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.

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as: , ,
Trackback URL:
  • arch1

    Robin, why do *you* not address Raam’s 3rd point? If reducing world carbon consumption can indeed hugely improve quality of life for coming generations, things we can do now to make that happen (and to encourage others to make it happen to an even greater degree) would seem to be very important.

    This seems to me the central issue in the whole debate, yet the arguments which persuade you don’t appear to address it at all.

    • anon

      Robin does not need to criticize *all* arguments. He might even agree with some of them, and perhaps support carbon taxes. But the first and second argument really are embarassingly bad for what purports to be a serious policy analysis book.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      You seem to be using charity or altruist evaluation criteria, which isn’t what nations usually use to evaluate policies.

      • arch1

        Robin, I do happen to think that when determining policy we should value the welfare of people outside our own country (and do so despite the fact that this does not appear to be the norm among nations). And of course I believe that you should, too. If that is what you meant by charity/altruist, guilty as charged.

        But the argument I point to is still a strong one (assuming its hypothesis) even from a nationally selfish perspective. It suggests that actions by our country now, and changes those actions trigger in others, *could* have a huge net benefit, for our country.

  • Wonks Anonymous

    Here is Peter Leeson’s paper on the efficiency of trial by combat:

    http://www.peterleeson.com/Trial_by_Battle.pdf

  • Lexi

    “Second, it is bad economics to not buy the cheapest product that does what you need just because its price fluctuates.”

    Why do you consider this to be true even when your reasons for buying a more expensive substitute involve a long-term competitive strategy which is arguably better for everyone on the whole? I’m not sure I agree with that point. There may also be positive gains to becoming a front-runner in new technologies of this nature which could offset the added costs. I think your statement is much more true in a stable environment where much of the innovation has already happened.

    • http://www.facebook.com/peterdjones63 Peter David Jones

      “Second, it is bad economics to not buy the cheapest product that does what you need just because its price fluctuates.”

      it could well be good social, ethical or political policy. Plausibly the disutility experienced by individuals during severe busts isn’t balanced by the utility experienced during booms, so that a society might be able to maximise its utility by settling for a steady state at a lower GDP than boom-and-bust economics.

      • IMASBA

        “Plausibly the disutility experienced by individuals during severe busts isn’t balanced by the utility experienced during booms”

        That’s not just plausible, that’s fact. If you have two economies that start out with the same GDP, one growing by 3% for 10 years, the other growing by 6% for 9 years and shrinking by 20% in the 10th year then the second economy will have a larger GDP after 10 years, but probably not after 11 years and at that time life in this country will be miserable compared to life in the other, more stable country. There are various causes for this: uncertainty reinforces GDP shrinkage, rapid growth and shrinkage tend not to be evenly distributed among the population and prices won’t be reduced across the board after a shrinkage (the rent wouldn’t go down by 20%), among various other factors.

  • http://www.facebook.com/martinL.epstein Martin Epstein

    To say that making the world’s most valuable resource harder to obtain would bolster the economy is a very counterintuitive claim. Not that economics on this scale is necessarily intuitive to me, but that just means Naam’s cost/benefit analysis need to be all the more convincing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=599840205 Christian Kleineidam

    There no need to explain why China doesn’t unilaterally engages into subsidizing solar energy research.

    According to Forbes China leads the world for alternative energy investments (http://www.forbes.com/sites/jackperkowski/2012/07/27/china-leads-the-world-in-renewable-energy-investment/).

    Politics is complicated and there are many reasons why a country like India, Brazil or China might not do what is in their best interest. The fact that Brazilian politicians don’t think that they can win elections by subsidising alternative energy in no way implies that US politicians should also think that such subsidies are bad.

    • IMASBA

      Good points.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ramez.naam Ramez Naam

    Robin,

    First, thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the book. I think your review is a fair one.

    The Infinite Resource doesn’t break a lot of new policy ground, nor is it intended to. I think what makes it unique is the combination of viewpoints it brings.

    My experience prior to writing the book was that most books on the topic of natural resources and environment are either incredibly pessimistic, asserting that we’re all doomed, or naively optimistic, asserting that there is no problem, or that the problems will be solved without any need for action or policy change.

