January 19, 2014

Costanza and index fetishism

In Development: Time to leave GDP behind Robert Costanza and coauthors (thereafter Costanza), published in Nature, write:
[S]ince the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country 1.
The only support for this assertion is that number 1, a reference to the paper The GDP paradox by Jeroen C.J.M. van den Bergh. But van der Bergh does not argue or give any evidence that promoting GDP growth has ever been "the primary national policy goal in almost every country." Van der Bergh only says that politicians, journalists and commentators talk a lot about GDP, and that central bank managers, business managers and consumers use GDP data to inform their decisions. Neither talking about GDP nor reacting to GDP data make promoting GDP growth "the primary national policy goal in almost every country." Van der Bergh decries the fact that "rigorous empirical studies of the influence of GDP information on the economy are lacking" and adds:
Anyway, readers who are not convinced by the arguments in this section and feel that GDP information does not have much impact on the economy at large should really be sympathetic to reducing the role played by GDP information in the public sphere, as it serves no purpose while its provision is costly.
I am one of those. Provision is costly and I shouldn't be forced to pay for it. And I also think that political talk about GDP is as useless as political talk generally is.

And I also think that political talk about some other quantitative measure of what Costanza calls "national success", and intended to replace GDP, would be as useless as political talk about GDP. Not so Costanza. He doesn't dislike political talk, or the ideas of "national success" or "the primary national policy goal" or their quantitative metrics. He just dislikes GDP.

He wants to make well-being the "primary national policy goal." What is well-being? I don't know whether Costanza tries to be comprehensive or not, but he is clear that his concept of well-being is not related to income but is inversely related to crime, divorce, drug use, pollution, natural resource use and envy about income ("income inequality"). People who are not happy with their spouse or who enjoy drugs will probably disagree. People who are envious of the beauty, dancing skills or wisdom of others will probably feel excluded.

How is well-being to be measured? Costanza discusses two ways. First, one can quantify things like envy of the wealthy, drug use and natural capital and combine them to produce a single metric like the Genuine Progress Indicator. Everybody, including drug users and fed-up spouses, will agree that "genuine progress" sounds better than "gross product." Second, one can ask people how happy or satisfied they are. He admits that one problem with this is that people often don't know what policies make them happy. In fact, people often support policies that ultimately make them unhappy. Politicians who win elections and thus end up managing "the primary policy goal" happen to navigate these problems and paradoxes more skillfully than failed politicians. An important skill in this regard is the ability to interpret opinion surveys. In the end, Costanza is either trying to do the same thing, but as an amateur, or just airing his political views on drug use and the wealthy.

January 16, 2014

Fair and secular ayatollahs

The title for this post could have been Fair oversight authorities.

Mike Hubank naively asks in a Nature comment:
If a woman wants a genetically related child, and I suggest most would, given the choice, why shouldn't she choose that option? As there is no indication at this point that the procedure is dangerous, then it's up to her to balance the risks and benefits.
Christoph Rehmann-Sutter, past president of the Swiss National Advisory Commission on Biomedical Ethics, replies:
I don't think that a woman should bear the burden of responsibility to evaluate the health risks of reproductive technologies to her child. This would be unfair to her. This is rather a task for oversight authorities in that field of medical practice.
Both comments are on an article by Marcy Darnovsky (A slippery slope to human germline modification) against mitochondrial replacement as a means for women with mitochondrial diseases to have healthy children. She claims that her opinions are shared by others whom she calls "secular bioethicists". Secular bioethicism - that's a nice name for a religion.

January 08, 2014

Biodiversity value and the beauty of honest thinking

In The value of biodiversity: a humbling analysis, Mark Vellend reviews Donald S. Maier's book What's So Good about Biodiversity? A Call for Better Reasoning about Nature's Value, and writes:
In particular, the fact that we started with a conclusion (biodiversity is valuable), and subsequently sought scientific support for it, should prompt serious introspection concerning the degree to which our biases have colored our conclusions. Maier's diagnosis of our arguments concerning biodiversity is one of ‘culturally conditioned, uncritical acceptance and unhealthy disciplinary inbreeding’ resulting in a serious case of ‘confirmation bias’. Not only have our biases colored our conclusions, argues Maier, but they have also led to ‘tacit agreement among colleagues not to rock the boat of bad reasoning – perhaps out of fear that there is no other way to defend nature and its value’.

