The Clear and Comprehensive Case for Growth

A Review of Stubborn Attachments by Tyler Cowen (Stripe Press, 2018).

Social media has pushed us to try to summarize everything we think and feel in less than 140 characters. In Stubborn Attachments Tyler Cowen accomplished a figurative tweet, answering some of the most complex questions of philosophy, politics, and economics in less than 140 pages.

The main message of the book is simple: if we want to flourish, do what’s best for the maximum amount of people and create a more pluralistic society. One of the most important building blocks of such a society is to have a stubborn attachment to economic growth (in its Cowen variety of Wealth Plus).

Cowen defines Wealth Plus as “the total amount of value produced over a certain time period. This includes the traditional measures of economic value found in GDP statistics, but also includes measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth.”

Throughout the book this definition is accompanied by other noble concerns, such a defense of a common sense moral framework and a long term vision encapsulated in a deep concern for the distant future. Cowen argues that these are keys to maximizing human potential and the most robust human flourishing possible.

Another important point for discussion is a much needed normative stance in economics and business. Cowen’s Principle of Growth Plus Rights which states that “Inviolable human rights, where applicable, should constrain the quest for higher economic growth.” Furthermore, these rights should be interpreted as “tough and pretty close to absolute in importance if they are to survive as relevant”, which is no small thing to say given today’s preponderance of positive rights without responsibility.

One of the strongest defenses of economic growth comes when Cowen describes its historical importance:

The truth is that economic growth is the only permanent path out of squalor. Economic growth is how the Western world climbed out of the poverty of the year 1000 A.D or 5000 B.C. It is how much of East Asia became remarkably prosperous. And it is how our living standards will improve in the future. Just as the present appears remarkable from the vantage point of the past, the future, at least provided growth continues, will offer comparable advances, including, perhaps, greater life expectancies, cures for debilitating diseases, and cognitive enhancements.

Because human flourishing is so personal and individual preferences are so heterogeneous, there is no one certain path to flourishing. However, Cowen is not saying people wake up every day and say “I want more economic growth.” They wake up and might say “I want this day to be better than the last, I want to have a more meaningful life and better opportunities for me and my family.” In essence, life is a constant search for more flourishing. And the larger point Cowen is making is that no one can aspire (or its at least much harder to do so) to flourish if economic growth is not underpinning the society they’re currently living in.

In our current socio-political environment of ever increasing tribalism and identity politics from both left and right, Cowen’s book offers a refreshing defense of pluralism as a core moral intuition and rightly reminds readers that the ultimate goal of growth and of human beings in general is to be happy. Even though happiness is a lofty goal, it’s the pursuit of happiness and the search for meaning that should be important. In his own words:

What’s good about an individual human life can’t be boiled down to any single value. It’s not all about beauty or all about justice or all about happiness. Pluralist theories are more plausible, postulating a variety of relevant values including human well-being, justice, fairness, beauty, the artistic peaks of human achievement, the quality of mercy and the many different, and indeed, sometimes contrasting kinds of happiness. Life is complicated!

At one point, Cowen refers to Adam Smith’s treatment of division of labor and the importance of the extent of the market. As a personal anecdote, having first studied economics in a developing economy, I can certainly vouch for this lesson offered in the book. As an undergraduate student of economics in Bolivia, I was only able to aspire to a very finite number of jobs. Either as an economist in the central bank, a university professor, or as a researcher in a government led think tank. After finishing my masters in the United States and entering the labor market here, opportunities were much more numerous given the extent of the market, demand for economists in the United States, and its status as the leader in the market for economists. And this experience is not exclusive to economics, but applies to a wide array of different professions and industries that would not exist were it not for the impact that economic growth has had in the United States.

Cowen offers a list of recommendations towards the end of the book, most of which I won’t spoil, but two of the more relevant ones for me, coming from an economics and policy perspective, were:

Policy should be more concerned with economic growth, properly specified, and policy discussion should pay less heed to other values. And yes, that means your favorite value gets downgraded too. No exceptions, except of course for the semi — absolute human rights.

And

We should be more charitable on the whole, but we are not obliged to give away all of our wealth. We do have an obligation to work hard, save, invest, and fulfill our human potential, and we should take these obligations very seriously.

I believe these recommendations would go the furthest in our quest to enhance upward social mobility and human flourishing. Cowen drives the point home: “Individuals today are more able to shape their futures, choose their friends, communicate with the outside world and weave together diverse cultural strands when building out their personal narratives.”

I for one didn’t need too much convincing to hold economic growth as a stubborn attachment. But I’m sure glad Cowen developed such a clear, concise, and unequivocal defense of a concept that is constantly under attack, misunderstood, and underrated. Ultimately, Cowen asserts that maximizing wealth plus is the surest way to achieve what he calls his utopian vision of “a society that lets individuality, happiness, and autonomy flower to their maximum extent.” I tend to agree.

Gonzalo Schwarz, President and CEO of the Archbridge Institute, has written numerous articles and op-eds in that capacity, on topics ranging from the importance of entrepreneurship and the health of the American Dream to trends in economic mobility and inequality.