Moralistic Language

January 6, 2011 - Leave a Response

I tweeted yesterday a link to (Matthew Yglesias linking to) a petition to “Tell Senator Jeff Sessions to Stop Supporting Child Sex Trafficking”. The pretext turned out to be pretty anodyne, so it seems like this specific petition was deliberately misleading. Considering the gravity of their accusations towards Senator Sessions, that’s pretty morally appalling behavior from Change.org.

What I want to write about, however, is the broader issue of using this kind of moralistic language when speaking about policymaking. I was reminded of this because of yesterday’s tweet, but I think a much better example is Ezra Klein’s assertion about a year ago that, by threatening to filibuster health reform, Joe Lieberman was “willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score”.

This claim drew widespread condemnation from across the media, for obvious reasons, but as far as I can tell Klein’s statement was factually correct. The causal link between not passing the bill and causing hundreds of thousands of deaths seems fairly well-established by the medical and policy literature, and Lieberman could reasonably have been expected to understand this link at the time of his threat, so while I doubt his motive was to kill people I think he would have been responsible (in an ethical sense, not a legal sense) for the deaths if he had successfully filibustered the bill.

Matthew Yglesias pointed all this out at the time, and concluded that “there’s a reason [people are uncomfortable with this argument]: stark moralistic language works”.

I’m really sure this last statement is true, however. One problem is that both sides of pretty much every national policy issue can claim with some justification that the other side’s policy preference “will cost lives”. I can easily imagine such arguments for both sides of policy debates over taxes, energy, the environment, health care, national defense, infrastructure, the deficit, or pretty much any issue that requires government allocation of funds. The argument in favor of allocating funds says that the allocation will save lives, and the argument against allocating funds says that the effects on economic growth will have worse consequences than the problem the allocation is trying to solve. It’s worth noting too that these two arguments do not neatly divide into left/right; for example, liberals are generally pro-allocation for health care, infrastructure, and the environment, but anti-allocation on invading countries and cutting upper-income taxes.

I guess my point about moralistic language is therefore that it isn’t effective because it depends on your belief in the premises of the argument. If you believe that health reform will save lives, then Ezra Klein’s moralistic language will persuade you, but you’re probably already in support of health reform. If you don’t believe that health reform will save lives, then Ezra Klein just looks irresponsible.
Of course, when you throw around moralistic language with blatantly false premises, like Change.org did, everyone thinks you’re irresponsible.

Socrates Week

December 23, 2009 - Leave a Response

I came across two interesting reads this week. One is about the phenomenon of “trolling”, and the other is about the state of American democracy. The unifying thread is that both use Socrates as central motifs in the article. Get it? We’re Ancient Greece!!

Philosophy of Science

October 26, 2009 - Leave a Response

If you want a great twenty-minute introduction to this field, here’s the best one I’ve encountered:

I took a class on philosophy of science several years ago, and really enjoyed it. I think we actually discussed Deutsch’s variational theory of science in class, but unfortunately I’ve misplaced my notes and only remember that this stuff seems vaguely familiar. But I definitely do agree with his general introduction and the idea that science is theory-laden instead of positivist, even if I doubt that his specific definition of science is correct in the details. And he actually makes it seem like this stuff matters, which is quite an accomplishment!

Finally, it doesn’t come up at all in the talk, but Deutsch is also apparently one of the progenitors of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which makes the most sense of any interpretation I’ve seen. More on that some other time, perhaps.

Climate Policy Lecture 4

October 11, 2009 - Leave a Response

This week’s lecture was delivered by an atmospheric scientist who specialized in the study of convective vortices (hurricanes, tornadoes, supercell thunderstorms, etc). He was obviously an expert in this field, but unfortunately, he seemed not to have thought very deeply about broader issues of climate science, and particularly climate policy. He breezed (ha) quickly through the idea that global warming causes more hurricanes and makes them more intense, an idea that makes theoretical sense but I thought still lacked solid observational support because El Nino has suppressed Atlantic hurricane formation or something. I would have liked to hear more on this.

All_palaeotemps

He also presented a plot similar to the one above, showing global mean temperature over geologic time (the time axis is logarithmic) that highlights all the variability over different timescales. It’s a really fascinating record, and I would also have liked to know more about this, but then he admitted he hadn’t thought much about this plot, and then demonstrated that by offering essentially no interpretation of it.

