Economics

This is the Review I Want to Write About Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments…

A few months back, my roommate from Annapolis sent me a text that marked a distinct waypoint on the arc of our relationship over the last 25 years.

He’s a combat decorated, navy jet pilot, who, for my wedding, gave me a framed map annotated with all the places in America in which we’d had a beer.

There were quite a few dots on it.

Between the two of us, there are a half-dozen war time deployments, and countless carrier landings and special operations missions. We’ve lived all over the world and seen, first hand, many things people write books and make movies about. And now, he was bragging to me via text about something he knew would impress me to the extent of appreciative envy.

It was a picture of him with an economist.

Clearly things, for the two of us, are not what they once were.

The military life, especially during a time of conflict, allows one to experience things at an accelerated pace. By the time I was 32, I’d been on every inhabited continent, lived off the economy in Africa and fought wars in two countries. Many of the things discussed in intellectual circles–failed economies, authoritarian regimes, intersectional class systems– I experienced in utility, without the veil of narrative.

As things slow down, and we get around to constructing those narratives in arrears, the nasty business of figuring out what it all meant , we often find that we’ve got a bit of catching up to do relative to those who dove right into academic or policy life.

Ours was the kinetic world. The world of atoms, force and energy. If we are to get to work on the abstract, the world of words, bits and neurons, it’s good to find some thinkers to fast follow.

Economist Tyler Cowen is a good place as any to start. That’s what my roommate texted me; a smiling picture of him with the George Mason economist at a speaking engagement.

Cowen, the Holbert C. Harris chair of the economics department at GMU, co-hosts the blog Marginal Revolution with fellow GMU economist Alex Tabarak. He also hosts the interview podcast Conversations With Tyler.

I  started following him after I found an old Ted Talk of his telling me to be suspicious of simple stories. In it, Cowen warned that we have a propensity for narratives. They feed our biases and often obscure useful truths.

The thought squared with my experience chasing terrorists abroad. If one of my analysts started his target package brief with a story of who the target was and why they mattered instead of where they were and what they were doing, I cut them off.

Or so the narrative of my time doing that work tells me at least.

True to the message, some part of Cowen’s appeal is how easily he wanders out of the picture of his own narrative.

The blog, Marginal Revolution, is the best source I’ve found for eclectic societal, cultural and economic discussion that’s easy to consume, understand and use as a springboard for deeper learning. It’s a daily read for me.

The ideas on the site are usually not Cowen’s. A one-line commentary or a stand-alone post that highlights higher thinking on a topic here and there are all one gets from Cowen himself. It’s mostly a distribution hub for the better thoughts and thinkers of our time on a broad scope topics. The Podcast is a long form interview format of the same spirit.

Cowen’s value to the intellectual domain is less of the great man or transcendent thinker and more of an exceptional machine learning algorithm. The effectiveness of any ML algorithm is mostly dependent on two things: the accuracy of the base algorithm itself and the speed at which good data can be fed through it for it to improve.

Cowen’s capacity to consume and process information approaches the savant. And though impressive, simply knowing and understanding things isn’t the value he adds to the discussion. What’s of value is the perspective spit out on the other side of the Tyler Cowen productivity function. Which means there’s something to the base code itself.

Cowen’s specialization is that of a generalist, insistently so. Poured on top of that broad focus is an insistence on travel and cultural experience. All politics are local and personal. And how we see the world is deeply influenced by how we’ve seen the world. These more human undertones set Cowen apart from other economists like GMU collegues Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan, whose work, while important and deeply interesting, feel to be somewhat motivated by a need to bludgeon us with chants of “logos over pathos”.

Cowen’s work has more blood in it.

More human than Hanson and Caplan is still not that human though. There’s a disciplined calculus to Cowen, so much so that there’s a predictability to his positions. The machinations of that calculus, the ML function itself if you will, are on display in Cowen’s latest book, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals

Stubborn Attachments isn’t Cowen’s most readable book. But it might be his most important. It’s short, (160 pages) to the point and more technical than some of his more recent efforts. A good companion to help some of the less economically literate would be to listen to the two hour interview  of Cowen about the book by Rob Wiblin, to conversationally fill in some of the blanks.

At it’s core though, Attachments is a sort of permission giving message, to the usefully pessimistic, to think about the future, value it appropriately and do the right things. And to all agree that there are certain things we simply should not do that don’t require an epistemological burden to show we ought not do them.

The Straussian interpretation, the one Cowen doesn’t actually write and therefore is heavily informed by my own interpretation and biases, is a message to a world growing increasingly incapable of exploring hard truths because of political correct backlash, that says, don’t fear, explore the hard questions, seek truth. We have limits to what we’ll trust to our utilitarian motivations. And we can still be trusted to do the right things, protect the right people, avoid the great evils of the world and make a difference.

But we won’t if we stop insisting on honest answers to the right questions.

Stubborn Attachments is full of  Cowen’s version of the right questions. And some of the right answers.

The answers:

We’re capable of making rational judgements about what is better for society.

There is an idea of what is objectively good. And it’s based on the idea of supporting sustainable economic growth.

The valuation of the future is central to the theme of the book. How should we think about the future? Is it something less valuable simply because it’s far away? If not, how does that notion materially impact our decision process?

What’s the right way to approach the answer to three critically important questions for a prosperous human future:

1-What can we do to boost the rate of economic growth?

2-What can we do to make civilization more stable?

3-How should we deal with environmental problems?

In 160 pages, Cowen does little more than seed the answers to the big questions with insights and some nudging on how to think objectively about these sorts of questions. This is, after all, the book about how to take small steps towards a better future that Tyler Cowen wants to write…not the one I want him to write.

It’s possible the one with the answers is the one you’ll have to write yourself, in whatever medium you find the ability to serve the future of mankind. Which is, I imagine, the point.

Categories: Economics

5 replies »

  1. I always am interested in Sean’s ideas and since I took a lot of econ courses in college, I looked up Cowen and colleague’s blog. That led me to Marginal Revolution University which they created. I took a quick review of some of the courses on various economic topics. The courses on unions and taxes seemed like topics that would offer a good view into their underlying perspectives.. Not sure that a few PowerPoints is really a course but that is what they call them. It seemed pretty clear that they are anti-union and anti-tax.
    Their course on unions shows quite clearly that union membership results in falling wages overall in the economy. So, if we look at the US over last 10-30 years (rather than their example from the UK in the 70s), union membership has reduced drastically over the same time period. And based on PowerPoint presentation one would assume that wages here should have gone up. That isn’t even remotely what happened. Yes, globalization and increased use of technology get a lot of the blame but reduced membership in unions is cited by most economists as a reason as well.

    And there “course” on taxes – really the quotes are warranted – offers an example that is off the walls – even for these free market economists. Based on their conclusion, it seems they are totally unfamiliar with Dan Ariely’s work.
    If you were thinking of buying Cowen’s book, I’d recommend checking out the Marginal Revolution University first. Maybe there is no connection but then again, maybe there is.

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    • Emily, I suggest that you search for Ariely at the MR blog. Dozens of references. Whether they agree with him or not, I leave for you to decide after you read the the references.

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