The economics of insanity

I learnt a new phrase today – “lexicographic preference” – courtesy of economics professor J. Bradford DeLong. Before I tell you what it means, let me show you what kind of thinking it produces (not on DeLong’s part, but on those he ridicules).

Here are two quotes (don’t look at the links just yet). First:

I think there’s a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress’s powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective.


We believe that the decisions of how to deal with the massive asteroid are best left to the individual.

You’d be right to smell satire. However, only one of the above quotes is satirical. The other is quite serious. (This is a manifestation of Poe’s Law.)

The second quote comes from The Onion; the first comes from Sasha Volokh, who apparently didn’t get the joke. I shall defer to some other great commentary on this by J. Bradford DeLong:

So not only does Sasha Volokh claim that it is immoral to tax people to blow up an asteroid (or install lightning rods, or mandate lightning rods, or pay for a tree-trimming crew on the public roads), but it is immoral to tell people of an approaching asteroid so they can scramble to safety because it will cause violations of rights through looting.

And then John Quiggin:

The general point is that if some physical state of the world would require government action inconsistent with libertarian principles or conservative tribal taboos, then since libertarianism/conservatism is always right, logic dictates that the physical state in question must be impossible.

DeLong attributes Volokh’s thinking to “lexicographic preference”, which is economics jargon. Imagine you are selecting between alternatives, and you have several criteria to base your decision on. If I understand correctly, choosing lexicographically means applying each criterion in turn (as if you were comparing the letters in two words to place them in dictionary order; hence the name). You stop at the first criterion that distinguishes the alternatives.

For such absolutist libertarians as Sasha Volokh, the first criterion is upholding individual rights. If the available courses of action both uphold rights, or both fail to uphold rights, then we can move onto the second criterion (e.g. preservation of human civilisation). However, (a) libertarians in general tend to argue that taxation is theft, and (b) Volokh in particular argues that we do not, strictly speaking, have the right to survive a natural disaster. Thus, the first criterion does distinguish between the alternatives, and so we never need consider any other factors. Thus, government is morally obliged to do nothing to save humanity.

DeLong also highlights another phenomenon – the tendency in the face of extremism to declare a legitimate debate (specifically, in this case, by one Ilya Somin):

Somin’s insanity is… a second-order insanity — the insanity of taking first-order insane claims to be questions about which reasonable people can disagree.

In other words, Volokh’s position is demonstrably insane, and those who think that it can form part of a legitimate debate, as opposed to an object of ridicule, are themselves at least mildly insane.

Now, having understood the preceding arguments, most thinking people probably have pet topics to which they envisage an application.

In my case, lexicographic preference reminds me a lot of the political quagmire associated with unathorised boat arrivals. Politicians and commentators (especially of the Liberal persuasion), cast this as a crisis in which the only acceptable outcome is the total absence of any further “boat people”. There is no consideration for either (a) the humanitarian situation, (b) the diplomatic situation, or (c) the costs involved (or indeed anything else). In evaluating a given policy, the last three factors are irrelevant as long as there is some effect – no matter how small – on the number of boats. A policy that results in x boat arrivals is incontestably superior to one that results in x + 1 arrivals, no matter the cost, diplomatic or humanitarian implications.

Unfortunately, this is such a widely-held variety of insanity that any second-order insanity (i.e. that there is a legitimate argument that we should favour fewer boat arrivals no matter the consequences) is redundant.

A better demonstration of second-order insanity lies in the never-ending racism/multiculturalism debate. Here, Kevin Andrews was one the latest purveyors of this particular type of nonsense (after the British PM David Cameron had taken the lead of Angela Merkel in announcing the supposed failure of multiculturalism):

Mr Andrews described the British prime minister’s comments as “fairly sensible” and relevant to Australia.

“I think there is a risk [of ethnic enclaves] in Australia,” Mr Andrews said.

“What actually concerns me the most is that we can’t have a discussion about it,” he said, as he pushed for a public debate on the issue.

Of course, we can have a discussion about the merits of multiculturalism, in much the same way that we can have a discussion about the merits of using tax dollars to stop asteroids from annihilating civilisation. It really just depends on your preferred level of insanity.