Finally, he gave the first simple explanation I’ve ever heard for why there are multiple equilibria in the climate, but it’s not really interesting enough to share here. The next two weeks there aren’t any lectures, so I’ll have to find something else to write about. (revised on Oct. 12 to make it nicer)

Education Reform, Cont’d

October 6, 2009 - Leave a Response

I don’t know much about Secretary of Education Arne Duncan except that he’s from Chicago, he has a reputation as an effective superintendent of schools there and a good guy, and he plays basketball. I watched yesterday’s interview with him on the Colbert Report, and I didn’t learn much more about him than that. So my opinions on education policy aren’t the most informed opinions around. I did notice, and decided to point out, that he seems to agree with me about education policy, and particularly his comment around 5:45 in the video with respect to schools becoming community centers. His other ideas seem good as well.

Climate Policy Lectures 1-3

October 4, 2009 - Leave a Response
It's all gone but the mountains.

It's all gone but the mountains.

Three weeks ago, I started attending a weekly lecture series on climate policy. Since all of the speakers have been very informative, and because I form strong opinions easily, I have a lot to say about each of the talks so far. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me until today that I can and should record my thoughts about these talks here, on my blog. So now I’ll attempt to recap the first three lectures in this post, and then add new posts every week on the subsequent lectures. I think for now I’ll leave the names of the speakers out of the posts for the sake of Google anonymity, but I haven’t really thought about it too much and might be willing to reconsider.

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More NPR Listening

September 30, 2009 - Leave a Response

Here are two more NPR shows worth a listen.

The first is last week’s episode of the Diane Rehm Show on natural gas. It starts off with twenty minutes of interviews with a natural gas executive and two sympathetic experts, congratulating each other on the amazing progress and future prospects of natural gas as a fuel source. Then they start taking calls from the listeners, and spend the rest of the show desperately trying to play down the barrage of angry callers recounting how natural gas drillers have devastated their homes and poisoned their water. It’s worth noting that the whole hour was sponsored by the natural gas industry. Whoops.

Second is yesterday’s episode of Fresh Air, featuring an interview with Taylor Branch about his new book, “The Clinton Tapes”. Branch and Clinton secretly recorded interviews throughout the Clinton presidency in an effort to produce an oral history for posterity. Amazingly, these tapes remained secret, even throughout all the subpoenas and investigations Clinton faced. Most of the interview is a summary of the history Clinton administration, but it’s told almost in first-person present, since Branch is drawing off contemporary secret interviews of the main character in this history. Pretty fascinating.

Go tell that to the Indians

August 14, 2009 - Leave a Response

I was planning on letting this sudden outbreak of national health care madness pass by without commenting, but now I have given in to the temptation to say something. I want to highlight a point that might be obvious to most people, but it wasn’t obvious to me for a while and I don’t hear it discussed very often and I think it explains a lot of the current political environment. My first of three sources for this point is pretty unusual. It’s from the following digression on health care in the middle of an awesome 8000-word essay on last week’s awesome episode of HBO’s True Blood:
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64 Years Ago Today

August 6, 2009 - Leave a Response
Hiroshima, Japan, nine months after the atomic bombing

Hiroshima, Japan, nine months after the atomic bombing

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more.” – Isaiah 2:4

Some Comments on Government, Followed by Another Dialogue

August 4, 2009 - Leave a Response

Congress is taking a recess for the month of August without yet having passed either health-care reform or legislation to address climate change. It’s still possible that one or both of these issues will be resolved this autumn in some way, but lots of progressives are getting frustrated. Matt Taibbi is always frustrated, but last week he found agreement from Ezra Klein, who is usually much more sanguine about the establishment. Ezra wrote that it’s too soon to abandon hope for reform — “Something might get done” — but

whatever gets done will be much too expensive because the political system is very afraid of harming any of the relevant industries. Taibbi is right that [health care reform], like climate change, is a litmus test for our government. Both are serious, foreseeable and solvable threats to our society. One threatens to bankrupt the country. The other threatens irreversible damage to the planet we live on. Responding to such threats is the test of a political system. And our system will fail it. We will not avert catastrophic climate change. We will not protect ourselves from health-care inflation… The country, and the system, will continue to whistle while our wages get eaten up and our government tumbles further into debt and our interest rates rise and other priorities get squeezed out and a serious and painful fiscal reckoning inches ever closer.

I think these statements are obviously correct, but if anyone disagrees I’d be interested to hear why. One of the Economist’s anonymous Democracy in America bloggers was also struck by these comments, and wrote a nice post about how every generation of young progressive intellectuals starts off idealistic about politics and then gets disenchanted and either moderates or radicalizes. The DiA commenters were generally pretty dismissive of the concerns of Klein and Taibbi (e.g. “Um, I can sum this up in one word: whining”), which made me think more about the issue. Reflecting on it for a while, instead of coming to a conclusion I ended up with another dialogue, which I have reproduced below the fold:

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