Thursday, December 30, 2010

'Tis The Season

2010 was a census year, which means it's redistricting time for congressional districts.  The NY Times had an interesting article yesterday, which miraculously didn't take a position on the existential horrors of partisan gerrymandering.  Don't worry, as time progresses I'm sure we'll be hearing plenty about the partisan infection of our redistricting process.

But let's take a minute to really think about redistricting.  Firstly, can we ever have a "fair" district?  By the time the lines are drawn, regional immigration will have made the careful population calculations inaccurate.  And what do we even mean by "fair"?  If every state constructed every district to be a 50-50 Democrat-Republican toss-up, we'd have a massively biased partitioning.

Any invisible line we draw creates an artificial, biased district.  No congressional district will speak with one voice anyways, so why does it matter if our political parties manipulate the process for partisan advantage?  What is the most just thing to do?  Energy, climate change, and ecological destruction are the three most important issues today.  The Democratic party is vastly better on these issues.  The most just thing is for Democrats to fight tooth and nail for every last scrap of partisan advantage.  Go get 'em.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

Vertical Farming: The Coolest Idea Ever

The Economist recently ran a fascinating article (plus a great interview) about the feasibility of vertical farming.  Although plain-old rooftop farming is probably a more cost-effective approach for now, architects and designers have been going nuts creating amazing concepts for high-tech vertical farms.  This idea is exciting because it seems very possible: sustainable farming pioneers like Growing Power in Wisconsin and Polyface Farms in Virginia have already demonstrated the stunning efficiency improvements of vertically stacking different food production systems.

Vertical farming would be an important step towards decoupling food production from the requirements of land, soil, weather, etc.  Being able to grow food in a closed room is critical to achieving the long-term goal of exploring and colonizing space, and widespread vertical farming would teach us a lot about growing food in confined spaces.  The recent boom in green roof construction can be seen as early steps toward full-fledged vertical farms.  Here's hoping!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some Thoughts On Wikileaks

Say what you will about Ron Paul, on certain issues he argues more clearly than any other politician currently in office.  His recent defense of Wikileaks from the House floor is fantastic.  This recent Wikileaks media freak-out is fascinating for many reasons, but I suspect much of it has to do with Julian Assange's slightly James-Bond-villain qualities.  If you don't believe me, check this out (yes, it's real).

The New York Times recently had some interesting commentary outlining other facets of the Wikileaks controversy, notably a discussion of the technological context that made Wikileaks possible.  Since the digital and information revolutions began, information of every type has grown in magnitude and become increasingly accessible.  This has been an overwhelmingly positive thing for the planet, even if certain groups or industries have been damaged by it (think music industry).  But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that more information is always better and that technological change is always positive.

The question of whether Wikileaks is good or bad is a tricky one.  There are different answers depending on the population in question: it could be bad for the U.S. and yet good for humanity (it is most certainly good for journalists... or is it?).  A good way to analyze this question is by looking at property rights.  Patents exist to create incentives for individuals and businesses to innovate; if an inventor can't exclusively own or control his invention, others can free-ride and the whole system falls apart.  This fear of corroding property rights is at the heart of most critiques of internet mega-trends.  Bloggers free-ride off big news corporations' investments of on-the-ground reporting, thus reducing the incentive to invest in reporting.  Intelligence loses much of its value if not kept secret, so Wikileaks free-rides off government investments, reducing the value of it's operations.

The internet causing a devolution into anarchy is a major theme in many of science fiction writer Neal Stephenson's books.  In Snow Crash, the CIA spins off and morphs into a private company involved in the buying and selling of information.  In The Diamond Age, government's inability to tax anonymous business transactions results in anarcho-capitalism.

Now, I don't think Wikileaks is there yet in terms of impact, but these admittedly fantastical futures do reveal one crystal-clear fact: that cryptography and information security will become increasingly important as the volume and velocity of information increases.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Future

An amazingly creative vision of a possible future of technology.  He goes a little far at the end, but I respect the decision to really push these trends to their absolute limit, given certain assumptions.  Check it:

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A New Climate Change Discourse

Since its emergence as a major issue, the public discourse on climate change has focused primarily on preventing its harmful effects.  By predicting the consequences of climate change, we are better able to understand the dire necessity of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  By focusing on strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (technology, government policy & regulation), we are better able to understand the trade-offs associated with different solutions.  Recently the idea of geoengineering, or global engineering solutions designed to prevent negative effects of climate change after greenhouse gasses have been emitted, has become popular in some circles.

Perhaps as a reaction to the extreme pessimism inherent in geoengineering proposals, a new category of climate change discussion is popping up: adaptation.  Whereas geoengineering is simply another attempt to prevent climate change's negative effects (albeit later in the geophysical process than reducing emissions), adaptation takes harmful climate change scenarios as givens, investigating how human societies and economies might adapt.

The Economist ran a great briefing about adaptation a few weeks ago, but the most comprehensive investigation of adaptation so far is the book Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future by Matthew Kahn.  A UCLA urban economist, Kahn looks at how climate change scenarios will affect the global economy, specifically cities.  He concludes that individual action will result in populations "voting with their feet" by moving away from areas hit the hardest.  Additionally, innovators who find ways of solving new problems caused by climate change will find much support.  The third major conclusion Kahn draws is that adaptation will be much easier for richer, developed populations, increasing socioeconomic inequality.  This seems like an obvious conclusion, but discussing it explicitly was incredibly uncomfortable yet refreshing: the banality of poverty and socioeconomic issues in developed countries today will probably just continue for the most part, albeit with a slightly rejiggered cast.

Though Kahn accepts discredited economic assumptions and models as truth a bit too readily (contrary to the University of Chicago's dogma, the map is not the territory), his core ideas are wonderfully conceptual.  The immigration he envisions might be orderly or fraught with conflict.  The individual "innovators" who develop effective adaptation strategies might be businesses selling floating houses or cheap air-conditioners, but they could just as easily be eco-warlords controlling walled cities housing the rich and the skilled.  Don't worry, though,  there are plenty of specific predictions and investigations for the detail-oriented: will Manhattan flood?  Should I buy property in Fargo, ND? Etc.

Focusing exclusively on the solutions and consequences of inaction, though useful in generating political support for action, suffers from a bad sensationalist bias.  Predictioneers always think that dire changes or critical thresholds are just around the corner, but the future usually turns out to be much more mundane and slow-moving.  Climate change is obviously an unprecedented global challenge, but the collapse of modern civilization is highly unlikely.  The internet isn't going away, and technological and cultural innovation will continue.  What's far more likely is a dull, painful slog with increasing social inequality and fluctuating geographic capital of long-inhabited locations.

