DeLong Shot

Brad DeLong takes issue with my recent attacks no utilitarianism. In reply to my claim, against Layard, that if happiness is self-evidently good, then so are lots of other things, such as freedom, DeLong writes:

The response–against which Wilkinson has no defense except to issue squidlike clouds of obfuscating ink–would be that Wilkinson believes that if he were to sacrifice his freedom for his happiness, that if he were to do so he would then look back on the choices he made and look ahead to his future life, and that he would be unhappy. If Wilkinson says otherwise–that he would look back on the choices he made and look ahead to his future life and be happy, but that he would still regret what he had done and wish he had done otherwise–Wilkinson is simply saying, “Baa baa buff.” He would be demonstrating that he does not understand the rules of conversation using the English language.

I wonder if DeLong has carried on a conversation in the English language. Games of rational and moral justification sometimes but rarely terminate in reasons of happiness, much less in reasons of pleasure. He must hear “Baa baa buff” almost every time someone explains himself. Or BD just refuses to listen, uncharitably reads his philosophical theories into people's heads, and so assumes that they are offering reasons of happiness when they are evidently not. DeLong's argument, if I am making it out correctly, is that the following proposition deserves a little linguist's star of semantic deviance:
(a) Happiness without freedom is not worth having.
English speakers, lend me your ears! Does (a) violate the intuitive semantic constraints of it's constituent terms?
Well, if “worth having” in English means “conducive to pleasure” it sure does. But that's not what “worth having” means in English. That's what it means in Benthamese, the vulgar dialect of the morally insensate (economists, Asperger's cases, etc.) “Worth having” in English means something like” valuable” or “good,” and there is surpassingly little evidence to be gleaned from the semantic practice of competent English speakers that “valuable” and “good” are synonymous with “pleasurable” or “happy making”. (a) is far from “Baa baa buff.” In context, it's surely true!
My defense, then, is the truth of the claim that there are conditions under which being happy would be worse than not being happy. I take it that DeLong would agree that if a mad scientist rigged his brain such that slaughtering his own beloved children would bring him the most exalted, never-ending, guilt-free bliss, this would not be happiness worth having. Or is this, too, just “baa baa buff?”
Anyway, refusing to do violence to one's language, or, more importantly, the complexity of moral experience, in the service of an ill-supported theory does not strike me as a project of obfuscation.
More later on Delong's inability to understand the experience machine thought experiment.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

30 thoughts

  1. Freeman Dyson is a serious man with a serious mind, and you need to take his ideas seriously. Yet for every Freeman Dyson saying “it won’t be that bad”, or “the Polar Bears will be fine”, or “Most of the time in history the Arctic has been free of ice” there are a thousand equally serious people with equally serious minds who’ve arrived at contradictory conclusions (and in the case of Arctic Sea Ice, dispute his facts). What makes it harder is that I think he’s correct about some things. There is a strain of unexamined pantheism that runs through some ‘deep green’ thinking. Cheap energy is necessary to human betterment.
    But that said, it’s important to keep in mind that Dyson’s made a life-long commitment to an anti-nuclear position. I can’t help but connect his recent thinking and writing (the NYRB Essay being case in point) to his distaste for that option. It seems to me Dyson’s facing a classic moment of cognitive dissonance. He is obliged either to accept that a self-defining emotional commitment he’s held all his adult life (“Mushroom cloud bad!”) might be misplaced, or else that burning hydrocarbons is OK … we’ll muddle through … polar bears will be fine …. and so on ….
    This kind of pattern? We’ve seen it before. A very smart, eminent (and typically aged) minority of scientists protest a new idea, often doing a tremendous service in the process. “Action at a distance is unnatural!” objections to Newton, 19th Century geologists objections to Darwin’s common descent, the EPR paradox. In their own way, these critics all helped. They took the new science seriously, and were guided by their instincts to construct critiques.They were all, of course, wrong.
    Dyson’s wrong too. He’s making Will’s point – that we can’t ignore the aspirations of the vast mass of humanity struggling to keep the lights on. But in the judgment of the overwhelming majority of scientists, he’s staying willfully ignorant of the consequences of burning hydrocarbons to achieve that goal.

  2. I’m sure you know Will, that your dear wife should stay away from certain types of seafood, because of their mercury content, that comes in increasing part from coal. Swordfish is the prime example.
    Are you aware that the “bad fish” list grows each year, and are you genuinely ok with that?
    I’m more an environmentalist of the Ducks Unlimited type than the Vegan type. I respect the later, but I still think one good reason to keep a good and healthy nature … is that it’s good to be able to kill it and eat it.
    Actually, I believe the current carrying capacity by the earth of humans is very much reliant on there being fish fit to eat.