    The Infinite Resource was aimed at the realistic yet optimistic middle. It’s a book that takes environmental and natural resource concerns very seriously, but also sees a potential for tremendous economic growth while addressing those challenges. It speaks to those of a more conservative slant in the language of markets and capital. And it talks to those on the left about the need to embrace maligned technologies like GMOs and nuclear power that could play important roles in addressing our challenges.

    I haven’t seen that combination of traits before, and as a book for a general audience, I think that makes it unique and valuable. (At the same time I agree with you that persuasion can be quite hard on these topics.)

    On your specific points on the policy front, I viewed my audience as primarily Americans. My comments on unilateral action were not meant as an indicator that China and developing nations shouldn’t also act. Rather, I was trying to dispel the notion that US action could only be justified if done in sync with action from China, India, and other nations.

    All that being said, two specific things to note about China:

    1) The pro’s and con’s of action are different in China due to a different “carbon intensity” of the economy. China’s carbon intensity is roughly 5x that of the US. That is to say, China’s economy is 5x more tightly linked to carbon emissions in China than it is in the US. To put a different view on it, naive carbon emission reductions cost the Chinese economy 5x as much as they do the US economy. (This isn’t strictly true, but it’s a starting point for analysis.)

    2) Despite #1, (and as I mention in the book) China is arguably taking more aggressive policy measures than the US. Its first two regional carbon markets (Shenzhen and Shanghai) go live in June, with more to follow, aiming towards a national carbon market in 2015. Chinese officials have also announced their intent to phase in a small carbon tax starting in 2015. China’s private sector has also been outspending the US private sector in renewable energy deployment. In last year they outspent the US in absolute dollars by 50% (roughly $60b to $40b). As a percentage of GDP, China’s investment was roughly 3x the US’s investment.

    In any case, I appreciate you taking the time to read and thoughtfully review the book.

    Best,
    Ramez Naam

  • IMASBA

    “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.”

    Yes, innovations should be considered too, but don’t forget that many such innovations are not given away for free (patents, corporate/state secrets, etc…) and that Western innovations have also been used to keep the West rich at the expense of everyone else. In any case, it may not be helpful to quibble over this when there is an environmental crisis that threatens us all.

    “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.”

    That depends entirely on the constraints. Our system only “fixes” temporary shortfalls with the spoils of better times up to a point, a shock that crosses a certain treshold may cause irreperable damage. Compare it to the need to eat: you can’t make up for a year without food by eating twice as much food in the year before, you’ll simply die when you have to go without food for a year. Also, in the case of fossil fuels there is a clear, inescapable trend towards higher prices because these fossil fuels are running out: the fluctuations do not add to zero.

    “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.”

    These countries prioritize economic growth above all else because they need it to catch up to the West, even so, they are indeed held captive by Russia and the Middle East for fossil fuels, just like the West and going green would help them solve that problem just as it would for the West. The best “selfish” solution differs between nations based on their priorities and existing capabilities: the US needs an infrastructure overhaul anyway and it has a lot of resources, so why not go green while they’re at it, many developing countries are still paying off their recently build, dirty infrastructure and they don’t have a lot of resources to invest.

  • IMASBA

    “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.”

    When the dispute is between a penniless peasant and a rich noble then physical combat levels the playing field considerably versus a justice system with expensive lawyers, complicated and biased laws and corrupt/inept judges/juries. This still holds today: I’d rather face the CEO of some ruthless corporation sueing me in physical combat than getting stomped by his international all-star lawyer team in a court whose laws are written by people who had a lot more in common with that CEO than with me. As to the possibility of defeat, I know many people would prefer a swift (and in many cultures) honorable death over a lifetime of debt-slavery (for downloading a couple of songs) or life-imprisonment (for selling 100gr of weed).

    In addition both parties had to agree to the duel. It’s no coincidence that societies that had physical combat dispute settlement went on to create the first building blocks of democracy and notions of equality before the law as we know it today.

    • Wonks Anonymous

      I don’t think the penniless peasant would actually fight the rich noble. Champions could be hired for such trials. See the Leeson paper.

