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.