Studying climate change adaptation is a breath of fresh air.  Climate change worriers like myself have been in deep despair for a while now.  Talk of adaptation might harm attempts to generate political support for prevention efforts, but it seems more intellectually honest.  The political dysfunction associated with this issue makes it increasingly unlikely that major prevention efforts will occur anytime soon.  Instead of despair, adaptation presents a new avenue for creative thinkers wanting to get involved.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Perverse Incentives

From Andrew Sullivan.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Go Forth And Search By Category

This is a big day in Unity Politics history--I've added categories.  This means that if you're interested in a particular topic, it will be much easier to search for related posts.  So if you're just dying to check out all those archived Information Nexuses, just click the label "Information Nexus" and they will pop up.  Here are the categories: PoliticsEconomicsScienceEnvironmentPhilosophyCulturePsychologyTechnologyBusinessLawHistoryPolitical CartooningInformation Nexus.

If readers have any feedback, comments, or suggestions about the pace of blogging, topic mixture, style, or anything else don't hesitate to post a comment!  If you have a substantive question or response to a post, don't be shy--I'll try and respond promptly.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Moral Illusion

This ridiculous body-scanner uproar is a perfect example of our well-cataloged moral illusion: our bias towards caring more deeply about things that affect us physically.  To take an example from Sam Harris, compare a WWII pilot dropping bombs over a city with a person killing five little girls with a shovel.  The person committing the latter would probably feel more moral remorse or disgust, but of course the bombing run results in much more human suffering of equal intensity.

There is some usefulness in this moral illusion, but to fully implement the morality we espouse we should soberly calculate human suffering in more objective terms.  This would really put things in perspective.  Adam Serwer does just that regarding the airport scanner thing:
The last president of the United States brags openly about ordering people to be tortured, and the current one asserts the authority to kill American citizens he believes to be terrorists overseas.
But most of these measures are either invisible enough to put out of mind or occur outside of what most Americans can imagine happening to them. As long as it's just Muslims being tortured and foreigners being detained indefinitely, the price we pay to feel secure seems all too abstract. The TSA's new passenger-screening measures just happen to fall on the political and economic elites who can make their complaints heard. It's not happening to those scary Arabs anymore. It's happening to "us."
 The most extreme idea I've heard along these lines concerns the deployment of nuclear weaponry, which causes untold human suffering and death, and yet is conducted through a series of mechanistic checklists by technicians miles away in airplanes or submarines.  To correct the nuclear moral illusion, we should place the nuclear launch codes physically inside a close aid or family member of the President.  In order to get the codes, the friend or family member would have to be killed.  This extreme step would more accurately reflect the moral dilemma faced by the president and serve to eliminate some of the distortion.

Economic and Environmental Alignment

Scientific American has a great 60-second podcast about the possibility of aligning economic and environmental well-being.  There seems to be two main ways of viewing the connection between the environment and the economy:

1. They measure different things, so they will never be aligned.  The economy is concerned with human well-being, while environmental health encompasses much more, such as owls.  If some virus wiped out every last human on the globe, it would be incredibly beneficial for environmental health, and yet the economy would be in for some rough times.

2. The economy is contained within the environment, so they are always aligned, whether our econometrics show it or not.  In this view, measures of wealth such as GDP are imperfect because environmental costs and benefits aren't registered, even though we experience their impact on a daily basis.

Both approaches identify important truths.  The first approach is technically correct, but in reality proponents of this idea seem to think it justifies massive unsustainable extraction and destruction of the environment.  The second approach is correct in claiming our economic system doesn't do a very good job of measuring environmental costs and benefits, but is usually employed in some Utopian argument about the need to engineer a "true cost" economy.

Here's how I view the relationship.  The economy is a more important and profound concept, measuring human well-being (imperfectly).  Yet currently the economy is located entirely within the environment of earth, and so in actuality it is totally dependent upon some minimum level of environmental health.  Conservatives are right in asserting that in principle the concept of the economy is more important than environmental health, yet they underestimate the degree to which the economy is reliant upon the environment.  Environmental health may be instrumental to our human well-being, but identifying that doesn't make it any less important.  Until we colonize space, the economy is totally reliant upon the earth's environmental health, so we'd better maintain it.  Internalizing environmental health into our economic system is a pragmatic solution, even if it is philosophically questionable.

3. There is a third way to view the relationship that doesn't get much coverage: a temporal approach.  In this view, the economy and the environment are not aligned in the short term.  We can increase human well-being at the expense of environmental health, but only for so long.  In the long-run, human well-being is totally dependent on environmental health (that is, until we get into space).

Information Nexus

1. Incredible Interactive Data Map
2. Awesome Wisconsin Permaculture Farm
3. Am I Drunk?
4. How Bathroom Posture Affects Your Health
5. Short Hellboy Comic (Page 1) (Page 2)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Quote of the Week

"In more recent decades, dissidence has been closely associated with intellectuals; a class of person first identified with late-19th century protests against the abuse of state power but in our  own time better known for speaking and writing against the grain of public opinion.  Sadly, contemporary intellectuals have shown remarkably little informed interest in the nitty-gritty of public policy, preferring to intervene or protest on ethically-defined topics where the choices seem clearer.  This has left debates on the way we ought to govern ourselves to policy specialists and 'think tanks', were unconventional opinion rarely finds a place and the public are largely excluded."

--Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land 

Note about Intrade Mechanics

I recently received a comment about my link to Intrade, a prediction market where people are able to make money by placing bets on the likelihood of certain events occurring in the future.  The mechanics of placing bets can be a little confusing because Intrade uses the language of "buy" and "sell".  Actually, anybody is able to make bets on either side of an event without previously owning a contract.  In other words, you can "sell" a contract without owning it first.  Let me explain.

Take the market currently at the top of Intrade's homepage, "Sarah Palin to formally announce a run for President before midnight ET on Dec 2011."  The price is currently at about 70, which means the market predicts that there is a 70% chance that this statement will come true.  If you think the likelihood of Palin running is greater than 70%, click "buy".  If you think the likelihood is less than 70% (I certainly do), click "sell".

If Palin ends up formally announcing, the price closes at 100.  If she doesn't, the price closes at 0.  If you purchase a "sell" position at 70 and Palin doesn't run, you get $7.00.  If she does run, you'll lose $3.00.  Conversely, if you purchased a "buy" position you'll lose $7.00 if she doesn't run, and gain $3.00 if she runs.  This system works because for every bet there is always two people: one betting that the price will go up (to 100), and one betting that the price will go down (to 0).

