I Dare You Bunzl

In yesterday’s Post, philosopher Martin Bunzl says:

I spend most of my waking hours worrying about how to reduce my output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Yet my behavior seems to march to a different drummer. I need to get the best deal. For me, not the world. When it comes to what counts as the best deal, my values don’t get incorporated into the calculation. I am attuned only to price. And I don’t think I am alone in this.

Fine, you say. Big deal. The solution is obvious: We adjust the price to make the "right thing" priced right for me. But here is another problem — when it comes to pricing I am totally irrational. Offer me two washing machines, one that is more expensive now but more efficient over its lifetime, and hence cheaper in the long run, and I’ll choose the one that is cheaper now. … 


There is another problem. I like Hummers. … I like its boxy design and its commanding presence on the road. I secretly desire to command the road. Here I am not irrational, just retrograde when it comes to my preferences. And if my preferences are strong enough and my wallet is large enough, no tax is going to make me give up my Hummer for a Prius. …

I say: Better not to tempt me in the first place. Take the Hummers away. Don’t clutter my world with things I should not have. Don’t dangle them in front of me, creating desire, only to then try to have me renounce them. Just ban the damn two-cycle hedge trimmer and let me be done with the matter.

Bunzl should consider private ways to commit himself to change:

StickK.com, scheduled to launch in December 2007, will provide "commitment contracts" that let individuals set a goal, choose consequences for failing to comply, and decide how to verify their progress.  With the options of choosing to lose money every time they fail and designating third-party verifiers to check their success, users will face powerful incentives to meet their goals.

I doubt Bunzi will try StickK though, because like Tyler I doubt he really wants to change.  I conclude Bunzi cares mainly about changing the rest of us, but was unwilling to admit this directly. Why, I wonder?

Added 17Jan: StickK.com is now ready for business. 

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  • steven

    It’s Bunzl, not Bunzi. Also:

    “I spend most of my waking hours worrying about how to reduce my output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.”

    Wow, and some people say environmentalism isn’t a religion.

  • Ben Jones

    “I spend most of my waking hours worrying about how to reduce my output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.”

    “I am not irrational, just retrograde when it comes to my preferences.”

    “Don’t clutter my world with things I should not have. Don’t dangle them in front of me, creating desire, only to then try to have me renounce them.”

    Did one person really write these things in the same article? Is it a wind-up? There is a point at which ‘not in my back yard’ just becomes hypocrisy bordering on doublethink.

  • steven

    By my rough calculations if the average American spends five minutes a day worrying about CO2, the time cost is about equivalent to the yearly budget cost of the Iraq war.

  • Silas

    Bunzl’s conclusion doesn’t follow. An ideal environmental externality tax would apply the funds toward canceling the environmental damage from his decision. It therefore wouldn’t matter, with respect to the environment, if he gives in to his desires. That’s the beauty of it: monitor your environmental cost, and save money, or don’t, and you cancel the damage another way. Since he says he’ll pay any price to use a Hummer, that implies there must be a tax that allows him to do the “right thing”.

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    Robin says: “I conclude Bunzi cares mainly about changing the rest of us, but was unwilling to admit this directly. Why, I wonder?”

    I’m more inclined to think he wants everyone to change together. “I won’t do it if no one else does.” You go it alone, you might be thumbing your nose at your community, which might be something a social animal might not be inclined to do.

  • Floccina

    A little off topic but…

    There is also another problem it is sometimes difficult to know what action releases less co2 into the air.

    BTW Biochar seems to me to be a promising method to reduce atmospheric co2.

  • Silas

    Oh, and as for discerning what Bunzl wants, I disagree that it’s changing all of us per se. Remember, a tax on the negative externality does that. Most environmentalists want the behavior changes to be visible so as to show who’s on whose “team”, which is consistent with other common biases. In many cases, the most energy-saving thing to do is e.g. change insulation at home, but that doesn’t make your “sacrifice” visible to others.

    So I would agree with Mike_Kenney’s assessment that he dislikes seeing those who thumb their noses by not making a *visible* sacrifice.

  • briarandbramble

    This article is not about carbon dioxide. What he is trying to do is show much enjoyment he gets from these simple, happy, everyday objects, and he uses the device of exaggerated inner conflict to do this.
    The point of the article is to get you to sit on the porch and giggle at how wonderful it is that finally, at this stage of life, your biggest worry is which washing machine to buy.

  • George Weinberg

    Dudes, it’s satire.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Steven, thanks; fixed the spelling error.

    Silas, good points.

  • poke

    Satire or not, the man has a point: People have irrational desires, therefore fulfilling their desires is irrational.

  • Mike

    It seems pretty clear that he cares mostly about “changing the rest of us” as you put it, given that he’s directing something called the Institute on Climate Change. I don’t see anything underhanded about it, though; he’s using himself as an illustrative instance of the difficulty of the problem, not doing some sort of self-help meditation about the tortured choices he must endure. That he wants everyone to change is pretty much assumed in the article.

  • Caledonian

    People have irrational desires, therefore fulfilling their desires is irrational.

    Fulfilling their irrational desires is irrational.

  • josh

    Are desires subject to rationality or is desire just another word for preference?

  • Nick Tarleton

    Intransitive preferences, at least, are irrational; and while (say) a discount rate of 100% a day may not be strictly irrational, it’s clearly unreasonable, even insane.

  • Caledonian

    Are desires subject to rationality or is desire just another word for preference?

    As I understand their usages, ‘preference’ is passive, while ‘desire’ is active. Preference are inert unless you’re presented with a choice. Desires are motivations to bring about or create the desired state.

  • http://www.satisfice.com/blog James Bach

    I’m not a rationalist, myself, but I’m surprised that some rationalist hasn’t yet pointed out that hypocrisy is a rational strategy. It’s classic game theory stuff, right? Encourage lots of people to move in one direction, then if they do, you get an advantage as the only cheater. It’s like the tragedy of the commons, except that it’s not a tragedy for the one person who abuses the commons, if ONLY one person abuses them.

  • Paul Gowder

    I conclude Bunzi cares mainly about changing the rest of us, but was unwilling to admit this directly. Why, I wonder?

    Because he gets a, to use the vernacular, metric assload more disutility from everyone else using a Hummer (and hence dumping greenhouse gases, creating road hazards, raising oil prices, etc.) than he does from using it himself?

    I mean, come on. The climate change issue is a massive honking collective action problem. It might not be individually irrational for him to own a Hummer, but it sure is collectively irrational for everyone who can afford one to have one. Isn’t solving collective action problems what the state is for? (Even Milton Friedman could have agreed with that.)

    Admittedly, Bunzl expressed this very badly, and the issue of hyperbolic discounting seems like a red herring here. Who cares whether it’s individually rational or not to buy the less energy-efficient washing machine? I mean, really, who cares? At all? The point is the collective problem.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    See the “added” above.