Saturday, August 30, 2014

What dilemma?

Philosophers are fond of hypothetical moral dilemmas, whereby you test your moral theory or code against some nasty decision. A famous one is the so-called trolley problem. Ingrid Robeyns offers up another one, tailor-made for economists, because of the element of uncertainty...
Case A: Rescuing the miners:  
Imagine 100 miners who are stuck in a mine. They are divided in two groups. You can either rescue 50 (with certainty), but then the other 50 will be lost (this is strategy 1). Or you can try a different rescue strategy, which may potentially save all of them, but only at a 50% probability; there’s another 50% chance that all will die (strategy 2). Which strategy would you choose? 
The people around the table had conflicting views, and the reasons we believed to have for a certain view did not convince the others at all. My choice was for strategy 2, since that gives everyone an equal chance to be rescued, and thus treats the miners morally equally in a certain sense. But Robin said that miners themselves would choose strategy 1, since they have a strong collective ethos/identity which includes that you save whom you can save. He claimed that we can deduce this empirical claim from some accidents that happened with miners who were actually locked up in a mine. (this is my recollection of the discussion, but Robin is very welcome to correct me !) 
In the case of miners, we are dealing with adults and respecting their agency could plausibly be taken to overrule other reasons to choose for a certain strategy. But what if agency didn’t play a role? We could change the example, by turning the people-to-be-rescued into babies, who are too small to have anything resembling group-identity and agency: 
Case B: Rescuing the babies:  
Suppose 100 babies are stuck in a mega-crèche which is on fire. They are two floors with 50 babies on each floor. There are two rescuing strategies. Under strategy 1, you can rescue 50 babies for sure, but the other 50 will die. Alternatively you can try another strategy in which all 100 babies have a 50% chance of being rescued (strategy 2). 
Which strategy do you choose, and why? And if you choose differently in case A and case B, then why so?
It's most interesting as a dilemma if we assume that the two groups have been selected at random. That is, there is no known systematic difference between the ones who will die and the ones who will live under strategy #1. In that case, for a one-shot deal, risk aversion clearly favors #1. But what rule would you choose if you knew this kind of dilemma would arise repeatedly? Say, if you were choosing a rule from behind the "veil of ignorance"? Well, it seems to be a total toss-up. In the long-run, over many decisions, half the miners and half the babies will live, and half will die, either way. So flip a coin and don't look back...?

Still, because it's a wash for the unfortunate victims, the only factor that might tip the scales would seem to be the feelings of the decision makers and the witnesses to the decision. So, maybe, ask people to vote for the strategy that will make them feel less bad? Odd morality, that...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Monday, August 25, 2014

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The NY Times book critic Dwight Garner suggested that David Shafer's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot might be the "novel of the summer." A well-written paranoid near-future thriller with a sense of humor? That sounds like my dream summer escape novel, and I'll confess, Shafer had me by the balls for the first 200 pages or so, which is about 50 pages longer than Donna Tartt did with her overpraised The Goldfinch. But somewhere right around page 212 Shafer jumps the shark, and the book kind of fizzles.

What went wrong? First, the book's appealingly flawed heroes are battling an evil conspiracy that amounts to thinly fictionalized versions of Google and the NSA working together to corner the information market. Sure, it's scary, but if you follow the headlines I'm afraid it's also a bit ho-hum. Second, Shafer does satire better than he does suspense or sci-fi. So when it comes time for the plot to really kick into gear, he has to tone down the funny, and his writing loses its edge. Third, there's what happens on page 212, when a certain woo-woo element is introduced to the plot. I won't give it away, but suffice to say that here's where attention to the hard sci-fi could have helped a lot. The Google conspiracy is highly believable because it is highly realistic. So to introduce something really weird is jarring unless you can convince the reader it has some minimal plausibility. No attempt is made. Maybe we will learn more in the sequel. And a sequel there must be, given the unsatisfying and inconclusive ending of this novel. Harrumph.

Regulation and pollution havens

One concern about environmental regulation is that "dirty" industries will simply move to less-regulated countries (so-called pollution havens). For example, metal smelting could move from the United States to China. If so, the United States would be cleaning up at the expense of China getting dirtier. Now if China were willing to put up with the pollution for faster economic growth, we might view the situation as win-win... assuming the Chinese decision-makers represent the interests of their people, more or less. But even under that rosy scenario, it's not necessarily win-win if some of the pollution has global impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Then the United States still suffers from China's emissions.

If the pollution haven effect is empirically important, it should be the case that much of the reduction in pollution in, say, the United States, is the consequence of a shift in the composition of U.S. output away from dirty industries toward clean ones, with the dirty products now being produced abroad and imported. Contrary to this hypothesis, however, the evidence suggests that the lion's share of pollution reduction in the United States has occurred within industries, through changes in technique, as is shown quite elegantly in a new paper by Arik Levinson. (Access to the paper is by subscription, but you can view the abstract here.) As Levinson writes in his conclusion:
This simple exercise demonstrates a remarkable change over the past two decades. Air pollution emitted by US manufacturers has fallen by two-thirds, and that cleanup has almost entirely come from reductions in emissions intensity of each of the more than 400 industries that comprise the manufacturing sector rather than from shifts in the shares of those industries in overall manufacturing output – from technique rather than composition...
... the finding runs counter to perceptions about the effects of environmental cleanup in US manufacturing. While I don’t assess the cause of that cleanup here, one natural speculation would be that it has resulted from environmental regulations. If so, those regulations have not worked by reducing the share of polluting industries in the US manufacturing sector – driving those industries overseas or reducing consumption of those industries’ products. Instead, they have worked by reducing the emissions intensities on an industry-by-industry basis. That finding should be welcomed by anybody concerned that US regulations might appear to be succeeding, but only by reducing the menu of products available to American consumers or by shifting pollution from the US to other countries. The results here directly refute that concern.
In other words, while there are good reasons to be deeply concerned about pollution in China (and elsewhere), for the sake of both the Chinese and ourselves, concern that domestic environmental regulation is being nullified by global trade is probably misplaced. Which is good news.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 44

There are so many things I love about this song. The obvious things: Gladys is a great singer; the Pips and their moves; it's a fantastically simple but hooky love song. The less obvious things: not only is it a great pop song, but it also captures a particular personal decision at a particular moment in historical time... the Great Migration and the subsequent reverse migration by some; the conventional pattern of call and response, in which we expect the Pips to echo, accentuate, or comment on Gladys's lyric, is often reversed, with the Pips moving the story along by anticipating Gladys's next line: "He kept dreaming (Dreaming); Ooh, that some day he'd be a star (A superstar, but he didn't get far); But he sure found out the hard way that dreams don't always come true, oh no, uh uh." Yessir, this one is perfect.

In my imagination...

... I am hitting my backhand exactly the way Stan the Man does. A thing of beauty. But even in my fantasy world, mine does not quite average his 76 mph...

Friday, August 22, 2014