Climate Change

See more posts in the Principles series.

It is claimed that the economic activities of humans since the Industrial Revolution have altered the composition of the atmosphere in ways that will affect climate by increasing the amount of energy contained in the atmosphere. One can take a variety of positions with respect to this claim:

Since 1800:
1) The globe (atmosphere/biosphere/hydrosphere/etc.) has cooled.
2) The globe has not changed.
3) The globe has warmed due mainly to natural causes, and this is not dangerous.
4) The globe has warmed due mainly to human activity, and this is not dangerous.
5) The globe has warmed due mainly to human activity, and this is dangerous.
6) The globe has warmed due mainly to human activity, and this will be catastrophic.

A position I have not supplied is “The globe has warmed due mainly to natural causes, and this is dangerous/catastrophic.” This position has no supporters as far as I understand.

1 and 2 are not merely unscientific, they are false. We have data going far enough back to demonstrate that the globe has in fact warmed. Conservatives and their politicians generally support 2 or 3. The popular scientific consciousness supports 5. Many of the most vocal proponents of Climate Change policy support 6.

20th century temperaturesFigure 1. 20th century temperatures

I am undecided between 3-5, but I am partial to 4. I believe climate models are literally nothing more than hypotheses, which have been insufficiently tested. I believe the current global warming pause illustrates that the models need not be upgraded from hypothetical status. I believe the increase in certainty from IPCC reports 4 (2007) to 5 (2013) is almost purely political. My opinion will be much more concrete after the next few years of Arctic ice have been documented.

This is extremely facile, but it seems that the current climate change hysteria is based on the accelerative extrapolation of trends from 1970-2000 (~2.7ºC/century). Extrapolation of trends from 1940-2000 (~1ºC/century), however, are probably closer to the mark. It is worth noting the coincidence of the global cooling hysteria with the downward trend that ended around 1970.

Where do you stand on the scale?

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The Conflict between Rights and Utilities

See more posts in the Principles series.

Much ink and server space has been dedicated to the issue of how morality is constructed. My view is that the two prevailing ethical theories, deontology and utilitarianism, are both necessary for a healthy moral perspective. Further, many political conversations can be lubricated by explicit understandings as to what morality or moral ends comprise. I will explain my views here in order to provide lubrication for future reference.

Deontology

Deontological ethics stress the importance of rules and authority in determining moral behavior. Abrahamic and Judeo-Christian ethics are quintessentially deontological. These are the morals delineated by the thou shalts and the thou shalt nots. I’d like to frame deontology as a prescription of the rights one has and does not have. Rights can be described as either positive rights—rights allowing the exercise of a behavior—or negative rights—rights allowing the non-exercise of a behavior. With this terminology, a duty or obligation can be described as the absence of the right to not perform the obligation—the absence of a negative right. A prohibition can be described as the absence of the right to perform the prohibited act—the absence of a positive right. Deontologically, actors cannot be held morally accountable for actions or inactions that they had the right to execute.

Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism stresses the importance of using the pursuit of terminal values as the guide towards moral behavior. Utilitarian thought patterns are ordinary in such disciplines as engineering or public policy, where many different variables, resources, and interests must be weighed in order to accomplish something. Utilitarian ethics are not concerned with the propriety of specific choices, but rather with whether these choices maximize “utility,” an abstract quantity that is generally associated with human and/or animal “happiness” or “well-being.” Utilitarianly, actors cannot be held accountable for choices that increase/maximize utility, may be held accountable for choices that maintain or increase but do not maximize utility, and should be held accountable for choices that decrease utility.

When they agree

Deontology and utilitarianism often agree and dictate the same behavior. A child who breaks a vase has the choice to lie. By deontology, he shouldn’t lie. By utilitarianism, he knows if he lies he will probably be caught and punished (which reduces his utility more than confessing), so he shouldn’t lie. Utilitarianism and deontology most often agree when there is social accountability (rewards and punishments) or material consequences for specific actions.