      • IMASBA

        Depends on the culture, there were cultures where it would be considered dishonorable, or it wasn’t even allowed to arrange (payment was always forbidden) a champion (except when one of the parties was female or disabled).

      • IMASBA

        I think it’s also important to point out that trial by combat can solve cases that a judge or jury trial cannot, such as a dispute over a piece of land that neither party has a good claim to, of course you could have decided this with a coin flip as well, but sometimes both parties prefer to fight.

      • Stephen Diamond

        What warrants the assumption that a judge can’t decide a dispute between parties where neither has a good claim? Ordinarily, a court must resolve any actual dispute that comes before it. If neither party has a good claim it must decide which has the better claim. If no rule allows it to decide, it must make up a rule to justify the decision. Every case must be decidable–at least in the English law system and the Continental.

      • IMASBA

        When both don’t have a good claim it’s not fair to award one party the full price because he has a claim that is a tiny, tiny bit less worse and that’s just assuming there actually is a difference between the two claims. Also there are plenty of disputes that are insolvable or can only be resolved by granting no one the victory. Just imagine a case where people are arguing over spending $1 billion of government money on education or health care, or a case where a judge has to decide whether full body scanners are necessary at airports or not, or a woman asking a judge which one of two suitors she should marry, or two siblings, one living in London, the other in Vancouver, both wanting custody over the orphan baby of their dead sister, etc… Of course if you allow judges to flip a coin (in which case you’re wasting money because anyone can flip a coin) or give disputed property to charity or another third party then courts get a lot more room to solve disputes…

  • Stephen Diamond

    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.

    So, your book will put EMs on the map? (Perhaps it’s not a “popularly plausible” position.)

    Do those with middle-brow literary skills really have this clout? Will Naam’s policies on carbon, for example, really win out, purely because of his writing skill?

    For one thing (I’ll forgo the obvious objections) truly influential writing has a characteristic style which you’ve written about:classic prose. Naam’s blatant advocacy is completely nonclassical; his three reasons for belief is a mix between the “practical” and “plain” style.

    This style is great for fan-club formation and signaling, but it isn’t influential.

  • John Maxwell IV

    “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.”

    So you support the US pursuing its own selfish interests even if it screws up the environment? Do you also support China doing this? If you support the US doing it and not China, why? Does your personal portfolio have a lot of US stocks? Would your answer change if your portfolio was more diversified?

    I don’t really understand why people feel tribal identity with the nation they happen to be a citizen of and it seems problematic for world politics (as this argument from you illustrates). I’d like to see more people identify with the entire planet as their tribe.

    • Stephen Diamond

      Hanson’s topic is how influence is mediated in choosing among “publicly plausible” alternatives. “Altruism” simply isn’t a publicly plausible alternative. Sorry, it’s called “reality.”

      Yet, I have a related gripe. When he discusses topics like immigration policy, Hanson doesn’t hesitate to invoke altruistic arguments. He’s neither idealist nor realist but rather subjectivist.

  • Jess Riedel

    > 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.

    Good point. Note though that it’s an accepted part of tort law that if party A harms party B then B has a claim against A, but if A (incidentally) *helps* B, then A has no claim against B. Even if A has helped and hurt B several times in the past, and B has on the net gained from A, B still can make claims against A for each incident of harm.

    I think you have very reasonably argued in the past that this is a very inefficient policy, but you should highlight your non-standard position on this policy since it’s crucial for your rebuttal to be effective.

  • Philo

    “[I]f rich countries should be blamed for hurting the rest of the world via past carbon emissions . . .,” etc. The point you make about this is a good one, but you might also mention that it is a very dubious practice to treat nations or other collective entities as moral agents.
    Doing so will be inconsistent with the firmly entrenched, and surely
    correct, practice of treating individual people as moral agents, for the
    prescriptions generated by these two different practices will conflict.

  • http://www.facebook.com/goetzphil Phil Goetz

    “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.”

    In what domain do you find that people consider the contrary arguments fairly? Even in peer-reviewed journal articles, the opposing side is often given only lip service.