Why don’t people pay attention to the future of their own world?

19095684_10155558536552350_162069046585892024_o More politics, but since it is cunningly disguised as a reply to mt’s Twitter rant, I think I may get away with it. You should go off and read mt’s post, for context. But not for content; much as I like his take on the science I can never agree with his take on the politics. Here’s a sample:

One reason for the buckling of democracy is the stealing of people’s time and emotional energy in high stakes marketplace hypercompetition. Democracy can be preserved or restored only if & when daily life is secure. A key reason to support Universal Basic Income1 or similar ideas. A calm and confident people can learn, absorb ideas, weigh strategies. A hassled population buffeted by competing shallow ideas cannot… I’m old enough to remember intelligent, respectful, intellectually challenging debate on television. The idea seems almost unimaginable now!2

How could anyone possibly object to that? Everyone knows that things used to be better in the olde dayes, and Modern Life is Rubbish, yes? Well, no. I really wish mt – and others – would read Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. There is so much in there that you need to know, you need to think about. And of course it is far better written there than I could possibly hope to summarise here. Oddly, I don’t find a post by me on it before, except bookshelf which only lightly touches it. The themes relevant here are: don’t believe in an Age of Gold; and be cautious about trying to design society.

But to address mt’s points myself: people are not short of time. Oh, I know it feels like it, but even I have hours every evening to do things in; so many hours that I generally have time to go rowing in the evening. It is easy to feel terribly busy, and doubtless many do; it is even easy to be very busy if you want to be; but if you want free time to think that is possible. But many people don’t really want free time to think. The idea that “hypercompetition” or modern capitalism or something is “stealing” people’s time is I think just excuse-making. Or, I-would-have-got-away-with-it-if-it-weren’t-for-those-dammed-capitalists.

So if it isn’t that, what is it?

This is my excuse to introduce Public Choice Theory4 which is yet another thing that I have but a glancing acquaintance with. One aspect of said theory is to address people’s behaviour when voting or more generally when wondering how much of their time to devote to politics. What is “rational” behaviour? And the answer, of course, is that rationally most individuals should spend very little of their time working out how to vote, informing themselves of political issues of the day, and so on. Because: their own vote will have very little impact. Any benefits gained from getting it right are diffuse, as are any losses from getting it wrong. Thus although the choice of president will clearly have major consequences, those consequences fall on everyone; and so the rational voter should not go to any great effort in fully evaluating the choice3. This theory, of course doesn’t address those like your humble author for whom interest in politics is an end in itself.

Does this go anywhere? I think it does, in that without understanding we are doomed to fail. mt is trying to go somewhere; he is trying to save the world. It’s a big one; his conclusion – which is less of a conclusion than an aspiration, this was a rant, recall – is I’m not eager to abandon democracy as an ideal, but it demands participation & engagement… Everyone on earth should be guaranteed food and shelter… We might still pull a decent future out if we address our idiotic commitment to a policy of maximum employment at minimum wage. I’m glad he doesn’t want to abandon democracy; just look at the places that have, like Venezuela. And I’d be happy with an UBI; so would many economists; so I suspect would many on the right, if the left would take basic seriously. The last sentence of his I’ve quoted is problematic, though, no matter how much it chimes with Timmy’s repeated jobs are a cost, not a benefit. It just feels like the wrong thing to be pushing, to me. What would I prefer to push? Free trade; a carbon tax; constitutional government. That wasn’t a well thought out list, but it hardly matters; I consistently fail to convince anyone of their virtues.


1. I am in favour of an Universal Basic Income (UBI), though with some stress on the word basic; I don’t think I’ve said that explicitly but it implicit here.

2. I really can’t remember TV in the old days. I haven’t watched it for decades. Why would you? But if it has lost serious debate, perhaps it is because it has moved to a more serious medium; online perhaps.

3. This of course has always been true. Public Choice Theory is a fairly recent developement, but that’s irrelevant, because most people are unaware of it. So if mt is claiming – with evidence – that people used to think more carefully in the old days, and the current rather thoughtless electorate represents a change, then I’m open to looking at the evidence.

4. Indeed, I was entirely unaware of it until recently. I think it was only the fuss about Nancy Maclean’s “Democracy in chains” that the Libertarians are so sad about that brought it to my notice; see for example More on Nancy MacLean’s Distorted Portrait of Jim Buchanan’s Tax-Reform Analysis. Majoritarianism is another topic that I must return to; Public Choice provides another way to look at co-operation with government, too, helpfully supplementing the Libertarian viewpoint.


* Hegel does maths
* Milton Friedman: “You must separate out being pro free-enterprise from being pro-business”.
* James Buchanan on the distinction between constitutional and legislative change, a subject I must come back to.
* The Debate is Over – 99% of Scientists believe Gravity and the Heliocentric Solar System so therefore… – Science of Doom.
* Yet More on the Book of Errors Titled “Democracy in Chains” – CH. Some interesting thoughts.
* Rent-Seeking: One Small Example.