When they don’t agree

But they don’t always agree. A child instructed to report his parents for the possession of a Bible, for instance, has the choice to lie. By deontology, he shouldn’t lie. By utilitarianism, he knows everyone will be made least happy if his parents are taken away and punished, so he shouldn’t lie. Utilitarianism and deontology most often conflict when actors are subject to authority that doesn’t care about welfare or in fringe cases when the utility of a small group is weighed against that of an enormously bigger one.

How agreement changes

Whether they agree can change over time, particularly if the consequences of an action are dynamic. For instance, before effective birth control and STI management, promiscuity was proscribed by both deontology and utilitarianism. Upon medical advance, promiscuity stopped being proscribed by utilitarianism.

Types of behavior

Behavior can be classified by who it benefits:

Prosocial behavior benefits others, regardless of whether it benefits oneself.
Antisocial behavior benefits oneself at the expense of others.
Unselfish behavior benefits others at the expense of oneself.
Selfish behavior benefits oneself, regardless of whether it benefits others.

Antisocial behavior is a subset of selfish behavior.
Unselfish behavior is a subset of prosocial behavior.
Behavior can be simultaneously prosocial and selfish.

Note that policies themselves cannot be selfish or unselfish, but they can be prosocial or antisocial, depending on whether they advance or regress the common good.

The foundations

The foundations of deontology and utilitarianism are extremely important to make clear. The foundation of deontology is an authority. This authority can be a person, an organization, or a document, and is often a combination of these. Enduring authorities abide by dictating prosocial behaviors in the subordinated.

The foundation of utilitarianism is utility. The notion of utility requires definition by any utilitarian, and is generally identified as aggregate happiness or the greatest good for the greatest number.

Resolving conflict

The resolution to a conflict between the two can take many forms, although sometimes a resolution cannot be found, and a choice to ignore one or the other ethical system must simply be made:

1) One can ascertain the goals that guided the creation of the deontological rules, find that “welfare” or “happiness” or something similar was one of the goals, surmise that this interdicted action is thus actually what the authority would want, and ignore the deontological rule or alter it in some way. For instance, the speed limit is 60 mph, but you’re rushing your wife, in labor, to the hospital 20 minutes away, so you’re going 78mph instead. Another instance, you’re gay, but God is love, so God wants you to find your soulmate. (See also: Euthyphro dilemma)

2) One can choose to follow a different authority. For instance, you want to smoke marijuana which gives you utility, so you move to Colorado.

3) One can decide that the authority is deranged, irrational, or evil, and need not be heeded. For instance, you’re harboring Jews during WWII.

4) One can decide that some class of rights are unbreachable regardless of the effect of breaching those rights on another or many others. For instance, in the perennial objection to utilitarianism, what if the disutility resulting from torturing, maiming, or killing one or a few people is more than offset by the resulting smaller utilities spread out over thousands or millions of others? One can decide that everyone has the right to life and limb, and cannot have that right abrogated for any reason.

Case studies

1) You pass a person filling a parking meter and they are a quarter short. They ask you for a quarter, which you in fact possess and do not immediately need. Deontologically, you have the right to keep your possessions, and cannot be faulted for being selfish and keeping the quarter. Utilitarianly, you can be faulted for selfishness because you have decreased the net utility while you could have greatly increased it.

2) You are gay man “happily married” to a woman. You seek out discreet opportunities for sex with men, and are about to follow through with one. Deontologically, you do not have the right to cheat on your wife. Utilitarianly, the net utility resulting from the sex minus (risk × consequences) of being caught is positive, so you cannot be faulted for increasing utility.

3) You are a President confronted with the possibility of a drawn out Pacific military conflict that will result in the deaths of millions of armed personnel and civilians. You have the opportunity to use a weapon of mass destruction that would cease the military conflict in short order because of the threat it poses to your opposition’s civilization. Deontologically, you do not have the right to commit the war crimes involved in targetedly massacring civilians thousands of miles from the zones of conflict. Utilitarianly, you cannot be faulted for pursuing the course of action that maximizes utility.