  3. So I think I might be with you on the trade sanction thing. But if one were chiefly concerned about providing cheap power for developing countries wouldn’t an American cap ‘n trade system or carbon tax be a good idea (as it would basically be subsidizing carbon-based energy sources for countries without a carbon regime)? Its not the most efficient way to redistribute wealth to the developing world but politically its easier than just about any method I can think of.

  4. I’m much less convinced about cheap solar. I analyze the power market, and wind is a helluva lot cheaper per MW, plus it has a far superior capacity factor (30ish percent, versus sub-20 for solar). No matter how much costs come down, you can’t make the sun shine more.

    1. Energy from the sun is so abundant. Materials science is advancing at quite a clip these days thanks to nano-technology. Solar is getting cheaper each year as we devise better cells for absorption, better storage technologies, and better ways to transit the energy. I expect some sizable breakthroughs in the next 3-5 years.

    2. For 2 months of a year, in late spring/early summer – a hummungus high pressure system typically parks itself over the northern 1/2 of the Unites States and southern Canada.
      Let’s hold that “typically” for a moment.
      Let’s say it does it once every 10 years. Like El Nino. No power, or almost no electricity, for 2 months.
      Anyone want to bet their manufacturing business? Their internet server farm? On that basis?

    3. Solar cells seem to be on the same curve as integrated circuits. (Moore’s Law)
      At some point, the exponential growth will make electricity generation from solar cells be the most efficient.

      1. /sigh
        The amount of solar energy that reaches the planet each day has some fixed upper bound. Combine this upper bound with weather, and seasonal variation, and it means you have enormous variability in how much energy will reach those panels. There is a notion, in power generation, of something called “baseline”, which is the amount of energy that can be generated ‘reliably’ (on a dark, cold, still, desert night).
        In midwinter, you get about 1/4 the upper bound dailly solar energy. Consequently you will need to over-provision by a factor of 8-10, relative to mid-summer needs.
        But when ideology trumps science ….

  5. How can one be skeptical of solar power in the long run? The point was made earlier but all our power essentially comes from it. As I understand it only the rate of technological progress is in question when it comes to solar power.
    As for the biosphere we are wether we like or not very much a part of it. How confident are you in the short term vs. long term cost and benifits. Most of our wealth lies in coastal cities would the short term gain from burning coal merit the later cost of massive flooding? This certainly needs to enter the calculation.

    1. The ‘massive flooding’ is going to take awhile.
      I’m less concerned about what happens 50-100 years and beyond; I’m more concerned we don’t kill each other long before that happens. Full-scale nuclear war, bio weapons, nano-tech, etc. pose more of a medium-term threat than climate change.

  6. “How can one be skeptical of solar power in the long run? “
    1. For practical purposes, the earth’s tilt and seasonal variation makes reliable power generation in China and over much of the northern parts of Europe and America problematic.
    2. Because waiting 250 million years for today’s algae blooms and swamps to turn into coal is not really an option I’m going to take seriously. We are burning 5,000 years worth of solar energy inefficiently trapped in oil & coal every day (Note: I’ve not done this math in detail, but back of the envelope has us taking 200 years to burn 500,000,000 years of oil & coal, and the math is taught in 4th grade.)
    Solar is useful for peak summer power generation – air conditioners. fridges, harvesters. Winter? Heating? Spring? Ammonia for fertilizer? Less obvious.
    How confident are you in the short term vs. long term cost and benifits[sic]?
    Utterly lacking in confidence. Which brings me to my ultimate quarrel with the broader thrust of libertarian thought. . . .
    There are too many of us. Already. Yet our biology is hard-wired to Make More People. Now! He/She Looks cute!
    Such “externalities” are real. Call them “lemming truths”. The evidence we can learn from biology suggests no marginal cost tinkering will overcome them. Just one more rut. One more litter. Lust is the ultimate animal spirit.
    The only way for a culture, and more broadly a species, to deal with these biological realities — fucking is fun and food is finite — is to impose collective limits. Want to phrase it another way? Guvment, our super-ego, must say “No!”, or lots of people die.
    At this point, I become uncharitable. Forgive me.
    Our benighted blog host has committed himself, his life, to ideas which hold individual humanity as the point and purpose of it all. I personally share his prejudices. But I’m not, in my immediate circumstances, wedded to his institution, to his collective. I can champion his ideals but not his tribe.
    This makes me more pragmatic. Doubtless, he would see that as a flaw.

