even the federal debt), this is a major proposed change, and it is a change neither major political party supports. The status quo, of course, is set to spend more and more on the elderly, and I am suggesting a move in the opposite direction, in contradistinction to just about all the world’s wealthy countries.

As for radical change for our personal lives, I think (most) people should give up intoxicating substances altogether and tithe at least ten percent of their incomes, as Mormons do. It is a moot point whether those are “big” or “small” changes; needless to say, they are far from happening nor do I see many people arguing for those changes in a serious way. Except the Mormons!

How much are we obliged to save and invest? It depends how much is done to free up innovation. As long as marginal returns remain pretty low, those obligations are much weaker than might otherwise be the case. So in some instances we are modal radicals, even if radical change doesn’t make sense as the first move in the here and now.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Tyler Cowen looks at the place of economic growth in philosophy and public policy. He finds it’s an underexamined subject. But if we really can make small, sustainable improvements to long-term economic growth, these seemingly trivial changes will prove in the long term to be among the most important choices we make today. Cowen therefore argues for giving greater weight to the longer term.

Response Essays

  • Joshua M. Kim argues for public education and a higher minimum wage, challenging the advocates of economic growth to make the case against them. Although Kim agrees that economic growth matters, he is skeptical that providing social welfare today is liable to slow economic growth, and he calls on Cowen and others to justify this part of their argument.

  • Agnes Callard sees Tyler Cowen as engaged with the classic utilitarian argument for radical wealth redistribution: since spatial differences don’t have moral significance, and the marginal value of our wealth is much higher in the hands of someone crushed by poverty, we should relinquish what we have until that marginal difference disappears. She frames Cowen’s response to this argument in terms of two claims: the similarly arbitrary character of temporal differences, and the utilitarian value of economic growth. When we consider the welfare of future human beings, together with the power of economic growth to raise all boats, then this utilitarian argument becomes an argument for the status quo.

  • Economic growth is fundamental to human well-being, says Eli Dourado; why have ethicists neglected it? He answers that much philosophy was produced when economic growth was either nonexistent or difficult to notice. Even modern ethicists may need to take stock of the world around him, he suggests, and he closes by praising the beauty of economic growth.