Prediction markets have proved to be stunningly accurate at predicting certain types of events.  Internal markets set up by companies to predict the completion dates of big projects seem to be one of the most accurate and useful applications.  For more information about this sort of idea, check out Infotopia by Cass Sunstein, or The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Palin '12: Enough Is Enough

There's been endless speculation about Sarah Palin running for president in 2012.  And this week's massive NYTimes profile is bound to intensify the meaningless chatter.  I promised myself I wouldn't blog about Palin, but I feel a little bit like everyone is taking crazy pills: Sarah Palin WILL NOT run for president in 2012.  If she actually wanted to run, she never would have resigned as Governor of Alaska.  Instead, she would have stayed on to build a substantive record while studying policy matters and constructing a safer brand.  She's done nothing to forge a network of connections and supporters.

The reality is that much of her celebrity and money-making power is based on the premise of her potentially running for president, so she must conform to that idea in certain ways, such as talking about it frequently and remaining active politically.  But let's not confuse a simple marketing strategy for the serious and painstaking steps necessary to become a viable candidate for the nation's highest office.

If you disagree, I'm willing to back my prediction with a bet, up to $100.  Either way, there's money to be made on this issue.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Dangers Of Climate Change Optimism

The Washington Post ran a mega terrific article yesterday arguing for a risk-based assessment of climate change.  According to the article, conservative climate change denialists are anything but conservative:

"In fact, far from being conservative, the Republican stance on global warming shows a stunning appetite for risk. . . .[Conservatives] are recklessly betting the farm on a single, best-case scenario: That the scientific consensus about global warming will turn out to be wrong. This is bad risk management and an irresponsible way to run anything, whether a business, an economy or a planet."

Putting aside the possibility that conservatives might actually believe the denialism they trumpet (but who really believes that, we're all much too cynical), the article brings to light the dangers of too much blind optimism.  Our political system incentivizes irrational and potentially harmful optimism among elected politicians.  Nobody wants to vote for a candidate with an environmentally sustainable de-growth economic vision--it's much too gloomy and uncertain.  Bill McKibben addresses this point in Eaarth:

"The problem was not that Reagan's sunny optimism somehow masked a fascist soul; the problem was his sunny optimism.  He really believed it was morning again, and when the economy turned up, so did the rest of the country; the ambivalence about growth vanished, and with it our last chance to avert disaster."

Too much optimism and we have denialism, apparent among the very conservative.  On the flip side, however, too little optimism and we have talk of geoengineering.  We need to be afriad, but not so much that we throw up our hands in despair.  It's a tall order.  My advice?  Next environmental crisis we have, brand the hell out of the thing.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Introducing: The Cartoon Philosophy Ivy League

The internet has revealed a fabulous thing: people like learning about complex macro-trends through highly simplified, concise analysis accompanied by cartoons.  This is nothing new, but over the past few years we've seen more and more internet projects participating.  If TED Talks are the Harvard of the internet, then a number of similar projects constitute the whole Ivy League.  Annie Leonard, starting with The Story of Stuff, was an early pioneer.  Most recently, RSA Animate has been releasing amazing historical/philosophical syntheses of big concepts like education and time.  Even the White House is joining in!  I'm a huge fan of political cartooning, so this trend really gets me excited.

My favorite source for cartoon philosophy isn't actually on the internet at all; it's the "INTRODUCING:" series of graphic guides.  These short, super-concise books cover an amazing range of important thinkers and topics in history, philosophy, and science, all with great illustrations and diagrams.  The selection of topics covered is almost comically vast (seriously, check out the library here),  and they're still at it, publishing new books at a blistering pace.  Twelve new books arrive this spring, including Political Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Jean Baudrillard.  Check them out!

This election season saw the public discourse sink to repulsive new lows, but hopefully this cartoon philosophy medium will grow and provide a much-needed countervailing force.

Friday, October 29, 2010

So You Want to Get a Ph.D. in Political Science?

Check out this scathing video of the political science discipline:

Most of the charges leveled here against political science are valid (and hilarious), but poly sci still has a lot of merit. Watch this space over the next few days and I'll speak to why I think political science is useful, and indeed more necessary now than ever.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Normative Economics of Dating

Anyone who's ever been in a longer-term relationship will probably be familiar with the bothersome issue of picking up the bill after a nice meal out.  Who should pay?  What is the most just allocation of the couple's scarce resources?  This is a pretty complex issue, but by breaking it down we can generate some nice rules that simplify the whole question, leaving us free to ponder other mysteries, like what to get our significant other for valentine's day.

Before we can deduce a set of rules, lets take a look at the situation as it exists today.  By comparing the complexity of payment rules with the strength (seriousness, length, etc.) of the relationship, a striking pattern emerges:

Initially, the guy pays.  Sorry dudes, but that's just the way it is.  The upside is that it's simple.  As a relationship gets more serious, it becomes absurd for one person to constantly pay, so some cost-sharing scheme usually emerges.  This middle phase is by far the most complex: how often should each person pay, and what practical method should be used to determine this cost-sharing?  As a relationship matures (cohabitation, marriage, etc.) some form of economic union usually forms, again simplifying the issue.

So what about that middle phase?  For the sake of argument, let's assume the couple wants to split costs 50-50.  It's a huge hassle to split every bill, especially given credit card transactions.  Conversely, keeping a record of all expenses then settling up later is just too weird, and may hinder progress along that x-axis.  Alternating every other meal is dangerous, because the person not paying that day has a huge incentive to spend a lot.  What we need is a rule that's simple and keeps both people uncertain about who's paying.

What we need is expected value.  Here's the rule: every time that pesky bill arrives, flip a coin.  Heads, one person pays the entire bill.  Tails, the opposite person pays the entire bill.  It's incredibly simple, plus nobody knows in advance who's paying, which eliminates the risk of dessert inflation.  Let me head off a possible objection: what if one person gets stuck paying the entire anniversary meal at a really expensive restaurant?  Shrug it off.  The perceived injustice is a fallacy.  The other party has paid for half the meal in a probabilistic sense.  Because each person's expected value (probability of paying multiplied by the amount) is the same every time, this rule is perfectly equitable.  Furthermore, the rule is easily modifiable by using different-sided dice (maybe the guy should pay 60% of the time, because he tends to eat more).

 If you end up paying for three anniversary dinners in a row, don't get discouraged.  Over time, the proportion of money paid by each person should come to reflect the agreed-upon probabilities.

