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Dear Henry Farrell,
Global warming is something I don't really like to talk about because arguments over it are usually just stealth political clashes with science being used as flimsy camouflage. There's been relatively little room in the discourse for those who 1) believe it's a real problem, 2) are skeptical of our capacity to accurately gauge the magnitude of the problem, and 3) don't think the policy implications of it are obvious.
This has left me disgusted by the spectacle of right-wing hacks trying (and failing, badly) to discredit the evidence for global warming, and left-wing hacks blithely using it as an excuse to smuggle in their preferred policies (i.e. handing more economic control over to the government -- quel surprise!) without serious examination of all the alternatives. Aside from a few breaths of fresh air like Thomas Schelling, Tyler Cowen, and Arnold Kling (on his better days), incautious claims and downright dishonesty seem to dominate the discussion.
Consider how many non-catastrophist views are available to a person who is completely, utterly convinced that the Earth is warming. He could conclude, for starters, that it is a good thing on balance; perhaps it's no coincidence that the Medieval Warm Period coincided with the intellectual and economic fertility of the High Middle Ages. He could believe that it is bad for the world as a whole, but good for his own country, adopting a posture of personal or national selfishness. He could look at the climate extremes in the European historical record, still clearly wider than those experienced by any living person, and deduce that mankind will adapt without large-scale organized effort. He could foresee significant pan-global costs from warming, but believe that the available solutions are even more expensive, or that other threats are more urgent.
He could be an optimist who prefers to delay policy action and bet on the arrival of a simple, cheap technological solution to warming. He could decide, like some economists, that the costs of warming should be borne mostly by future generations, who are likely to be wealthier than us. He could even think that the damage we have already done is irreversible, or that future damage is practically unpreventable, and that nothing remains for us but to go on enjoying the final decades before the global kablooie.
None of these positions, not one, involves any "skepticism" about climate change or its causes. Most are reasonable enough to have already been espoused publicly by distinguished figures. They all share the same climatological premise, but schemes for planned economic contraction like the Kyoto Protocol are scarcely consistent with any of them.
I don't necessarily agree with any of the above positions (though I lean toward the second-to-last), but even seeing them being addressed is an improvement. Now that the partisan shock troops have just about worn themselves out, hopefully it's now time for some more nuanced approaches to take the stage. None too soon, either.
Or: "Why I Am a Deontic Consequentialist (and So Are You)" Read more »
A few days ago, Dave said:
Price theory says that if the price for a good rises, then the demand for that good must fall.
What Welch said. Rarely do I say "read the whole thing", but do read the whole thing. It could be important.
Stop me if you've heard this one before...
Natural Rights Theorist: "The income tax should be abolished immediately because it violates my rights."
Positivist Consequentialist: "Whoa, back the truck up there: sorry, but you don't have a right not to be taxed. It's possible that you shouldn't be taxed, but then again maybe you should. It all depends..."
Consider a nasty psychopathic character like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho or Alex from A Clockwork Orange, who cares not a whit for other people and viciously abuses them for his own amusement whenever he can get away with it. He's a prudent predator, an egoist who only refrains from abusing others when he expects to be punished for it. Read more »
There's a sort of visceral objection you see raised now and again to various laws that place limits on what can be done with various kinds of property -- intellectual property laws saying that you can't distribute copies, bylaws disallowing certain kinds of constructions on your property, and so on. The objection basically boils down to the sentiment that "well I paid for it, it belongs to me, I should be allowed to do whatever I want with it." Well, no. When you purchase an item, you're not paying for the physical object itself -- you could get that by stealing it. Read more »
A) Illustrate how flawed the canonical measures of "poverty" are, like Big Nick Eberstadt.
B) Plump for the abolition of the corporate income tax on grounds that it harms the little guys, like Megan McArdle. Read more »
Culture is an amorphous thing, but a good working definition of it is "a bundle of focal points which psychologically unite a group of individuals across space and time." Language, customs, laws, art, beliefs, and so on all seem to serve this purpose. This definition also has the benefit of acknowledging the variable granularity of culture -- we can speak of "American culture", "Californian culture", "Californian surfer culture" and so on down to finer grains until we start to hit very small and exclusive groups. Read more »
If you'll forgive me a moment of link-whoring, I've conducted a "10 questions" segment with Charles Murray over at Gene Expression (though it was really a collaborative effort). Here's a teaser: Read more »
Since some of the natives are getting restless about where all this IUC talk ends up, I figure it might help settle them down if I explain why I'm pretty sure the redistributive argument based on IUC+DMU is a nonsequitur. Brandon has already given a very important and sound objection, but his critique is external to the redistributive argument itself. I'm going to argue that even under very favourable assumptions, redistribution still makes no sense from a utilitarian standpoint.
For the purposes of the argument I will assume the following, roughly in order of increasing implausibility:
* Diminishing marginal utility holds robustly across the population, with relatively small variance around an average.
* Interpersonal subjective utility comparisons really are possible.
* Transaction costs of redistribution are zero, or close enough to zero to be neglected.
* Total wealth in the population is insensitive to the redistributive mechanism and will stay fairly static over time.
By the assumptions listed above, it appears to follow that expected overall utility is maximized by redistributing wealth from the top to the bottom until everyone has an equal amount. But this only works if you consider "wealth" as monolithic good in abstracted isolation from everything else, and doesn't work so well when you actually try to model it slightly more realistically. Read more »
I've been keeping silent through most of the recent exchange over IUCs (which has been fascinating), though you can probably guess where I stand based on my earlier comments. Let me first say that I heartly endorse Patri's most recent post below, and aim merely to supplement it.
First, it's interesting to me that while Glen says he agrees with Brian, he doesn't stick to the strictly formal objections Brian makes. And with good reason, I think -- this is a situation where one has to choose between formal tractibility and empirical accuracy. The standard contention that utility is strictly ordinal is tautologically true within the confines of an economic model, but here in the real world we can and do say more than just "I'd like an apple more than an orange" -- we frequently make statements like "I'd like an apple way more than an orange." To a consistent ordinalist this must sound like "baa baa buff" -- complete gibberish, since preferences can't have magnitudes, you see, and hey wait where are you going? Come back!
Ahem. So yes, we really do feel likes and dislikes with magnitudes, not just orderings, and if we're interested in describing real human beings we may want to take account of this. Glen understands this, so he falls back to a different line of defense. When Glen says that "we've got different brains, and an endorphin in my brain just ain't the same as an endorphin in yours," he's making an empirical claim which is perfectly true so far as it goes -- everyone's brain is a little bit different. But for many purposes this is a point without teeth, so long as we can expect the differences in people's brains to be approximately normally distributed with non-dramatic variance. Read more »