Policy Trial By Combat

It was once thought appropriate to settle legal disputes by combat – the winner of a physical fight won the case. This accomplished two key functions of a legal system: it clearly settled cases, and in a way that seemed legitimate to most observers. The fact that who won was poorly correlated with the truth of their claims mattered less.

Today we have better legal systems, but our policy debate system has a big element of trial by combat. I was reminded of this while reading The Infinite Resource by Ramez Naam, which he was nice enough to send me. Like many respected policy books, it is well written at a sentence and paragraph level, takes positions on important subjects, and is full of engaging and entertaining examples. The book makes many claims, illustrating them with simple plausible supporting arguments and detailed examples. Most of these claims are accepted by some relevant community of experts, and in fact I agree with most of them.

My problem with such books is this: little is said that is is original, and the arguments and examples given are mostly not the main reasons that relevant experts say are why they accept such claims. So experts shouldn’t change their beliefs on the basis of such a book. And if ordinary people knew this fact, they shouldn’t change their beliefs that much either, except as the prominence and acceptance of the book signals that experts agree with it.

But it is easy to see why such books are popular. Readers want to affiliate with impressive authors, and want to collect impressive sounding and unlikely-to-be-embarassingly-wrong examples and arguments with which to impress associates in conversation. So of course policy book authors compete to be eloquent and engaging while taking the sort of positions readers will find plausible and worthy of embracing. Given such a competition, the policy positions that gain the most public support are those, among the popularly plausible positions, that can attract the best writers. This is policy trial by writing combat.

Yes, if this is the game and you want your position to win, you want a good writer like Naam to write a book like his supporting your position. And yes you can infer something from the fact that such a person has been enticed to write such a book, and that the powers that be have endorsed it or at least not criticized it. But one could wish for another world where the popularity of policies was more strongly correlated with good arguments and evidence.

To illustrate my criticism, here is Naam on why the US should unilaterally tax carbon heavily:

I believe the United States should press ahead with adopting a carbon price and driving our emissions down by 80 percent by 2050, even if China and India don’t. Why? Three reasons.

First, we created this mess. Carbon dioxide lingers in the air for an average of 100 years before breaking down. …On that basis the rich countries are responsible for two-thirds of the heating of the planet that is happening today. …

Second, its in our best interests. Shifting away from oil and coal will shield us from recessions cause by global oil and coal price spikes. It’ll reduce the dollars we send to the Middle East and Russia. It’ll drive our long-term energy costs down by further fueling innovation in capturing the nearly endless supply coming from the sun. If we want energy independence, health economic growth, and long-term cheap energy, a carbon price is the way to go.

Third, the best way to get China, India, Brazil, and the rest of the developing world off of fossil fuels is to drive down the price of the alternatives. If it’s cheaper to produce electricity from solar and wind that it is from coal, if if that electricity can be supplied 24/7, then countries will switch. Make it cheaper, and they will come. And the best way to make it cheaper is to invest in R&D in those areas, and to shift business and consumer spending into them.

Here Naam takes a position that many experts have taken, and he gives plausible supporting arguments. But he doesn’t consider the contrary arguments that I find on net to undermine this position. Such policy books rarely consider contrary arguments – since such arguments usually require more sophisticated conceptual understanding to engage, most readers won’t want to hear about them unless they are especially likely to actually encounter such arguments when they pontificate on the subject.

FYI, here are the contrary arguments that persuade me. First, if rich countries should be blamed for hurting the rest of the world via past carbon emissions, they should be credited with helping much more via their past innovations. On net the world owes them, not vice versa. Second, it is bad economics to not buy the cheapest product that does what you need just because its price fluctuates. Paying steadily more for something else is a worse deal.

Third, it requires a coincidence of magnitudes for a big carbon tax and solar research subsidies to be a good selfish unilateral policy for the U.S., but not for smaller nations like China, India, and Brazil. If our best explanation for these smaller nations not unilaterally adopting big carbon taxes and subsidizing solar energy research is that they correctly expect to selfishly lose by such plans, even if the world overall gains, then we should guess the same is true of the US, which in PPP terms has only twice the GDP of China. The cutoff nation size for this being a selfishly good vs. bad policy would have to just happen to fall between the size of China and the US, and even then because we’d be near the cutoff it wouldn’t hurt us that much to pick the wrong policy. And Naam offers no arguments for why this cutoff just happens to fall in this range.

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