Information Nexus

1. Legalize It
2. Crisis of the Humanities
3. Visualizing Sustainability
4. Short Story: Scanners Live In Vain by Cordwainer Smith
5. Improbable Probabilities

Monday, October 25, 2010

Governor Moonbeam Pt. 2

As November 2nd approaches it looks increasingly likely that Jerry Brown will best former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and reclaim the governorship.  I've already commented on Brown's "unique qualities," but this interview with Google's Eric Schmidt really shows the merits of Brown's constant philosophizing.  Worth watching the whole thing, but Brown really shines at 16:00 in:

Also, check out this hilarious campaign ad by Brown.
The perfect statesman?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Grey Dawn

Foreign Policy has a fantastic report (and accompanying photo essay) about global aging, dispelling some common misconceptions about this concerning demographic trend:

"China, for now, continues to enjoy the economic benefits associated with the early phase of birth-rate decline, when a society has fewer children to support and more available female labor for the workforce. But with its stringent one-child policy and exceptionally low birth rate, China is rapidly evolving into what demographers call a "4-2-1" society, in which one child becomes responsible for supporting two parents and four grandparents."

This is not your typical black-and-white public policy issue.  Although rapid demographic aging is bad for individual societies and economies, it is also the natural precursor to population decline, which is a good thing for the world overall.  Malthusians have been raising the alarm about overpopulation for a while now, so it's easy to discount their environmental concerns and focus solely on quality of life and economic growth.  The problem is simply a trade-off: to what degree do we split resources between the people alive right now (who are quickly greying) and the generations to come?

One thing's for sure, we'd better navigate this sensitive issue with care... OR ELSE.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


The Place Where Progress Goes To Die

Over the past few years something has become increasingly clear to me: more than anything else, the rules of the Senate are to blame for government's legislative inadequacy.  That's a pretty sweeping statement, so let me explain.  The legislative branch has always had problems getting things done, but three important reasons dealing with the Senate have really killed off the idea of a creative and dynamic government.

1. The majority is always up for grabs.  Throughout much of our nation's history, the legislative branch has been dominated by one party.  In such a situation, the minority has no chance of reclaiming the majority, and so plays for policy influence.  A strategy of total obstruction by the minority party would reduce bargaining power and result in outcomes farther away from their ideal policy.  These days, however, the majority is always up for grabs: party identification is down and the electorate contains a massive group of independents who simply ping-pong back and forth between parties.  A strategy of total obstruction now makes sense.  If a party holds out in opposition for a little while (giving up policy influence), it will soon find itself in the majority, able to pursue its own ideal policies.  Why settle for nudging policy a bit when you can wait a few years and then run the whole show?  This new incentive for obstruction really matters for the Senate, where obstruction opportunities are legion.

2. Parliamentary system with a supermajority requirement.  Everyone knows about the 60 vote requirement in the Senate.  In the past the idea of the Senate as a "cooling saucer," a less-partisan filter for impetuous public opinion, made sense.  Political parties used to be ideologically diverse, with many shifting coalitions based on geography and ideology.  This flux and uncertainty made a strategy of total obstruction impossible.  But in recent decades, our political parties have changed to resemble those of a parliamentary system, with absolute loyalty among legislators and uniform strategies.  The problem is that the senate institutions have not shifted accordingly.  There's a reason parliamentary regimes operate on majority rule--to do otherwise would prevent anything from getting accomplished.  It's nice to think that our lawmakers can sit down and make policy garnering sixty, seventy percent support.  Unfortunately in the real world, that type of consensus rarely occurs.

3. Unique senate rules allow for extreme obstruction.  Besides the fillibuster, Senate rules grant individual senators amazing power to block legislative action.  Because senators use these tools to obtain power and bring money to their states, no single senator has an incentive to change the rules.  LBJ was correct when he asserted that "the difference between being a member of the Senate and a member of the House is the difference between chicken salad, and chicken shit."  Read this horrifying article about how time (yes, time) is a precious commodity in the Senate.

The good news is that Senate rules, including the 60-vote requirement, are modifiable.  The first party to eliminate the obstruction rules will, despite much squealing and outrage from the minority, be able to pass tons of legislation and confront big, complex issues.  Though branded as tyrants of the majority, that party will reap the benefits of making big, exciting stuff happen.  Now the only question is, who's got the guts?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Power Players: Benoit Mandelbrot

Last thursday Benoit Mandelbrot died in Cambridge, Mass.  Mandelbrot was a hugely important figure in mathematics: he refined the concept and study of fractals--an object that looks the same the closer you zoom in on it.  The discovery of fractals showed the world that mathematics could be applied to realms previously off-limits to rigorous inquiry.  Just as calculus unlocked the mysteries of change, fractal geometry revealed the inner structure of nature's jagged contours.  A nice obituary is here.

In honor of Mandelbrot, I'm re-posting this spectacular documentary about fractal geometry done by Nova.  It includes many great clips of Mandelbrot and of the crazy computer-generated imagery we've all seen but never really understood.

Microsoft's Desperate Ploy

Check out this vicious attack ad by Microsoft.

I've never seen a corporate attack ad.  I've also never been so repulsed by an online video.  This move by Microsoft is creepy to me in a deep sort of way.  In political campaigns, desperate politicians often resort to whatever-works, nothing-to-lose attacks and ploys.  Microsoft is lashing out because it is trying to hold onto it's power position within a medium that is rapidly and inevitably changing.  In fact, Microsoft was one of the key players that shaped this new computing terrain.  Microsoft's anger reminds me a bit of the music industry's failure to control the move to digital music that they championed but ended up regretting.

Unlike a political race, Microsoft's enemy will not be defeated on election day.  An attack ad will do little to change the course of big, structural technological changes.  So what does it accomplish?

Monday, October 4, 2010

What Is Politics?

Defining the different branches of social science is not easy.  They blend continuously into one another, and overlap, but even still there do exist general categories based on each one's respective object of scrutiny.  Economics generally looks at scarce resources.  Sociology and anthropology study culture.  Psychology is concerned with modeling individual behavior.  Political science... that's tricky.  Another classification scheme looks at the dominant methodologies used by each branch: sociologists use a lot of statistics, economists build mathematical models, psychologists run experiments, anthropologists do ethnographies, political scientists... hmm.

Because political science doesn't really have a dominant methodology, we'd better take another look at the object of study--politics.  But what is politics?  I've come across dozens of definitions, and the best one so far comes from William Riker (not the Star Trek character): politics is the authoritative allocation of value.  This definition is broad, but encompasses a lot: the study of government, the struggle for power, the realization of morals, and it even hints at the social process of deciding how value is allocated physically.

According to Riker, authoritative decisions can be made by either individuals (like dictators, or heirarchy situations) or groups.  Group decisions are made in either a quasi-mechanical way (like a market or price mechanism), or made by a conscious process.  The latter is by far the biggest category, and the one political science focuses most heavily on.  In the study of group decisions, if the group is larger than two individuals, outcomes are the result of coalitions.  Thus, much of political science focuses on the formation and maintenance of coalitions and their effect on outcomes.

