Friday, March 14, 2008

Hold That Thought

These conversations with Highnumber require brain horsepower....

I am in the process of formulating a generalized post on heuristics (general rules of thumb by which we make decisions), behavioral economics, and bounded rationality - areas where neoclassical econ needs some work (or at least a better convergence of vocabulary).

It is in these areas where I feel there are opportunities to merge economics of decisioning with language processing (pragmatics, semiotics, etc), cognition/cognitive science, psychology, and sociology.

Besides having no relevance to the H&R crowd, nobody works in these fields. Which means that this past work week must not have happened. :)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Just War or Pacifism?

That's essentially the question the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has posed for itself. At the 2006 General Assembly the UUA resolved to give the question four years of study. Paul Rasor takes a look at both traditions in the current UU World.
Specifically, he focuses on a restrictive model of just war theory that philosopher Jenny Teichman refers to as "just war pacifism."
For Unitarian Universalists, a key benefit of the just war approach is its assumption that decisions about war and peace are always subject to moral criticism. Walzer argues that just war “is a doctrine of radical responsibility” because it holds officials morally accountable for decisions that affect the lives of thousands of human beings. The restrictive just war model is therefore a valuable tool that can help us frame our prophetic critique.

Pacifism, as he describes its place in peace churches, is rooted in Christianity, which would be problematic for most UUs. As he writes:
The just war model developed largely through principles of natural law, not through articles of faith or interpretation of scripture. To put it in terms we liberals are familiar with, just war is grounded in reason, not in revelation.

For the peace churches, pacifism is not a philosophical position; it is a way of life. The commitment to nonviolence does not come from being rationally persuaded that peace is the best policy, and decisions about war are not made through reasoned analysis or by applying a list of criteria. Instead, as Roman Catholic ethicist Lisa Cahill puts it, pacifism is "a practical embodiment of a religious conversion experience." It speaks through the heart, not through the mind. Cahill says that critics of pacifism often misunderstand this. Just war is basically a "rule-based approach to the problem of violence," and when just war theorists look at pacifism, they see a rule-based theory with only one rule. But this misses the point. Pacifism cannot be understood by trying to discern the types of violence it will or will not allow. Instead, it can be understood only by looking at "the core understanding of the Christian moral life upon which [it] is premised."

Rasor goes on to touch upon the history of both philosophies in Unitarianism and Universalism from William Ellery Channing through Theodore Parker and Adin Ballou and up to the Viet Nam War, pointing out the divide that has existed between the two camps. He concludes that a compromise that he calls "prophetic nonviolence" could bridge this. He proposes connecting UU principles directly to the prophetic critique:
  • We affirm the basic unity of all existence. Beneath our individuality and our enormous diversity lies a profound relationality—an interdependent web—that connects us. This unity helps us envision a world in which there is no Other to war against.
  • Love is one of the deepest theological principles in our tradition. By affirming the value of love, we commit ourselves to creating relationships of compassion, respect, mutuality, and forgiveness. We commit ourselves to loving our neighbor, and to seeing everyone as our neighbor. We are challenged to think about how love might apply to international relations.
  • We affirm that all persons have inherent worth and dignity, including the right to a meaningful and fulfilling life. War obviously restricts the possibilities for human fulfillment.
  • Freedom is grounded in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Because human beings are free moral agents, any form of coercion or violence is an assault on our very humanity. War is the product of human choices, and human beings have the moral capacity to make different choices.
  • Justice is manifested in the right ordering of human relationships; war represents the breakdown of rightly ordered relationships. We have a religious obligation to create just communities and social structures, and an obligation to speak out against unjust practices and structures.
  • Power can be exercised for good or evil; it can create or destroy, liberate or oppress. War is an expression of coercive and violent power; peace and justice require cooperative forms of power. Power’s ambiguous nature means that its use must be guided by our core values such as love and justice.

It's a very good article, probably the best thing I've read in UU World (far, far better than the extremely offensive piece a couple issues back about why UUism doesn't appeal to blue collars). I highly recommend reading the entire thing. I find it difficult to ever justify war because I find it difficult to justify the nation-states themselves. I don't believe in pacifism, however, because just as I would like to reserve the right to defend myself, I would like to reserve the right to assist in another's defense.