The rule of law

Is a familiar concept but also a page-turning pot-boiler by Thomas “just call me Tom” Bingham, which I’m in the middle of reading1. And there is much to be said upon the subject, including the need for clarity; but my attention was drawn to two clauses in his “history of” section, where he includes the USAnian Bill of Rights aka the first ten amendments to their constitution. Which are

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof


the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed3

The first is negative: Congress is prohibited from making laws. The second is positive: a “right” of the people is declared. The asymmetry is curious4. Is it even deliberate? The framers were, I think, attempting some literary quality; they may have felt uncomfortable about repeating themselves; but “Congress shall make no law respecting keeping and bearing Arms” would be a coherent alternative text. Would it make a difference? Perhaps; it would keep the tricky word “right” out. If you (like me) like the concept of the constitution as bounding the power of the state, then the form forbidding it to do stuff is preferrable.


* Is It Time to Start Dismissing ‘Economics Deniers’?
* Theses towards a left ideology
* James M. Buchanan ”From the Inside Looking Out” quote via CH
* Hayek vs Hobbes and the theory of law
* Renewables XIX – Behind the Executive Summary and Reality vs Dreams – SoD.


1. In the middle of, not finished, obviously. Don’t cramp my style.

2. I am, of course, interested in freedom of speech, but don’t need it for these points.

3. I’ve elided the controversial and hard-to-interpret preceding clause that is either decorative or function, according to your tastes, because it isn’t relevant here. Since the whole thing is controversial I shall offer you my own opinion: that the “right” made sense when written but doesn’t make sense with modern weaponry or society; the legal gymnastics that courts go through to try to make sense of it without too obvious inconsistency are unconvincing. Bear in mind though that this isn’t the point of this post.

4. I’m sure others must have remarked upon it; not being any scholar of such things I’m not aware of the discussion; do point me at relevant bits. The WaPo seems to me to blithely ignore the difference;

The management apologise for more inconvenience

I’m not having the problems this time, but you are. Or so I’m told. If you can see this, then you’re not having problems, I suppose, but they are said to look like:

Your access to this site has been limited

Your access to this service has been temporarily limited. Please try again in a few minutes. (HTTP response code 503)

Reason: Exceeded the maximum global requests per minute for crawlers or humans.

Important note for site admins: If you are the administrator of this website note that your access has been limited because you broke one of the Wordfence blocking rules. The reason your access was limited is: “Exceeded the maximum global requests per minute for crawlers or humans.”.

As an aside, I’ll note that I have a “private” (i.e., I post whatever I feel like on it) blog at wmconnolley.blogspot.com. If every this site doesn’t work, try looking over there.

[Update 2017/07/17:22:00: thank you for your concern (or at least, those of you who were concerned. For the reset, well screw you too :-). I’m told the problems are now over, woot.]


* The management apologise for any inconvenience

Is It Time to Start Dismissing ‘Economics Deniers’?

Asks reason.com. Good heavens no, answer all the nice lefties. Of course not.


* Even the intellectual left is drawn to conspiracy theories about the right. Resist them. How not to write about “radical” libertarians by by Henry Farrell and Steven Teles in Vox.
* Questions for Progressives About Trump – from CH.
* James Buchanan and Hobbes
* John Stuart Mill’s 1861 Considerations on Representative Government – CH
Michael Reich Is Wrong About the Booth School Surveys on Minimum Wages – CH

Oh Larsen C

DEiK5LrWAAAjKu5 As sung by British Sea Power. Sou has some nice stuff, as does everyone else.

Although the “news” is that the last thread of ice has broken, it’s an enormous berg so it isn’t about to float off in a hurry1, and indeed the last tiny neck was probably only a formality.

What does it all mean? Pfft, we may never know. Everyone else will tell, you anyway. Back to the Arctic I think.


1. A pic shows some apparent visible spacing of the berg to the rest of the iceshelf, so perhaps it is moving. We’ll see.


* Brief Communication: Newly developing rift in Larsen C Ice Shelf presents significant risk to stability; D. Jansen et al.
* Sane response to press release – me, 2007.
* Antarctic iceberg crack develops fork from Aunty
* Bonus Quotation of the Day… from Cafe Hayek: “Politics Without Romance”.
The climate has always changed. What do you conclude?
– Stephan
* The Larsen C Iceberg Is Already Cracking Up – July 19th.

One team two team red team blue team

No, wait. This isn’t yet another tedious post bashing Pruitt’s dumb ideas. It’s a post bashing mt2, which is far more interesting. I have two3 wildly exciting points to make about mt’s post at ATTP.