Roughly speaking, political science is usually broken down into five categories:

1. national politics (studying political institutions, public policy, law, campaigns, demographics, positive political theory, etc.)
2. international relations (interactions between states, NGOs, warfare, diplomacy, etc.)
3. comparative politics (formation and evolution of governments)
4. political theory (philosophy of politics and government, critical theory)
5. methodology (studying the political science discipline itself)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

What Would Happen If... put your hand in front of the beam of the Large Hadron Collider?  Let's ask the experts:

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Service and Flow Fundraising

I'm starting to see more and more advertisements asking individuals to donate money to a specific cause by texting.  This scheme really took off during the Haiti earthquake, and it's proved to be a remarkably effective way of raising money.  I find it especially interesting because the donor doesn't give money directly to an aid organization.  Instead, the network provider has worked out a deal with the aid organizations whereby the provider actually contributes the money, but then collects the texted donation amount from the donor in their next phone bill.

The idea of a "middleman" has typically been associated with bureaucracy and waste.  A new business trend responding to the explosion of information and communications technology belies that notion.  Stemming from the idea that sometimes too much information can be a bad thing, companies like Pandora help individuals navigate the ocean of data by simplifying the process of satisfying wants.  This is where the idea of service and flow comes in: often times an individual or organization wants only a service, and doesn't really care about the details.  Providing services often involves a fixed investment, like purchasing a CD to get music or a cooling system to get coolth.  The risks and details involved with fixed investments discourage a lot of services from being provided.

If a middleman comes in with the fixed investments and expertise already established, they can provide services to a much broader set of people who were initially unwilling to pay for the service due to risk aversion, lack of expertise, etc.  This is basically the idea behind a lease.  Service and flow companies take the idea of a lease and apply it to non-traditional things.

Although these businesses have been around for a while, their foray into the field of fundraising is new and promising.  The most brilliant example is Kickstarter.  Clients wishing to raise money for projects purchase the service of fundraising, and pay only if the target amount was met.  A middleman company like Kickstarter can specialize to a high degree in one particular endeavor, generating fascinating conclusions about what works and what doesn't.

Check out this TOTALLY KILLER PROJECT in New York being funded by Kickstarter.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Talk with SC Justice Stephen Breyer

Last week I attended an interesting Q&A event with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, moderated by NYTimes journalist Linda Greenhouse.  Justice Breyer is out with a new book, Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge's View, and the discussion loosely focused on the role courts play in facilitating a functioning democracy.  Justice Breyer is one of the court's more liberal judges, and his responses to questions both from Ms. Greenhouse and from the audience shed much light on his approach to law.

Much of the discussion focused on philosophies for interpreting legislation, because that's about 60% of a judge's job.  Justice Breyer's approach focuses on "purpose and consequences."  He believes in identifying the main purpose of a law, then applying it using today's standards, with much weight given to the practical consequences.  Values stay, but the way they are applied can change.  He contrasted this approach with a detail-obsessed, text-based historical analysis.  In his view a text-based historical approach limits too severely the ability of government to adapt to changing circumstances.  To illustrate his point, Justice Breyer used a great example of a law passed to protect specific endangered species.  If future information reveals that a species that wasn't on the original list is in fact endangered--and was the whole time--then the law should protect that species.  It's obvious the law was passed to protect endangered species, yet a detail-driven textual analysis would rule against protection.

Another reoccurring topic was the interaction between national security and the law.  According to Justice Breyer, the famous Korematsu case, where the Supreme Court sided 6-3 with the government over the constitutionality of Japanese internment during WWII, was one of the ugliest moments in U.S. legal history.  Although the courts must have a hands-off approach to security issues (they cannot run a war), their actions have massive implications: the president will either break the law too much (unnecessarily infringing on people's constitutional rights), or too little (unwisely endangering the security of the nation).  According to Justice Breyer, "The Constitution is not a suicide pact."  So what's the answer?  "Let them do it" Breyer states, "then punish them after."  But under no circumstances should the court rule the way it did in Korematsu, because that ruling "makes a precedent that lies there like a loaded gun."

Most interestingly, Justice Breyer refused to offer in-depth analyses of certain contemporary hot-button issues, such as the health care mandate and the Park51 mosque.  These issues may someday end up on his desk, and taking a strong opinion now, without proper research and information, is unwise.  "Beware of cocktail party conversation," Breyer quipped.

One issue that caused me to rethink an existing view was that of allowing television cameras inside the courtroom.  Previously I, along with many liberals, have advocated it as a way to help the public learn about the court and build its power.  "It is the weakest branch," Breyer admitted.  The problem with allowing cameras in is twofold.  First, some witnesses may be unwilling to testify for fear of retribution.  Secondly, oral arguments are only a tiny fraction of a supreme court case.  A case is mostly conducted in writing, and so to publicize the oral arguments so glamorously would terrible bias people's perception of the court.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Took a Shit, Made the News

The whole Koran-burning media explosion compounded by this new Kenyan anti-colonialism thing makes this video extremely relevant again.  Maybe it's the inevitable price we pay for freedom of speech and a free press, but clearly something is different.  These cynical media-manipulations seems to be occurring everywhere now.  

Maybe it's the internet and new communications technology (clearly there are new opportunities and incentives), or maybe we can best explain it with cultural changes.  Whatever the reasons, people are increasingly super-rational in pursuing ends: we understand now better than ever how information moves and propagates, and so it is much easier to make informed strategic decisions.  We're really seeing a collective action problem that can probably only be fixed through technocratic, science-based authoritative intervention.  Ever thought about a "systemic risk regulator" for the media?  I have. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Thoughts on Political Science

Ezra Klein has a fantastic article in today's Washington Post about last week's American Political Science Association conference in D.C. (if you can't access the link, you might have to sign up, but it's free).  Klein walks away with four simple findings that political scientists wish to convey to the general public.  All very interesting, but he misses a few details:

1. Presidential speeches don't make a big difference.  Not true.  Although presidential speeches don't move public opinion closer to a presidents' preferences, they can have a major impact on policy outcomes in a different way.  By making a major speech on a certain issue, a president raises the importance and visibility of the issue.  Legislators respond to this increased issue salience by shifting their stated policy preferences closer towards the publics.  By making an issue super-important, presidents can increase the political costs of having policy preferences greatly at odds with the general public.  A presidential speech can make a big difference, but not in the way we generally assume.  For more, check out Who Leads Whom? by Brandice Canes-Wrone.