4) You are a President confronted with the possibility of future terrorist attacks. You have some terrorists in custody who know information crucial to the success of current and future missions. You can only extract this information with torture. Deontologically, you do not have the right to commit the war crimes involved in torture. Utilitarianly, you cannot be faulted for pursuing the course of action that maximizes utility.

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Self-driving Cars

See more posts in the Predictions series. 17 December 2013

I have chosen self-driving cars as the first topic in my prediction series for several reasons. First, it is one prediction which I am extremely confident making, it is further one that has not been on anyone’s radar until very recently, and finally it portends large changes to American society and culture. Similar events will take place around the world, and probably even sooner in Scandinavia, Japan, and the Blue Banana.

What are self-driving cars?

Self-driving cars use GPS and computer vision technologies that parse video streams of roads to control the vehicle so that it travels safely and efficiently to its destination without the attention of a human. They can be self-contained, or they can communicate with control centers or even other self-driving cars to optimizing their performance.

Individual benefits

Riders: most accidents are caused by human error and are preventible with self-driving cars
Drivers: drivers will be free to use their time for other things.
Children, seniors, and the disabled: those without drivers licenses will no longer need other people to driving them anywhere.
Alcohol and other drug users: intoxication will no longer prevent users from getting home from a party.
Travelers: long-distance roadtrips can be done without breaks for sleeping. Cars will also no longer have to be left at the airport or train station since they can drive themselves back home.

Collective benefits (if everyone adopts self-driving cars)

Slashing of commuter time: self-driving cars will have split-second reaction times, permitting much closer following distances, speeding up clogged traffic, and taking advantage of aerodynamic effects.
Smarter car coordination: self-driving cars will be able to merge into lanes and deal with cross-street traffic much more efficiently, perhaps eliminating the need for stoplights.

Who loses?

Truck and taxi drivers. Massively. Talk about being replaced by technology.
Delivery personnel (mail, pizza, etc).
Public transportation employees.

How it will happen

By 2020, self-driving cars will be fully functional and will have gained the trust of the American consumer through media exposure. Companies such as ZipCar, Uber, Lyft, and SideCar will have added many self-driving cars to their fleets, will have successfully lobbied for the expanded use and acceptance of the technology, and will have acquired an enviable and very happy user base. The taxi industry will probably miss the boat completely, but rental car companies will get some of the pie. By 2030, major cities such as San Francisco and New York will have established laws or policies completely phasing out the use of traditional cars within the subsequent 5 to 10 years. Most other cities will follow suit once the enormous improvements in commuting have been made apparent. By 2050, all metropolitan areas with a population greater than 1 million and the major highways connecting them and probably even some states such as Rhode Island or New Jersey will prohibit the use of traditional cars, and vehicle form factors will have adapted to the fact that there is no driver. By 2070, driving a car will be a novelty pursuit, much like riding a horse is today; it will be considered dangerous, and will also be associated with rednecks and countries with bad infrastructure.

Why it will happen

All of the force of the seatbelt campaigns will be applied to self-driving cars. They will be massively safer. People may think they will miss driving, but they will gladly accept the possibility of doing work, reading, or texting instead. These forces will be overwhelming and none of the displaced workers will have any political clout to oppose. Trucking companies will gleefully dump their employees along with their wages and benefits. If they were to oppose, they will be easily shut down by “think of the averted accidents!” The main opposition will come from people who think they prefer driving to whatever else they could be doing (opposition which will quickly evaporate), from car owners who don’t want to replace their vehicles (opposition which will evaporate in the life expectancy of a car, i.e. 10~15 years), and from car manufactures who will take a hit in their sales due to the rise of carsharing (opposition which will be fierce but “think of the averted accidents!”). Also, self-driving cars will be much more carbon-efficient. Finally, transportation on public roads is one arena in which government is sovereign. It can’t tell you to stop using incandescent lightbulbs (at least not very effectively), but it can tell you exactly what you can and cannot do on the blacktop.