Abbott’s contribution

There is something terribly misanthropic about this sentence:

PS. Click to donate to help our campaign against Labor’s flood tax

This is the flood tax intended to pay for the rebuilding of Queensland’s public infrastructure, and the sentence appeared in an email sent by Tony Abbott. I know it’s your job to oppose things Tony, but for the time being could you possibly focus your fundraising efforts on the unfolding disaster itself and not on your own political career?

The ABC reports that:

A spokesman for Mr Abbott says the link was added by the Liberal Party headquarters.

Oh good, so it wasn’t just one person but rather an institutional problem. How comforting.

Looking at the larger picture, Annabel Crabb points out that it surely doesn’t matter exactly how we pay for the rebuilding; whether the money comes from an extra tax or extra government debt. What matters – especially in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasi – is that the government has a plan. It doesn’t have to be the best plan, conforming to conventional political ideology – just a workable plan. A little bipartisanship wouldn’t hurt.

Climate: ‘mission accomplished’

I read with ever growing fascination the comments that continue to flood into climate-related blogs. Deltoid has collected a few truly astounding ones. I’ve also discovered the UK’s very own James Delingpole, who’s a riot. As mentioned in my previous post, there seem to be a veritable army of those convinced that the climate sceptics are not merely right (and righteous), but that this time they’ve actually, truly won. This, based on an assortment of stolen email.

In the long run, reading these comments is probably a recipe for the development of psychological issues, but for the moment it’s like a spectator sport. While ignorance regarding the climate change science is merely frustrating, the euphoric surety of ultimate victory that so many commenters share is hilarous. As a general rule, I don’t like laughing at other people, but when so many start running at full pelt toward the cliff edge, convinced that it is they who are to inherit the Earth, I cannot help but anticipate schadenfreude. I can’t do anything about it, after all, so why not laugh?

(Doubtless, to someone not familiar with the issue, I myself might be sounding a little overconfident. To assuage such doubts, you would do well to remember that the reality of climate change is propounded by the world’s scientific community, which is constantly engaged in critical self-examination. By contrast, the opponents of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have very few actual scientific results to draw from in support of their arguments. Having long since been consigned to scientific irrelevance, they resort to reading other people’s email in search of conspiracies.)

But why are so many stampeding over the edge all at once? My theory is that so little motivation or desire exists for critical thought that commenters feed on each other ad infinitum. They come to believe, for instance, that there has indeed been widespread scientific fraud, based on existing angry comments, which themselves were derived from still older comments, etc. Eventually we find ourselves back at the source of the allegations – the use of the phase hide the decline in one of the emails (which in reality has a much more innocent explanation*). The newer commenters aren’t aware that these three little words are the entire basis of the supposed fraud. They think their arguments are much more solidly grounded, simply because everyone is talking about it.

The other piece of the puzzle is the ideology of those who spread the word in the first place. Opposition to action on climate change – as put forth by Andrew Bolt, and of course many others around the world – starts to make some kind of twisted sense if you accept the following fact. There are people out there for whom the greatest and most insideous evil in the world is not war, poverty, disease, starvation or tyranny, but simply the fact that you are required to help fund public services. This is their antichrist – taxation – the worse imaginable horror that the universe could bestow on us. My intuition fails me here, but however untenable the premise, the logic thereafter seems to hold. It is an article of faith that none of the consequences of climate change can outweigh the evil of taxation. Indeed the proposition that we should deal with climate change by introducing emissions trading schemes – seen by some as a form of tax – must place the issue firmly in the socialists-taking-over-the-world basket.

I sense that this deeply-held belief serves to justify intellectual dishonesty in the minds of climate change deniers. This might be analogous to the obligation felt by creationist pundits to argue against evolution, not because they feel the evidence is in their favour (as their followers do), but because they perceive the science to be a moral challenge to their beliefs.

* The “hide the decline” hysteria is one of my favourite pieces, actually. I shall attempt to summarise, based on some very patient explanations by Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at NASA. The “decline” refers to the “divergence problem”, where temperature reconstructions based on tree-ring data show a spurious decline after about 1960. This needs to be “hidden” simply because it’s not real. Several important points to note are:

  1. The comment cannot possibly be connected to the fabled “cooling” of temperatures this decade, since the email was sent in 1999.
  2. The collection of tree-ring data is a relatively peripheral issue to climate change, since other data sources are available (including actual temperature measurements).
  3. We know that the tree-ring data is reasonably accurate before 1960 and inaccurate after 1960, because we can compare it to other sources of data. Actual temperature measurements, for instance, certainly do not show a “decline”. The reasons for the divergence are the subject of debate, but may be a result of climate change itself.