2. 'Citizen legislators' empower the very special interests they're meant to fight.  This conclusion by University of Wisconsin political scientist David Canon is counter-intuitive and fascinating: "If you have a bunch of rookies in there who don't have much experience, you're basically turning power over to the permanent government in that town: the staffers and the lobbyists the newcomers end up relying on."

3. Lobbyists don't run the show.  Obviously true, but misleading.  Lobbyists may not be able to change a legislator's vote, but they can have profound influence on policy outcomes.  By the time a bill comes to vote, it has already passed though a myriad of hurdles.  Starting with the agenda-setting stage, lobbyists and interest groups affect outcomes by gaining access: they provide expertise and information to policy makers, update people about political incentives, and even write legislation.  For the same reason that major corporations give money to both sides of the partisan divide, lobbyists do have an impact.

4. Politicians should talk to political scientists.  Hard to argue with this one.  Rigorous analysis of politics increasingly reveals that all the little tactical stuff consuming politics and media probably doesn't matter nearly as much as the larger structural factors like unemployment, health, and education, etc.  Although this sends a great message--policy makers can stop fretting and get down to business--it's not that simple.  Tactical details like speeches, ads, debates, etc. might be necessary but not sufficient.  Raising tons of money and never making gaffes probably doesn't guarantee a candidate's victory, but a candidate who doesn't play along probably won't get very far.  I think policy makers should put more emphasis on rigorous scientific thinking, but I understand that strong incentives exist to obsess over mundane horserace politics.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Agglomeration Is Forever

It's difficult to predict the future, but futurists and commentators who prophesied the demise of the city were way off.  Way back in 1954 Arthur C. Clarke predicted extreme globalization due to advances in communications technology.  More recently Thomas Friedman's book The World Is Flat saw location becoming increasingly irrelevant in economic activity.

There are two compelling reasons why the world will probably never be reduced to a "point" or become "flat" (pick your metaphor).  Firstly, increasingly expensive energy will severely curb the great driver of globalization: cheap international shipping.  Even though many products are made abroad very cheaply, increased transportation costs will change the economic calculus, bringing some production back.  Barring the development of teleporters, transportation costs will always create incentives to cluster at least some economic activity, which brings us to point number two: cities.

The discipline of urban economics (or economic geography) has long understood the huge benefits of clustering economic activity and labor.  The logic of the city revolves around the idea of increasing returns: a city is greater than the sum of its parts because of agglomeration effects.  These effects are numerous and include things like pooled creativity among workers, more mobile labor force, location of production closer to location of consumption, etc. etc.  For a good description of the role cities play in the global economy, check out The World Is Spiky by Richard Florida.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Why History Matters

Political scientist Sven Steinmo has a pretty concise list:

"There are at least three important ways in which history matters.  First, political events happen within a historical context, which has a direct consequence for the decisions or events.  An early example of this is the seminal work of Alexander Gershenkron who argued that when a country industrializes necessarily affects how it industrializes.  He shows us why late-comers cannot go through the same long trial-and-error process followed by early developers.  In other words the process of industrialization is essentially different for late developers than for early developers.  This is a huge insight that is easily missed in large-scale quantitative, cross-national comparisons, which very often pool data across continents and time periods and treat the time/place as inconsequential (or assume that it will 'wash out' of the analysis)."  

"The second reason history matters is that actors or agents can learn from experience.  Historical institutionalists understand that behavior, attitudes and strategic choices take place inside a particular social, political, economic and even cultural contexts.  Rather than treating all political action as if fundamentally the same irrespective of time, place or context, historical institutionalists explicitly and intentionally attempt to situate their variables in the appropriate context."

"Finally ... expectations are also moulded by the past.  While some might point to America's adventure in Iraq as a simple product of power politics and/or the demand for oil, a historical institutionalist would more likely look to the patterns of past wars for an understanding of why this country reacted in the way it did to the 9/11 bombings.  Certainly they were mistaken, but there should be little doubt that America's past successes in Germany and Japan -- to say nothing of their perceived victory over Communism at century's end -- led policy-makers in the Administration to believe that they could assert American power and bring successful capitalism and democracy to a former dictatorship."

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why Sci Fi?

I love science fiction, maybe because I'm a huge nerd, but also because sci fi deals with interesting concepts (social arrangements, trends, technology, etc.) in an extremely accessible way.  Sci fi isn't shackled by the requirement of believability, so concepts and ideas can be dealt with explicitly and without subtlety.  A lot of sci fi occurs in the future, which makes commentary on contemporary concepts and issues much easier: the reader doesn't have to analyze and speculate on their own about about the impact of current trends or technologies.

Here's a great list of some major works in science fiction, although a few big ones like Dune and Foundation are conspicuously absent.

Note: Unfortunately sci fi isn't known for it's cover art.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Fight Apathy Or Don't

We tend to consider political apathy a bad thing: lack of information leads to irrational beliefs and voting decisions, low levels of participation decreases trust in government.  Apathy reduces the manpower and psychic energy devoted towards important political issues.

So does apathy have any possible redeeming qualities?  Political scientists Richard Niemi and Herbert Weisberg raise a few interesting points:

"For one thing, not voting might be a 'correct vote' for some citizens who are cross-pressured. If a person cares only about two issues and passionately takes the Republican position on one (say, affirmative action) and equally strongly takes the Democratic position on the other (say abortion), would it not be 'rational' for that person to abstain? ... indifference and noninvolvement contribute to the smooth operation of a democracy. [Bernard] Berelson made the point nearly fifty years ago when he noted that we have a variety of conflicting expectations. For example, we expect individuals to care deeply about elections, but afterwards we expect reconciliation. With that in mind, he asks rhetorically, 'how could a mass democracy work if all the people were deeply involved in politics?' "

Monday, August 30, 2010

Prejudice and Metaphysics

I was really hoping not to discuss the "Park51" mosque, especially after Politico essentially ended my interest in the story by showing that building the mosque was a long-shot even before the bigoted backlash ignited a media frenzy.  But Stanley Fish has an interesting take on the issue, using the example of the Oklahoma City bombing to reveal insightful truths:

"In the brief period between the bombing and the emergence of McVeigh, speclation had centered on Arab terrorists and the culture of violence that was said to be woven into the fabric of the religion of Islam. 

But when it turned out that a white guy (with the help of a few friends) had done it, talk of "culture" suddenly ceased and was replaced by the vocabulary and mantras of individualism: each of us is a single, free agent; blaming something called "culture" was just a way of off-loading responsibility for the deeds we commit; in America, individuals, not groups, act; and individuals, not groups, should be held accountable." 

