Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fear and Loathing in the Land of Milk and Honey

Anonymous, impersonal market transactions make us wealthy. These transactions are predicated on high trust. The "stranger danger" phenomenon as well as the assertion that all men are potential rapists are low trust activities and beliefs.

Empirical question: how well does per capita wealth correlate with non-market mistrust of strangers?

Is there reason to suspect that people compartmentalize trust? In Robin Hanson's (and Katya Grace's) worldview, people use near and far processing modes to analyze situations. Market transactions are conducted in near mode, where we can better judge the specifics of the situation and judge trustworthiness on individual merits. Non-market situations are a different kettle of fish altogether. When we contemplate letting our kids out of the house, it's much easier (perhaps even necessary) to employ far reasoning, glossing over the grainy reality and substituting cognitive heuristics for rational judgement.

This near-far split might help explain why anxious mothers won't spend an extra hundred bucks for a better car seat (or an extra few thousand for a safer mode of transportation), but are comfortable with the idea of never letting the kids outside without a caretaker. Decisions inside an automobile are near, immediate, while the outside world is an artificial mental construct, capable of being populated by far-mode demons.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Ramblings on a Snow Day

When I was younger, particularly around the high school era, I was deterred from thinking about entering academics because I had it in my head that we had already pushed the boundaries of knowledge. History was all settled, Psychology, Communication, Economics, the Natural Sciences, pretty much everything except very advanced physical science was all known, and the limit wasn't unknown things to be discovered or rethought but making sure that you digested what other people had already written. Part of that impression is from the way that school is taught up through High School, where uncertainty and interpretation take a back seat to memorization, a legacy I'm sure in some way left in place from positivism in science, even in classes like English. Part of it might have been the general feeling of the 90's and early 00's, embodied in Fukuyama's pronouncement of The End of History after the Cold War ended, with a corrolary in the economy with The Great Moderation.

Well, The End of History didn't last very long, High School ended, and the Great Moderation wasn't so great. Of course, not enough college professors (that I had at least, especially early on) let students in on how dysfunctional Academia really is. We all knew that Keynesian economics didn't work anymore, we all knew WWII ended the Great Depression, we all knew bla bla bla. Maybe it was a little less cut and dry in Ethics, but pretty much everyone agreed that Ethics all just boiled down to taste. And De Gustibus non est Disputandum.

One of the most fascinating things to me since I've become more acquanted with academia is academia itself. The relationship within and between disciplines is just fascinating. I know I've written about overspecialization in academia before, but I continue to be fascinated. Economics and Sociology are pretty much the exact same subject, namely that of human behaviour and human interation. I am probably not stretching if I assume that a first year graduate student in Economics is getting a very different education than a first year Sociology student, the methodology between the two subjects is so different. The same with subjects like Anthropology, Psychology, and Political Science. They're all studying human behaviour from a different lens, and it would make sense for them all to work relatively close together.

I've had a perverse craving to draw some sort of diagram of the sciences , somehow showing the relationship between the human sciences/humanities, social sciences, and the natural sciences. I have since come to the conclusion that I need three dimensions, which makes me sad, because I want to create order.

I have been listening to old Econtalks, and listened to the 03/23/09 podcast with Nassim Taleb. Near the end he goes on a diatribe against theoretical searches for knowledge. He believes that Universities have, on whole, done more harm than good in the search for knowledge.

Alright, enough rambling. I'm going to use another snow day and reread Michael Polanyi's "The Republic of Science," it's good stuff!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Wanna trade?

Today, I find myself how many human lives I would be willing to sacrifice to reduce carbon emissions. No matter how I approach the issue, the number keeps coming back to roughly zero. Both readers of this blog likely understand that emissions controls reduce industrial activity, whether through forcing firms to use expensive scrubbers that they might not be able to otherwise afford or through paying for credits (or via fines, levies, fees, sanctions or whatever else you might think of). From there, it doesn't take much imagination to see how people with relatively few opportunities are hurt when those opportunities are taken away. Sure, they will adapt; people are hella good at adapting when the situation changes, but adaptation is costly, and when the stakes are starving children who need bed nets, removing the ability to work, even if it is what we imagine to be meager work, is utterly abominable.

It's quite a wonder that anyone could accuse proponents of freedom to be out of touch with reality. I suspect there are some folks who never had to confront the guy whose kid has to starve when there's an operational, if a bit sooty, factory just o'er the hill and 'cross the dale. What, a hungry child isn't real enough? Sheesh.