January 06, 2014

Silly investors and climate change

In A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2014, published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, William J. Sutherland and coauthors write: 
There is an incompatibility between current stock market valuation of the fossil fuel industry, which is based on known and projected fuel reserves, and governmental commitments to prevent a rise in global average temperature of more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
 They share Carbon Tracker and Nicholas Stern's concern about the fortunes of investors: 
[F]ossil fuel reserves already far exceed the carbon budget to avoid global warming of 2°C, but in spite of this, [energy firms] spent $674 billion last year to find and develop new potentially stranded assets. 
“Smart investors can see that investing in companies that rely solely or heavily on constantly replenishing reserves of fossil fuels is becoming a very risky decision. The report [Unburnable carbon 2013: Wasted capital and stranded assets] raises serious questions as to the ability of the financial system to act on industry-wide long term risk, since currently the only measure of risk is performance against industry benchmarks.” Professor Lord Stern.
So Stern, Carbon Tracker and Sutherland and coauthors are worried that non-smart investors dominate the valuation of stock and bonds of energy companies, and that future political regulation of emissions will bankrupt them.

But there is another way to view the incompatibility between current stock valuation and future emission cuts. The fact that investors - the people who put their money where their mouth is - are betting on the value of fossil fuel reserves "raises serious questions as to" the willingness of voters to substantially reduce their emissions.

December 19, 2013

Will mainstream economics look like ecological economics and literary criticism?

After attending Robert Shiller's Nobel lecture, as mainstream an event as you can get, John Cochrane reaches this conclusion:
I realized just how deep and audacious Bob's project is. He is telling us to abandon the "scientific" pretense. He wants us to adopt a literary style, where we look at the world, are inspired by psychology, and write interpretive prose as he has done. When he says that the definition of a bubble is a fad, he isn't being sneaky and avoiding the argument. He means exactly what he says and wants us to think and write this way too. A bubble, to Bob, is defined as any time that he, writing about it, informed by psychology, and reading newspapers, thinks a "fad" is going on. And he invites us to think and write like that too. A model is, to Bob, wrapped up in one person's judgement and not an objective machine. If I complain that this is ex-post story telling, he might say sure, stop pretending to be physics, write ex-post stories. If I complain that there are no rules and that this is no better than "the gods are angry," he might say, no, read psychology not ancient theology, and the rules are you have to couch your story telling in their terms. He does not want us to try to construct models, either psychological or rational, that make quantitative predictions.

December 12, 2013

Hyperbole and green platitudes

CJA Bradshaw asks for opinions on a book chapter he has written (Biowealth: all creatures great and small, available here).
It’s not hyperbole, naïveté or green platitudes – all people depend absolutely on every other species. 
It's hyperbole and it's a green platitude.
For instance, consider the very air we breathe. Nearly all the oxygen in the atmosphere is produced by plants and much of that by marine algae. Yet worldwide we treat oceans like giant toilets and cut down forest blocks every year that, together, equal the size of Tasmania. [...]
Without biodiversity we are poor. With it we are ‘biorich’.
We make decisions at the margin. It's not that we have either intact forests and clean oceans or no oxygen. Or that we are either "biorich" or "biopoor". Relevant decisions are about sacrificing a bit of oxygen or a bit of biodiversity for a bit of other valuable things, and about good quantitative arguments in one direction or the other. Hyperboles, metaphors and self-loathing do not make good quantitative arguments.

July 20, 2013

Population policy and coercion

In Critical need for modification of U.S. population policy, published in Conservation Biology, Stuart H. Hurlbert offers six "ideas that might be considered in the development of a coherent population policy."
None involve moving in the direction of policies that would be coercive or violate the civil rights of individuals.
Hurlbert calls his favorite civil rights "the" civil rights. And he needs to specify they are the civil rights of individuals because he thinks that nations, to which he attributes feelings and thoughts, have rights too. But I don't want to focus on his philosophy of rights or his nationalism, but on coercion, which is a much easier matter. Despite his promise, three of his proposals increase coercion.
Annual legal immigration has been more than 5 times greater over the past decade than it was from 1930 to 1970. No approximate estimate of an optimal U.S. population is needed to conclude that gradual reduction of immigration rates to the low to moderate ones that prevailed during much of the 20th century should begin soon. Without this reduction any national population policy will remain chaotic and lead to one environmental, economic, and social crisis after another.
The present immigration policy of the U.S. is coercive and a policy of reducing immigration rates is even more coercive. These policies are coercive both to those U.S. citizens who want to hire, or lease a home to, or have a romantic or whatever other peaceful relationship with, a foreigner on U.S. soil and to the foreign people who would accept those relationships but can't because of the law.
Why not establish a mature mom bonus that would give, say, $3000 to any woman who by her 22nd birthday had not yet had a child.
This is a policy that coercively takes $3000 from another person or persons. If the $3000 were voluntary donations then it wouldn't be a policy.
On both ethical and self-interest grounds, the United States would do well to contribute more generously to international family-planning efforts.
Again, if the contribution is voluntary it is not a policy. If it is a policy, it is coercive on innocent taxpayers.

Another of his proposals, changing the income tax credit per child, does not increase coercion. And the remaining two, eliminating government welfare checks to families based on the number of children and removing religious doctrine from contraceptive legislation, would actually decrease coercion.

Being right about coercion 50% of the time is enough to get published in Conservation Biology.