Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Naturalness" is a Terrible Concept

But what does it mean? Photo credit: armedwithvisions.com

Yale e360 has an interesting piece about the demise of "naturalness" as a meaningful concept in ecology due to research piling up showing that human impact on environments isn't a recent development in any sense. A deeper trend is the realization that ecosystems are much messier and more random than previously thought. Sustainability, static equilibrium, and even niches are all ecological concepts being re-evaluated in favor of more nuanced approaches like patch dynamics, resilience, and dynamic equilibrium models.

An important question is whether these academic trends will be fully adopted by ecosystem managers and government agencies in charge of overseeing public open space. By decomposing the vague "naturalness" idea into explicit goal-based management frameworks (ecological integrity, hands-off methods, historical fidelity, resilience, etc.), we get clearer performance standards and more opportunity for experimentation and comparative analysis. An added political benefit of organizing ecological management theory along discrete value dimensions is an increased opportunity for novel coalition-building. The zero-sum stand-off between environmentalists and cornucopians entrenches perverse policymaking incentives and masks the tremendous potential for action. Conservationists, insurers, loggers, and the tourism and real estate industries probably have sufficient collective policy influence to spur radical action over wildfire and natural disaster issues.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Quote of the Week

"Here perhaps we perceive a disadvantage peculiar to civilized modern students of international affairs, by contrast with, say, Machiavelli or the ancient Chinese. We tend to identify peace, stability, and the quiescence of conflict with notions like trust, good faith, and mutual respect. To the extent that this point of view actually encourages trust and respect it is good. But where trust and good faith do not exist and cannot be made to by our acting as though they did, we may wish to solicit advice from the underworld, or from ancient despotisms, on how to make agreements work when trust and good faith are lacking and there is no legal recourse for breach of contract. The ancients exchanged hostages, drank wine from the same glass to demonstrate the absence of poison, met in public places to inhibit the massacre of one by the other, and even deliberately exchanged spies to facilitate transmittal of authentic information. It seems likely that a well-developed theory of strategy could throw light on the efficacy of some of those old devices, suggest the circumstances to which they apply, and discover modern equivalents that, though offensive to our taste, may be desperately needed in the regulation of conflict."
That's from The Strategy of Conflict by Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, a leading scholar in international affairs and a pioneer in applying game theory and economic methodology to the study of conflict, war, and nuclear strategy.

A key insight of his was to fully appreciate how weakness can often be beneficial in bargaining situations. By voluntarily constraining your freedom or limiting your options when choosing a course of action, you restrict your ability to capitulate. A mundane example of this dynamic might be urban cyclists who ride with no breaks, no helmet, blow through cross-traffic, and engage in bike salmoning: drivers and pedestrians wanting to avoid an accident have no choice but to get out of the way.

For more check out this short video interview with Schelling that provides a nice overview of his long career and research focus. Fascinating stuff.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Explaining Myanmar's Political Reform

I've been noticing a lot of great coverage lately about Myanmar's rapid shift from isolated kleptocracy to nascent democracy, and what makes this democratization story different from other countries is the top-down nature of reform. Most of the prevailing theories in political science try to explain institutional shifts of this sort using incentives. Bottom-up revolutionary campaigns supported by the mass citizenry changes the calculation of leaders concerned with holding power, forcing them to offer public concessions in the form of better policy and political inclusiveness. Often incumbent-driven reform is an illusion: leaders are simply reacting to the ground shifting beneath their feet by cleverly preempting political change. When you do see a truly top-down reform process, it's usually driven by conquest. Think modern-day Iraq, or Japan after World War II.

What's fascinating about Myanmar is the seemingly complete lack of a good explanation for the junta-driven reforms unfolding today. It's not totally clear the leadership was preempting any structural shifts in the society or economy, and appeals to a unique Buddhist culture or a personality-driven account of change seem far-fetched. Clearly Myanmar's geography--nestled between India and China--means linking up with the global economy offers swifter and more certain rewards compared to isolated countries. And depending on where the benefits of reduced international sanctions and increased capital inflows accrue, it's possible that Myanmar's military leaders will be better off in a material sense. Still, the initial process that established a reform coalition at the highest levels of power remains a complete mystery and amounts to a fairly damning critique of incentive-based models of political leadership.

For more on the political science of leadership check out this short video summarizing Bruce Bueno De Mesquita's 'selectorate theory' or read The Dictator's Handbook.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Towards a Value-Free Development Assistance Paradigm

The Planet Money podcast had an amazing episode last week interviewing a Good Samaritan who decided to build a new school building in a poverty-stricken village in Haiti. The episode stands out because the man, Tim Meyers, basically admits that his well-intentioned efforts were meaningless to the lives of the children he wanted to help, and possibly counter-productive for the broader development of Haiti due to perverse incentive effects. This comes on the heels of some new research showing the potential benefits of direct cash transfers to individuals as a development assistance program, as well as a new trend in charity of simply maximizing income and giving lots of it away (versus choosing a lower-paying job affiliated with the perception of moral virtue).

Underlying these three related stories is a strong emphasis on epistemic humility: social scientists and policymakers are increasingly aware of their inability to predict how interventions will play out in the real-world, which is filled with people and institutions all pushing their own agendas. The recognition that foreign aid is an issue with high "causal density" (i.e. lots of complicated factors interacting in often unforeseen ways) isn't new, but the identification of straight cash as an effective way to cut through much of the complexity that confounds the operationalization problem of development assistance is very exciting.

We'd all like to think that our pet theory of charity is the cleverest, but acknowledging that everyone has biases that muddle the connection between aid money and the lives of the people we're ultimately trying to help represents an important step in the history of global development.