Friday, January 6, 2012

"Because screw it"

Way too many people get way too analytical about actually taking action on things, particularly when it involves political answers. It's a bizarrely unnatural way of acting for humans, and yet for some reason those of us who study human action and decision making are some of the most prone to falling into it. The human condition, in a nutshell, is never knowing exactly what the hell is going on but caring about exercising control so that we can actually try to make progress (whatever that is) in our lives. We don't just follow instinct where it takes us, but we are also limited by our frail faculties.

OK now I'm waxing poetic, so I'll get to the point. The fourth bullet point in Ryan Murphy's four point summary of what he's learned from James Buchanan so far is: "Even if you don’t have unanimous consent because people are being difficult, it’s reasonable to still assume that rules agreed to by a large enough majority constitutes a Pareto improvement, because screw it."

It sounds flippant, but there's a lot of wisdom there. At some point you have to just act. We will never know anything completely. The question is never "is this right or is this wrong". The question is always "is doing this more likely to be right than not doing this, or is it more likely to be wrong than not doing this?". Too many people have talked themselves into a rationalist ethics that weights sins of commission more heavily than sins of omission.

I don't get the logic that pushes people into saying things like "but you don't know if the carbon tax is the right price, so how can you justify that - the government can't possibly know what's optimal". Of course it can't possibly know what's optimal. I don't really know of anyone that's made that claim. But that's not the question at hand. The question at hand is whether it's likely to turn out better if we take this action than if we don't take this action.

So many times in life we have to just say "because screw it". You learn what you can learn (and ideally you learn a lot about the world you life in ahead of time so that you can make good decisions on the fly), and you make your decision. This is not a world where we pile up all our actions at the end of our lives and only count those actions and whether they are good or bad. In that sort of world you can wait to act until all the evidence is in. But that's not the real world. This is a world where throughout our lives we change things by both taking actions and not taking actions.


  1. Well-said, Daniel. You could also add that we live in a non-linear world with agents that have non-linear decision-making processes. But that will be the day that orthodox economics replaces the dominant paradigm of Subjective Expected Utility, which is still pretty damn entrenched and will continue to be for a while...

  2. "Way too many people get way too analytical about actually taking action on things, particularly when it involves political answers."

    Yet you're constantly analyzing this stuff. You can't even leave X-mas gift giving alone. Physician, heal thyself.

  3. I think you're missing my point, LV.

    I'm not saying "don't think about things".

    I'm saying "don't use our failure to ever completely comprehend things as an excuse for not taking action"

  4. To use your example - I'm going to continue to muse about why we give gifts on Christmas vs. Epiphany. But I'm not going to withhold gifts from my family until I figure it out.

  5. I would pedanticallty also note that it's not just about the likelihood of getting a positive outcome. It's fair to add in expected value along with some risk aversion.

    But so long as we do that, policies should follow whatever our Bayesian priors our. Things like public choice should change our Bayesian priors, but they do not change questions of government intervention to all or nothing things.

  6. No, I got your point. You aren't getting my point. I don't see anyone saying "screw it" on all things; they say screw it on things they are really very confident about (generally for not very good reasons).

    Take the example that you use; carbon taxes. There really is no good evidence that carbon taxes will do diddly; they are pimped at the COP meetings as a magic bullet (when you go to them they are a religion to some people); and people love them because they look relatively clean and simple. But if you look at them (or a trading regime) they do remarkably little for a very high price - and they do remarkably little because it is politically (and in good conscience) infeasible to make them draconian. So I'm not interested if they are at the "right price," I don't _think_ they'll ever work - but they sure do look like this really photogenic solution.

    The most confident people who are willing to say "screw it" (climate alarmists like Gore and Krugman and deniers like Inhofe, etc.) are just the worst when it comes to the whole field of climate science.

    Thus the reason one should rarely if ever say "screw it" is because that tends to be the time your biases and such at their highest level.

  7. Do you really consider Krugman an alarmist?

    What counts as an "alarmist" for you? Wanting to implement some climate policy?

    I consider "alarmists" people who talk like they know the world is going to end and that the economy must grind to a halt as a result.

  8. Krugman may be the most brilliant economist ever (I have clue one about that and I leave that for economists to duke it out over); but he makes just the strangest, off the wall, outlandish statements when it comes to climate science. To me it looks like climate alarmism; you'll have to decide whether you think that is the case.

    This is just one example of what I am getting at:

  9. Sorry, meant to answer this question:

    What counts as alarmism?

    When you start talking about current events as if they can be directly attributable as a "known known" to climate change I call that alarmism. That's what a lot of alarmists do. A recent example is the flooding up in New England when Irene moved through. There were all kinds of claims about this sort of thing never happening in New England, but there is a long history of it - though each instance is distant in time - New England was pounded in a similar way in the 1930s for example.

  10. To sum up, it isn't that Krugman favors one or another climate policy necessarily (I forget - does he favor markets or taxes?); it is the sort of statements he makes about what climate science can know.


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