You people do need a red team

If you stick to science, you generally get it right1. Oddly enough; you are, after all, pretty well self-defined as “the side that gets the GW science right”. But you need to get out more. So when mt says Economic, social and environmental losses climb rapidly and nonlinearly with temperature change, and may already overwhelm the short-term benefits of fossil fuels, and will very likely do so in the near future, no-one blinks an eye. At best this is ambiguous and at worst it is wrong, so why is it only me that notices? Because, of course, you’re not actually looking for flaws in mt’s arguments. You’re just blipping along, la la la, damage from GW, yeah, we know that bit, eyes glaze over, words go straight out the other ear.

What is mt trying to say?

I don’t know. When I pointed out the problem, I got a reply-to-comment saying

My point is that the marginal cost of each additional unit of carbon emitted, which takes a very long time to accrue, may already exceed the marginal benefit of that unit, which is immediate. An economist might therefore conclude that I advocate an immediate abrupt cessation of all emissions. I readily stipulate that this is infeasible. I note that the aggregate cost of any action isn’t just determined by the marginal cost; and that cost of a given emission target is actually very trajectory dependent. But in terms of the long term aggregate well-being of the world, it’s quite plausible that we are already going backwards when we consume fossil fuels, and it’s almost certain that we eventually will be, and not in the too distant future.

I failed to parse that correctly in my reply there, since when correctly parsed it seems so wrong, but mt makes himself clear in a clarification on the psot:

UPDATE for clarification: Costs of a unit of emission aggregated over time may already overwhelm the benefits, which appear immediately. This balance shifts further against the value of emissions as geologically rapid climate change proceeds.

So he isn’t talking about “marginal” in terms of increases-in-emissions-over-present-emission-levels. He really does mean that each unit of CO2 emitted now may be doing more harm than good4. Pause to think about that. Suppose it is true. In which case, we should stop emitting it. Now; immeadiately. This would cause our civilisation to collapse, and billions would die. mt knows that isn’t possible; see, he even writes “I readily stipulate that this is infeasible”. But that means the other half of his assertion must be wrong: the marginal benefits, now, are greater than the future costs.

Is it possible that future damage from present-day emissions is so large that it dwarfs billions of deaths and the collapse of civilisation? That seems rather unlikely to me. Certainly, mt makes no attempt to provide evidence for his assertion. In evidence against, I’d put forward “typical” damage estimates of ~6% (of something; I forget what) by ~2100. That is a large number of billion dollars, of course.

Can we just stick to the science then please?

Sure. Providing you promise to say nothing about cost-benefit. But that does severely reduce your real-world relevance. You could try to argue “GW is obviously so bad that we should prevent it, rather than trying to assess the costs of preventing it against the benefits of preventing it”. And amongst nice people who agree that GW is bad, that’s a fine argument; everyone will take your word for it. But what about Bad People like Pruitt who don’t accept your argument?



1. Not if you’re Hawking, of course.

2. Not really, of course. Call it a vigorous test of his ideas. If ATTP’s moderation were faster, we could have the discussion over there, but it isn’t, so we can’t.

3. Sigh. Three.

4. Current thinking (see comment by MMM and my reply) is that mt does mean marginal changes to current emissions levels. And so the question to answer is the cost of one more or one less unit of CO2 emitted now, versus it’s future damage costs.

Hawking radiation

plums I must admit I only wrote this post because I thought the title would be amusing. Was I right? Time will tell. Via a variety of sources some of whom I ignored, I find the great physicst saying President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate change accord could lead humanity to a tipping point, “turning the Earth into Venus.”1 That, as we all know, is bollocks. Or in JA’s more measured terms, “I don’t believe such hyperbole is useful”. Don’t mince your words, man, you’ll never get onto a high-status Red Team that way.

My Hawking claim-to-fame is that I was cycling over the Garret Hostel Lane bridge, which is rather hump-backed, and nearly ran over his wheelchair coming the other way. Fortunately for the sake of future GW hyperbole I swerved in time.

I wasn’t terribly impressed by his I fear evolution has inbuilt greed and aggression to the human genome. There is no sign of conflict lessening, and the development of militarised technology and weapons of mass destruction could make that disastrous. The best hope for the survival of the human race might be independent colonies in space. The greed-n-aggression is reasonable, but it is far from the only thing to consider, as should be obvious when you consider that we aren’t all dead. And quite why floating off into outer space should cure the G-n-A I don’t know2.

Incidentally, not everything The Great Man said was wrong; By denying the evidence for climate change, and pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Donald Trump will cause avoidable environmental damage to our beautiful planet, endangering the natural world, for us and our children seems quite reasonable. And Trump genuinely is a bozo.


1. Checking with the Beeb interview, it looks like he actually said this and has not been distorted by paraphrase.

2. As we should be fairly familiar with by now, great eminence in one field doesn’t carry over into valuable expertise in another. There’s probably a pithier way of saying that.


* Stephen Hawking: Earth Could Turn Into Hothouse Planet Like Venus – Livescience. Despite the stupidly unhelpful title, this actually debunks Hawking’s bollox, if you read the words.
* The Uninhabitable Earth; Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think – NY Mag. Shredded by Mann.

By David Wallace-Wells