Apropos of nothing, here's Fugazi "Styrofoam"

Sunday, February 10, 2008

I Met A Real Live Life Coach!

On the way home from the potluck, the Wife thanked me for keeping my mouth shut.

Part 2
Part 3

She was also pleased that I didn't say anything when our host shared that she has been taking her sons to see a chiropractor regularly for most of their lives.

Part 2
Part 3

Oddly enough at this UU gathering, the bits of talk I heard about global warming and the federal tax code were very reasonable.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Response: Global Warming Skepticism, Denial, Faith, Solutions

Highnumber got our conversation off to a great start, and I'll try to offer some thoughts in the same vein as his thoughtful post.

Those who believe that there is no change (the rate of change is constant), they will take no action - they will behave as before. To arrive at this point, they can be satisfied with the data and analysis they've seen, or they are approaching it from a naive position.

Those who believe the rate of change is increasing, it could very well be irrelevant if they believe there is a substantial human component to the change. For them, the question what are potential implications is very important.

If the person believes that the outcome will be no different from today, that person could choose constant action (i.e., action as before), too.

However, if the person believes the outcomes will cause change in his/her life, what can be done?

Personal conservation makes sense insofar as using resources costs a lot. If keeping cool in the summer increases in cost enough, the person will have to reallocate other resources, for example.

Let us say for a moment that the agent ("A") believes that the rate of change is increasing, breaking trend, but is unsure of the human contribution. How could A arrive at a decision as to which actions would be best?

As the cost of information is relatively high due to the oftentimes contradictory nature of the data - who compiled them? Is there a clear agenda? What does the collector have to gain from advancing the data? I believe there are actors on both sides who seek to do this. To this end, I believe that a certain degree of skepticism of politically-motivated "solutions". TCS et al will definitely follow a certain agenda, while several European agencies will follow theirs. Both have the climate change issue as a means to another ends.

"A" receives and hears all of this information, and is unsure of outcomes and impact of any action. Here is where the scientific consensus that the rate of change is increasing, resulting in warming is important. Will "A" believe this? Real Climate addresses some of this.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies also has a paper outlining geopolitical implications of warming. CSIS, a bipartisan K Street think tank, clearly stakes out the position that the climate is warming, and there are political consequences that even the most ardent skeptic of claims by "tree huggers" could understand and grasp.

TCS gives a third view that the IPCC plays fast and loose with the data: [...]curves have occasionally been 'corrected' to better fit the man-made global warming hypothesis.

Finally CATO takes the position, the best policy is to live with some modest climate change now and encourage economic development, which will generate the capital necessary for investment in the more efficient technologies of the future..

CSIS and Cato appear to be in some form of agreement: each believes that a change is happening, Cato advises stepwise changes, while CSIS alerts the reader to potential political consequences. In both cases, the reader must decide how skeptical to be with their recommendations.

So the reaction, R is based on the reader's beliefs of the various scenarios. Let us pick the ubiquitous "Sky Is Falling" scenario that Cato and TCS cite as the IPCC's alleged outcome as one. Let's pick TCS's "too soon to guess, anyways, it's nothing" as the other pole, and Cato and CSIS are in between".

So the reaction is based on assigning the likelihood of each event (u is our standard, tidy error term that's iid, ect):

R = p1(SIF) + p2(TCS) + p3(CATO) + p4(CSIS) + p5(Other) + u

p1, ..., p5 are the probabilities assigned to each term, sum of all = 1.

Those who believe TCS would probably assign p2 = 1 and R = TCS, meaning that TCS's response would be their's as well.

By sketching this out, I am not advocating doing something for the sake of doing something, but I am suggesting that a portfolio of action, designed to deal with costs and potential for profit (or mitigation of negative consequences, augmentation of positive consequences) is a reasonable course of action. I understand this is very crude and the question "what the hell is 'other'?" screams out! I intend the R function to be conceptual and illustrative of a simple decision-making process.

Investors have a portfolio designed to minimize risk and maximize return. The CAP-M is a basic way of understanding this. You weigh the risks of the riskless return and the opportunity cost to see what the portfolio should be.