We tend to consider high-level philosophical beliefs (like whether human beings are possessed of free will) as relatively stable for individuals; deep-seated epistemological and ontological beliefs underpin our more mundane preferences (e.g. politics) and indeed even our identity.  Not so: the Oklahoma City example is startling because it reveals how transitory deep philosophical beliefs can be.  The abrupt shift from a structural to an agency explanation after Oklahoma City leads us to question how fundamental these questions really are. 

Social psychology and sociology have long provided compelling explanations for such behavior changes with concepts like the ingroup/outgroup bias.  The Oklahoma City example is scary because it utterly trivializes our beliefs and forces us to confront the harsh truth that much of our behavior is capricious and governed by unconscious structural factors.  Even metaphysics, the most cherished manifestation of objective, self-aware reasoning is apparently not beyond the reach of our animal spirits. 

The biological and evolutionary basis for prejudice is well known, but metaphysical beliefs are not normally viewed as a mechanism through which unconscious prejudice operates.  Perhaps we should all re-evaluate some things with that in mind.

Information Nexus

1. America's Ten Dead Cities
2. A Universe Not Made For Us
3. Earth's Resources: How Much Is Left?
4. Tony Judt (1948-2010)
5. Short Story: Architecture Sci-Fi

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Knowledge (With Cartoons)

Combining a lecture-style synthesis of what's currently hip in social science with cartoons and flow charts makes "21st Century Enlightenment" an wonderful short video.  The pace is quite frantic, but well worth the cognitive investment.  Caffeine recommended for viewing:

On second thought the title should have been "The Sum of All TED Talks (With Cartoons)".

Friday, August 27, 2010

Methods and Goals

Normative beliefs about public policy can usually be broken down into two components, goals and methods.  Goals focus on ends, or how the world should be in some hypothetical future, while methods deal with be best way to get there.  Ideological disputes are often confusing because this division is not at all clear.

Though counter-intuitive, it doesn't always work to simply jump immediately to the final goal.  If you raise your kid with the ethic of "do whatever you want, as long as it makes you happy," or "being happy is all that matters," the kid might not learn the value of delayed satisfaction and discipline.  A kid instilled with the ethic of "it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you give your best and try your hardest" will likely have happier outcomes overall.

When making predictions about a policy's future impact, one side often favors a more comprehensive perspective (accounting for methods), while the other side focuses only on final outcomes (goals).  For example, school busing opponents see racial equality as the final goal and see busing as directly opposed to that goal.  Conversely, proponents see that the method of school busing will result in a final outcome closer to the actual goal.

Both Republicans and Democrats hold dear positions that are overly goal-oriented and method-blind.  Republicans oppose aggressive anti-trust regulation, based on their goal of free-market capitalism.  They fail to see that the method of anti-trust regulation breaks up monopolies and results in more efficient free-markets overall.  Democrats, on the other hand, frequently oppose environmentalist policies such as nuclear energy and genetically modified foods on grounds that these policies are opposed to the final goal of a civilization in perfect harmony with nature.  In both cases the comprehensive policies are more pragmatic and tangibly beneficial; final-outcome policies obsess over transcendental ideals and frequently hold back improvements.

Generally it is better to support policies that include methods and process, because often adding nuance and complexity will result in more accurate predictions and outcomes closer to the stated goals.  However, complicated and counter-intuitive policies may be difficult to explain and promote.  Additionally, simple transcendental ideals can have an inspirational effect on social movements that could be greatly beneficial.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Building A True-Cost Economy

Guess what?  The prices we use to measure the value of goods don't accurately reflect their true value.  Surprised?  While it's probably impossible to internalize every cost into a good's price, there are certain well-known costs that are systemically left out:

People might think they're getting a sweet deal by paying less for gasoline, for example, but in fact these externalized costs are assumed by someone, somewhere, in various forms.  This raises serious concerns about fairness, especially when dealing with corporations, which have a massive incentive to externalize as much as possible to reduce the sticker price of their products.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Quantum Poker in Star Wars

Hardcore Star Wars aficionados may be familiar with Sabacc, the fictional poker-like card game popular with lowly spice smugglers and interplanetary tycoons alike.  Without delving too much into the nerdy arcana, players receive cards grouped by value (1-15 plus 16 face cards) and suit (Coins, Flasks, Sabres, Staves).  There are several rounds of betting, the pot going to the player with the strongest hand based on a specific hierarchy.  The main feature of the game is the shifting nature of the cards: while in a player's hand, every card may randomly change its value and suit based on a predetermined probability distribution.  During each round of betting, players have the option to place cards face down on the table.  This action locks in the card's value and suit, preventing further shifts.

So why is this relevant?  Sabacc provides a perfect real-world analogy for the concept of quantum superposition, or the condition of an object existing in several mutually-exclusive states simultaneously.  Emerging from modern particle physics, quantum superposition is perhaps best known by the famous thought experiment Schrödinger's Cat.  A key feature of quantum superposition is its collapse: whenever the superpositioned object is measured, its strange quantum condition ends and a single observable state emerges.  Returning to the Sabacc analogy, we can view a player as holding cards that exist in a probabilistic superposition.  Due to the random shifting, each card possesses not one value, but rather a probability distribution of every possible value.  Placing a card on the table collapses this distribution into a single value and suit.

The concept of quantum superposition, once relegated to the netherworld of quantum mechanics, is seeing an explosion of applications.  Most interesting is the fledgling field of quantum game theory, which allows for the quantum superposition of strategies by players, in addition to regular pure and mixed strategies.  For more information about quantum superposition and its exciting new applications, check out episode three of the Math For Primates podcast.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


The vast majority of my personal exposure to environmentalism--it values, beliefs, and culture--comes from sources that are mostly urban and east of the Mississippi river.  Through working this summer with multiple government agencies in Wyoming (Forest Service, State Parks, etc.), I've become acquainted with a different flavor of environmentalism, one uniquely Western and more grounded in natural resources and the idea of "use."

Exposure to use-oriented western environmentalism has supplied contrast to my mental framework of what environmentalism is.  By use-oriented environmentalism I mean the holding of environmentalist preferences for instrumental reasons: for example limiting fishing, logging, or hunting because it is economically rational in the long-run.  Conversely, the same policies might be supported by environmentalists driven by some existential view about the inherent sanctity of nature.

This distinction is not new.  The idea of conservation was a precursor to the modern environmental movement, but now that the cleavage exists, it increasingly seems that use-oriented environmentalism, grounded in economic rationality, is more connected to reality.  It is more flexible in its methods and better suited to attract mainstream support.  Most current environmental challenges are in fact process issues.  Everybody agrees that the problems should be solved, yet conflict emerges over potential solutions.  Use-oriented environmentalism is free from the baggage of a problem-obsessed ideological edifice and generates action solely within the solution domain.  Ideological environmentalism, although useful when facing unpleasant trade-offs, currently limits too greatly the range of "acceptable" solutions and may in fact be hindering progress on some issues, for example opposition to nuclear energy and genetically modified crops.