    1. To me, the alternative to “lots of people die” is “lots of people are never born.” I guess I’d rather bet the chips on humanity figuring it out than let Malthusian academics pick who gets to breed and how often.
      I also question your facts. Many industrialized nations are experiencing flat or negative population growth. Take Japan for example:

  7. If there is one thing we have learned about regulation, is that it is not very good at achieving its ends. This is what Will’s piece is all about, but it’s going to be even worse in other countries, especially when we start putting pressure on developing countries to cut back more. Those programs are likely to be a real mess. Even if we reduce the pace of our greenhouse gas output, we will do so in far less than an efficient fashion. In doing so we will destroy a lot of wealth, and I worry that we’ll find ourselves with the same problems but we’ll be a whole lot poorer and thus less prepared to deal with them.

  8. Wind and solar might optimistically give us 25% of a grid’s electricity. These sources are unreliable and can’t be integrated at higher percentages, and will probably always be too expensive. Thus, the only real alternative to coal is nuclear energy, but I guess this realization still is a few decades away in most countries, which is a pity b/c of coal’s environmental impact.

  9. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working in software, it’s that what the customer wants and what they ask for can be completely different things.
    It’s my opinion that these computer generated climate models that the alarmist love to tout are a result not of giving the customer what they asked for, but rather what they want.
    Politically motivated studies serve one purpose, and that is to justify policy.
    Handing politicians complete control over our energy supplies is giving them absolute power over our lives.

  10. “Politically motivated studies serve one purpose, and that is to justify policy.”
    What to make of all the “scientific” research funded by the oil and coal companies.
    Whenever I see an anti-climate change scientist or pundit discussing the topic, I just assume they’re getting a monthly check from Exxon.
    In such an overwhelming pro-climate change scientific environment, it sure pays to be a contrarian.

    1. alphie, there is way more money to be made on the pro-side. Mainstream climate research gets billions of dollars and euros in funding. If I was a biologist, say, and I wanted to maximize my funding and get mentioned in the science pages of newspapers, I would make sure to somehow include evidence for climate change or its catastrophic consequences in my studies, even if I was studying squirrels’ mating habits.

      1. Dr Ray Stantz: Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve *worked* in the private sector. They expect *results*.
        If you’re a talented scientist, maybe, H.
        If you’re a hack, though, pro-dirty energy is the way to make money.

    2. This is total nonsense. Have you any idea how much government and foundation money there is for studies which support AGW? And how hard it is for sceptics to get funding from those sources.
      The idea that industry research $$, which lacks credibility, is somehow an incentive to tow the line is just silly.

      1. Exxon & Co. freely admit they fund “scientists” who are willing to take the pro climate change position, Craig.
        Consider whether anyone would care what Freeman Dyson had to say if he’d come out against climate change?
        I don’t think so.

  11. The difference between academic research and industry-funded research is that while a university may have a vague leftish bias, a corporation has an explicit bias in favor of staying in business. The counterpart to Exxon funding a climate skeptic would be, say, a solar-power company funding a scientist who believed in AGW. Not Princeton funding Michael Oppenheimer. A university does not have a direct conflict of interest with the outcome of the research in the way that an oil company does.

    1. lyca, I think your point could use some refinement. University research is largely funded by government grants, and those grants go predominantly to those whose biases reflect those in charge of choosing what research will get funding. For example, try getting funding to study to the medical value of illegal drugs in the university. The funding process is incredibly ideological. Second, corporations often help finance university research. Many of the world’s largest corporations, such as GE, and many of the “oil” companies, are now heavily in the alternative energy business, and actively seeking subsidies. That “solar-power company funding a scientist who believed in AGW” may well be a company like Shell.

  12. That’s true. I guess I was oversimplifying. I hear enough about the grant process to know there’s a fair amount of ideology going into it. And yes, there’s overlap between the oil business and the alternative-energy business.
    I was making a rough sort of point. When you’re not in a position to judge the merits of a piece of scientific research, you may still want to have some way to distinguish a reliable scientist from a hack. Peer review and affiliation with elite universities is the best way we know to pick out the reliable people. Academia, while definitely influenced by biases in government and business, has some structures in place to prevent fudging, and those structures are loosened in industry. (Not that there hasn’t been great industry-funded research: information theory was invented at Bell Labs, and one of its major theorems was proven by the founder of Qualcomm.)
    If somebody thinks most university scholars are in a conspiracy against the truth, I’m inclined to call him a hack until proven otherwise. Science is, of course, not done by consensus. But a non-expert’s best guess at the truth is to look at the scientific consensus, and I think that means academic scientists. It’s sort of a way of managing ignorance.

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