Highnumber and I are mere novices in the climate change debate, and don't even get me started on my investment acumen, but the concept that "doing something" is covered across the range of possible responses. If R = TCS (when p2 = 1), that is a response - it is taking action - so I am arguing that, R captures behavior.

One thing to realize: I am not suggesting that reacting to climate change is a Pascal's Wager. Quite the opposite: each individual has a choice of actions and can build a portfolio of responses based on which presentation of data they find most convincing.

I have always been a skeptic of the political forces in the climate change debate, but also have suspected that the rate of change had been increasing. I believe the data support this. Furthermore, I am a fan of research into other forms of power generation (nuclear, wind, solar, water, natural gas, other), and I do behave in ways to reduce utility and gasoline bills - but that is a shorter term financial motivation.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Global Warming Skepticism, Denial, Faith, Solutions

It is a good thing to skeptical about anthropogenic causes of global warming. It is a good thing to be skeptical about the very existence of a global warming trend. It is also a good thing to be skeptical of research that denies the existence of global warming and to be skeptical of other global warming skeptics.

Most of us are not climatologists or geologists. We need to rely on experts to compile and interpret data for us. When different experts put forth different interpretations of the data or claim that the other experts' data are inaccurate, we should look closely at, among other things, the interests that may be motivating the experts. They could be motivated by ego to stand out by bucking the consensus or to establish themselves as part of the mainstream by agreeing with the consensus. On both sides, they may be motivated by monied interests who are willing to pay for research that bolsters already determined beliefs. It is helpful to ask ourselves, who stands to gain the most? While it is not impossible or even necessarily improbable that an individual or group will act strictly honestly in their own self interest, their selfish motivations must be weighed against the self interests of the other parties.

At some point, we must determine whether we believe a few things:

  • Is the Earth facing a warming trend?

  • If it is facing a warming trend, are mankind's actions the cause?

Once we answer these questions to our own satisfaction, we are, dependent on our answers, faced with further questions. If we determine that the evidence does not demonstrate that the Earth is on a warming trend, we may stop there and continue to watch the climate for changes. Few reasonable people seem to fall into this camp presently. The majority of experts have concluded that the evidence indicates an overall trend of warming. Some, quite reasonably, have suggested that any changes in the climate are typical of changes the Earth has been through over millions of years. However, a consensus of opinion has arisen that believes these changes are unusual and indicate that man has affected the environment to such a degree that massive changes are occurring. If we decide that these changes are anthropogenic, we must then decide what course of action to take, and if we decide that they are not, should we take the same actions?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Is there inspiration from the Center for Inquiry?

I would guess that the JREF would be another good place. Libertarianism has its share of "woo woo", as James Randi puts it, including many proponents' slavish devotion to "the free market" (whatever they mean by that). And there are many who don't get bothered by passive or active support for creationism being in science class (or in schools in general).

And of course, Penn and Teller are fantastic entertainers who often touch on libertarian/skeptical topics (although they, too, in the name of entertainment, take a shortcut down with a woo woo example - the "Junk Science" site has some questionable claims about science for example), but their show on cable is a great step in the right direction!

If health is your topic, Quackwatch is a good place to search - reducing the cost of obtaining good information so you the individual may make better choices.

But there is something to be said about the simple libertarian humanist approach to human relations. All individuals are different, we share commonalities, have great differences. We come from different countries, speak different languages, celebrate in different ways. And that's beautiful. Let the marketplace of cultural mixing, sharing, and enlightening, and growing open for exchange!

Libertarian Humanism

Highnumber came up with this idea, as usual - all good ideas come from him. I guess the goal is to have a humanist view of libertarianism. With skepticism thrown in. One problem I have with your libertarian is that often times the individual is ignored for the sake of the "free market". The "let the market decide" can have outcomes that are not good for individuals.

For me, gay marriage is an example. Now, leaving aside the "state shouldn't be involved" (in terms of taxes), it is involved. If two adults are in a long-term, committed, loving relationship, they should be able to have the same rights and privileges as any other pair, regardless of orientation.

Many libertarians would argue "let the states decide". I have a problem with that - why? The marriage doesn't hurt anyone, is non coercive, and, as it is currently sanctioned by the state, should be available to all. Else we have a majority-decided granting of a right, which is a non-libertarian response.