Update (7 December 2009) – A couple more points, for the sake of completeness:

  1. Nothing has actually been “hidden”, in the lay sense, anyway. All the data is out in the open and the problem has been discussed in the peer-reviewed literature over a decade ago.
  2. According to the email (which you can Google for yourself), the only action taken was the addition to the data of real temperature values. The sources of these values are even described in the email.


The ATO’s tax bonus eligibility calculator informs me that I’m not, after all, eligible to receive the $900 tax bonus. I was above the tax-free threshold in 2007-08, but my tax was erased by offsets. It’s not clear whether I’m eligible to receive the $950 “training and learning” bonus either. I’m unknown to Centrelink and I’m not receiving a scholarship, but the Council for Australian Postgraduate Associations is apparently “confident that administrative measures included in the package will mean that no other students are left out.”

Jolly good then. I have no idea what these “administrative measures” are, but I’m sure I’ll find out eventually, for better or worse.

On a philosophical note, it’s tough to decide whether I should be upset (hypothetically) about not being stimulated. We would rightfully complain if the needy were to miss out on welfare. In general, it’s natural to complain about not being afforded the same benefits as those around us. However, this isn’t really about wealth redistribution – it’s just a mechanism to get money circulating again – a once-off event. It’s also not as if I’m going to be any worse off, whatever the outcome. However, that 75kg of chocolate may have to wait.

Ponderings of sanity

There are many things to be said about debating in online forums. One, that you learn early on, is that it doesn’t take much effort to find the fruitcakes. It really doesn’t. The people who firmly believe that the World Trade Centre was brought down by explosives, as evidenced by the “indisputable fact” that it “fell faster than gravity”, because just look at that YouTube video. The people who believe you’re going to hell not just because you don’t believe in God, but because you haven’t performed the 54-day version of the “Rosary Novena” (a type of prayer) and that TV shows made since the 1960s are so unforgivably immoral that they must be the work of Satan Himself. The people who equate taxation with slavery and socialism with atheism. The people who believe that oil is not derived from ancient organic matter but instead is simply “produced” by the Earth’s core. The people who proudly challenge you to disprove their three-paragraph thesis on why the entirety of science on evolution and cosmology is flat-wrong and the literal Biblical account is the only possible alternative.

One person I encountered had a pet theory on the nature of photons (particles of light): that each in fact comprises an electron and a positron in orbit around each other. Facts, such as the one where photons have no mass, unlike electrons and positrons, do not pose a hindrance to such theories, I’ve discovered. The idea, more generally, that experts in the field have been looking into this sort of thing for quite some time, publishing multitudes of peer-reviewed journal articles along the way, is of little concern.

Not that I’d wish to put you off online debating, but as you’re encountering these varied and interesting specimens, you’re bound to pick up a few insults, depending on what fascinating theory you’re being unreasonably sceptical of. As a change of pace from the usual names I get called – leftist, liberal, socialist, atheist (which at least is true), materialist or totalitarian – I’ve recently been called a “Bushbot”. This is an interesting and somewhat disturbing thought, considering some of the stuff that’s popped up in my George Bush “Out of Office Countdown” off-the-wall calendar.

Not even Bush though can match some of the wisdom of the Internet, which I’ve decided to share with you:

“In addition, the Earth is continually producing oil, because “Peak oil” was a carefully crafted myth. Oil does not come from dead dinosaurs as you skulls full of mush have been brainwashed to believe.”

“Scientists are usually the last to know about anything”

“A price chart is how I make my living….It represents truth.”

“A truth to point, all the Atheists I know have no children and it is always due to thier Atheistic mental state as compared to normal (spiritual) people. I know 7 Atheists; three couples. Sure many Atheists do produce children but certainly a large number possessing the Atheistic mind, refuse and will therefore generally NOT pass on either their genetic or social make up to the younger generations.”

“The constant social and technological progress resulting from the constant advancement of the metaphysical mind set means that we now have societies full of people, some of whom now can survive to adulthood with all alorts of personal shortcomings. This obviously includes Atheists.”

So now you know.