The economic mechanisms

The median car has less than an hour commute per day, and is probably used for only another hour on average. It is thus being used only about 20% of waking time. This is a huge inefficiency. The median car is used by 1 to 2 people at any given time. This is a huge inefficiency. The median following length in traffic is several meters. This is a huge inefficiency. All of these inefficiencies can be successfully addressed by cars which drive themselves to the users when the users need them and do so with the precision and coordination supplied by computers. Car ownership will become a thing of the past. Carsharing (ZipCar), and ridesharing (Uber, Lyft, SideCar) will be in. People will not have to deal with insurance, maintenance, parking, or other burdens. They will instead pay recurring fees for usage of one those services, and they will pay much less overall because of the inefficiencies erased. The convenience will be worth not having a personal vehicle to store things in, and will probably even be worth the loss of privacy due to sharing rides with other costumers to many users.

What it means for society

Self-driving cars will provide the most visible and widespread example of the replacement of human labor by automation and high technology. The victims will be few but they will be visible and remembered when technology starts to devour other industries wholesale. Self-driving cars will spark the much needed conversation of how to apportion resources in a post-scarcity society. And let’s cross our fingers for some good policy changes as a result of that dialogue.

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Family Law

See more posts in the Policy series.

I would like family policy in the USA to reflect the realities of the many different kinds of families that exist within its borders and to be fair to the many parties involved. I think the state has an interest in promoting standards that create reasonable provisions for the common issues that arise in familial relationships regarding the transfer of property and other rights in the event of death or the creation or dissolution of unions, and thus I do not side with marriage privatization advocates.

Same-sex marriage

Given the existence of the romantic, sexual, and other bonds between many real homosexual couples and the distinct similarity of these to those shared by heterosexual couples, marriage should be fully and equally extended to same-sex couples. This includes adoption. Adoption agencies already have standards for adoptive parents, and these will effectively prevent inadequate same-sex couples from adopting children.

Divorce

No-fault divorce should be an option for any partner at any time (with reasonable waiting provisions). One big change involves the division of assets upon dissolution of the marriage. At-fault spouses and spouses who initiate no-fault divorce should receive down to and perhaps including 0% of the marital assets, and should be extremely suspect regarding custody rights of any children. This would encourage spouses to remain faithful to the marriage and reward the spouses who are, while leaving a clear option to escape if circumstances warrant that. The percentage or other splitting criteria could be varied depending on the causes of the divorce, in order to protect spouses who cannot establish fault of the other partner and yet require monies to secure at least a minimally comfortable lifestyle.

Inheritance

The estate tax should be progressive and very steep (90%+ for amounts over several million dollars) in order to prevent the accumulation of wealth by those who have not worked for it, and encourage philanthropy by those who have.

I have no strong opinions about inheritance law, but I’ll supply some. More inclusively across socioeconomic strata, non-fungible (perhaps except real) assets should be divided at the will of the deceased. A certain fraction of the fungible (perhaps also real assets) (say 50%) should be divided evenly among the heirs, with the remainder at will of the deceased.

Adoption

I see no specific changes to be made here except regarding same-sex marriage.

Polygamy

With the furor over the recent polygamy ruling in Utah, I feel I should address polygamy directly. There are highly functional, authentic polygamous families in America. However, the existing marriage law is not nearly as easily generalizable to multiple individuals as opposite-sex marriage is to same-sex marriage. There are various ways to be polygamous: one man can be married to several women at once, one woman can be married to several men at once, one person can be married to several others (of whichever sex), several people can be all married to each other, one person can be married to several others who are married to several others creating a chain, and countless other situations. Combinatorial explosion is real. I would not object to the introduction of a meticulously crafted polygamy law, but I would just as soon let the Utah ruling rest: you can only have a marriage license with one other person, but you can cohabitate with as many consenting adults as you like. Perhaps the sister wives can get a gay marriage.

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Some new ramblings

I haven’t posted on my blog Liberate and Conserve recently, mostly because I used up all the topics that I cared about and to write a full post on. I’d like to start a new blog and write about some other topics that I’ve had on my mind, mainly regarding US policy as I’d like to see it, and my predictions for the coming decades (as an exercise in falsifiabilification). It seems more efficient to create a blog that collects all of my political thoughts, so I made a new one that I’ll use for these topics and probably others in the future. Happy reading!

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