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Friedman Admires Autocracy

Thomas Friedman compares the U.S. with China in the New York Times:

The only way for us to match them is by legislating a rising carbon price along with efficiency and renewable standards that will stimulate massive private investment in clean-tech. Hard to do with a one-party democracy.

Because China has Cap & Trade? Pffft.

Obama's Health Care Speech Tonight

Obama assures America that there is nothing in his plan that will prevent individuals from keeping the insurance they have.

Then in the very next breath he explains at length how he's going to screw the insurance companies - for instance by compelling them to cover pre-existing conditions.

Decoded: You can keep the coverage you have, BUT we're rewriting it.

His great advantage is that there is not much in the way of principled opposition to socialism in American politics. What politician is willing to affirm that hospital emergency rooms ought to be free to turn away patients who can't pay?

And short of that, you agree with the main thrust of what Obama said more or less explicitly tonight: To each according to his need.

The Blind Leading The Rationally Irrational

In a recent post Constant explored the problem of identifying competence. He observed that some people were probably simply not up to the task:

I happen to think that many people are not competent, and that consequently they rely on false authority - they are the blind led by the blind.

I think this is undoubtedly true, but I also think that that the truly incompetent are a small subset of those following the blind. Most people are capable of more competence than they typically demonstrate in many areas.

Constant touches on the prospect of bootstrapping competence:

There are ways to "bootstrap" competence. But these employ a certain kind of competence. For instance, you need to have the competence to distinguish the cases where a specific kind of bootstrapping succeeds from the cases where it fails. (So the thoroughly incompetent are thoroughly screwed. The competent may, of course, guide them, but so may anyone else.) I happen to think that many people accept authorities without the benefit of proper "bootstrapping" - possibly as a result of tragically mistaken "bootstrapping" based on false signs of competence.

Again, I think that those who tragically fail in a honest effort to identify competence certainly exist, but they also are a small subset of those following the blind.

Most people tend to demonstrate competence only when they bear the costs of their own incompetence. In politics, religion, and many other areas people typically do not pay significant costs for incompetence and irrationality. So they often don't even bother to attempt to identify competence because there is little reason why they should.

Why, for instance, should the average man in the street bother to invest the effort necessary to identify the competent experts on global warming? Will the individual get a better climate if he correctly identifies the competent experts? No. Will he get a better public policy? Almost certainly not. So why bother?

We all have biases. There is a certain psychic cost to giving up your biases. Even when such costs are not large they can easily outweigh the microscopic benefits of developing competence in politics. So people quite reasonably prefer their irrational biases to competence in politics.

This is the greatest social problem humanity faces. And it is almost completely overlooked.

Robin Hanson: Not Enough Nazis

Finally, a principled utilitarian.

In a recent debate with Robin Hanson, Bryan Caplan said:

...Robin endorses an endless list of bizarre moral claims. For example, he recently told me that "the main problem" with the Holocaust was that there weren't enough Nazis! After all, if there had been six trillion Nazis willing to pay $1 each to make the Holocaust happen, and a mere six million Jews willing to pay $100,000 each to prevent it, the Holocaust would have generated $5.4 trillion worth of consumers surplus.

Let's consider another example. Suppose the only people in the world are Hannibal the millionaire, a slave trader, and 10,000 penniless orphan slaves. The slave trader has no direct use for his slaves, but likes money; Hannibal, on the other hand, is a ravenous cannibal. According to Robin, the "optimal outcome" is for Hannibal to get all 10,000 orphans and eat them.

In his review of the the debate Caplan confirmed:

I suspect that many attendees saw these examples as "cheap shots." But when I pressed Robin, he predictably bit both bullets.

...meaning, I take it, that Hanson conceded these are in fact his views and not exaggerations.

In a related post at Overcoming Bias, Hanson approvingly quotes Scott Sumner:

One of the most common strategies of the anti-utilitarian position is to assume some societal set-up which shocks our sensibilities, and then assume that it would satisfy the utilitarian criterion of maximizing aggregate happiness. Thus we might be asked to imagine a scenario where the total pleasures of the slave-owner exceed the suffering of the slaves ... Bryan has an even more shocking example where the benefits to Nazi’s from the Holocaust exceeded the suffering to the Jews. ... At the end of these thought experiments we are told that unless we are willing to embrace the society envisioned in the thought experiment, we must, on logical grounds, give up on utilitarianism.

I have several interrelated objections to this style of philosophical inquiry. I’d like to start with Richard Rorty’s assertion that the narrative arts (novels and film) produce liberal values. ... So if Rorty is correct, how do we know that slavery was so awful? Because we have been exposed to accounts of slavery in the arts which vividly showed how the suffering of slaves was immeasurably greater that the frivolous pleasures of the slave-owner. Can we then turn around and use an imaginary slave-owning society that passes the utilitarian test as an argument against utilitarianism? I’m not sure that we can, unless one can show that our initial visceral reaction against slavery is based on non-utilitarian grounds, i.e. based on some abstract philosophical principle. And that’s much harder than many people might imagine.

Hanson says "This seems to me a powerful argument" and "The argument, I think, is more that we overgeneralize from the stories where we first picked up our morals. For example, we first hear stories where slave owners gain less than slaves lose, and then come to see all slavery as bad."

The argument is that slavery gets a bum rap due to bad publicity: OF COURSE people are going to think slavery is bad when that's the moral of so many stories they hear!

It seems clear that Hanson sees no fundamental difference between a preference for vanilla ice cream and preferences for slavery, cannibalism, torture and genocide. All that matters is how much you will pay for your preferences and how much others will pay for theirs.