The science of ecology, biology, and physics unquestionably support a radically activist environmental policy.  Environmental issues are the single most important topic receiving society's attention; a framework of ecology and environmental physics underpins most other societal issues, and effective environmental solutions will trickle-up and benefit all aspects of society.  Despite these facts, staunch environmentalists must be cunning and strategic.  Promoting use-oriented policies, and describing issues in use-oriented terms, may be a more effective way of achieving environmentalist ends.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

News Fast

I've been working in Wyoming with minimal access to internet and news, and the lack of information about current affairs has been an interesting experience.  Most of the coverage in daily newspapers is of unimportant events that won't develop into anything of note.  Observing an event for only a day or two doesn't allow for any filtering: most news is simply background "noise."  Checking the news after substantial time away is a much more meaningful experience (versus the daily grind) because it allows for important events to reveal themselves.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It's Not As Sexy As You Think

It seems like the conventional wisdom surrounding Zen Buddhism is that it's a remarkably complicated, confusing, and incomprehensible philosophical system.  I can't really say anything about the history or traditions associated with it, but looking just at the philosophical system it's much more straightforward than I expected.  Here it is: Zen Buddhism is a system of belief that is opposed to any sort of simplification.  It's just holism taken to it's extreme.  According to Zen, any attempt to simplify reality through dualism, or breaking the world into categories, creates a flawed model of the world.  This applies to humans also: even basic logical principles (like non-contradiction) are foolish because our brains are highly dualistic.  In the same way, words are the worst sort of dualism, so Zen seeks to abuse them completely with goofy contradictions and silly questions.

After reading this, somebody might respond in the manner I've come to expect: try to jump up a level and use Zen to criticize my own description of it.  It's impossible to constrain Zen by characterizing it with a simple blog post, right?  Wrong.  Zen is merely a system, which means it cannot be its own meta-system.  As a human, I can always take a step back and reflect on stuff, even Zen Buddhism.  I think people get confused by Zen's admittedly bizarre use of language and mistake it as something deeper than it really is.  For more, read Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Policy Quagmire

Ezra Klein explains the problem in a great Newsweek story:

"And here is the system's problem: the minority wins when the majority fails, and the minority has the power to make the majority fail. Since the rules work no matter which party is in the minority, it means no one can ever govern."

And the cause:

"Congress used to function despite its extraordinary minority protections because the two parties were ideologically diverse. Democrats used to provide a home to the Southern conservatives known as the Dixiecrats. The GOP used to include a bloc of liberals from the Northeast. With the parties internally divided and different blocs arising in shifting coalitions, it wasn't possible for one party to pursue a strategy of perpetual obstruction. But the parties have become ideologically coherent, leaving little room for cooperation and creating new incentives for minority obstruction."

And a potential solution:

"So how to change Congress? Well, carefully. Reform may be impossible in the day-to-day context, as the minority cannot unilaterally disarm itself. But the day-to-day context isn't the only possible context. 'You have to do the John Rawls thing,' says John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University. 'Go behind the veil of ignorance. Figure out the system we'd want without knowing who will be in charge or what they will be doing.' "

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Governor Moonbeam

Former California governor Jerry Brown is running to reclaim his old office in 2010.  This should be an interesting race because Mr. Brown has a well-known penchant for abstract philosophy.  Some select quotes:

"Adaptation is the essence of evolution.  And those who don't adapt go extinct"

“Action and contemplation joined together, is what I would call the highest path that we can follow.”

"Inaction may be the biggest form of inaction."

“The reason that everybody likes planning is that nobody has to do anything.”

“This lawsuit is part of a broader effort to realign economic and industrial activity with ecological constraints,”

"I like computers. I like the Internet. It's a tool that can be used. But don't be misled into thinking that these technologies are anything other than aspects of a degenerate economic system."

Excerpt from a recent interview:
Over the years, you have moved from being a fabled liberal to a centrist position.
Brown: I don’t know. I don’t use that spatial metaphor.
Then how would you describe yourself politically?
Brown: I’m very independent. There’s a great line from Friedrich Nietzsche: A thinking man can never be a party man.

And yes, he's the front-runner.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Thoughts On Global Heating, Ctd.

Last week The Economist did a comprehensive briefing about climate change science and conflict that got me thinking about an economics talk I saw last year.  Much of the debate over climate change pits those who believe it is real against those who do not.  The only way to completely settle this issue to just wait and see what happens, a risky proposition.  To transcend this stagnant debate, we should simply stop talking about probabilities altogether and just look at the different possible scenarios.  

For the sake of argument let's say there is a trade-off between fighting climate change and potential economic output: if the world acts to stop the worst environmental effects, then it loses potential GDP growth.  If the world does not act, then it realizes this potential GDP growth.  With no thought to probability, climate change is either real or not real.   In this model there would be four scenarios:
  • Scenario 1: The world acts, climate change is real.  The world loses potential GDP growth but the maximum negative effects from climate change are mitigated.
  • Scenario 2: The world acts, climate change is not real.  The world loses potential GDP growth and experiences minimal environmental effects.
  • Scenario 3: The world does not act, climate change is real.  The world realizes potential GDP growth but the maximum negative effects from climate change are unmitigated.
  • Scenario 4: The world does not act, climate change is not real.  The world realizes potential GDP growth and experiences minimal environmental effects.
Scenarios 1 and 4 are good "fits": given what happens with climate change, wealth is maximized.  These can't tell us very much about whether we should act or not act.  Scenarios 2 and 3, however, result in big losses and are pivotal in determining the best strategy.  It's immediately apparent that what really matters in these scenarios is the difference in magnitude between potential GDP output and potential negative environmental effects on GDP caused by climate change.  By environmental effects I mean destruction that can be measured in dollar terms, like droughts.  Without considering probabilities, if environmental effects on GDP outweigh potential GDP growth, then net welfare losses in scenario 3 are greater than net welfare losses in scenario 2.  Conversely, if potential GDP growth is greater than environmental effects, scenario 2 is worse.  This is important because it shows how to make informed decisions based purely on minimizing the impact of the worst-case scenario, even if we don't know how likely each scenario is to occur.  Say what you will about climate change doomsayers; few will deny that their worst-case story packs more horror than does their oppositions', signaling that scenario 3 is worse than scenario 2.  If we can't decide on the probabilities, then we must agree to put them aside and make decisions based on potential outcomes.