What will we do without air travel?

August 6, JDN 2457972

Air travel is incredibly carbon-intensive. Just one round-trip trans-Atlantic flight produces about 1 ton of carbon emissions per passenger. To keep global warming below 2 K, personal carbon emissions will need to be reduced to less than 1.5 tons per person per year by 2050. This means that simply flying from New York to London and back twice in a year would be enough to exceed the total carbon emissions each person can afford if we are to prevent catastrophic global climate change.

Currently about 12% of US transportation-based carbon emissions are attributable to aircraft; that may not sound like a lot, but consider this. Of the almost 5 trillion passenger-miles traveled by Americans each year, only 600 billion are by air, while 60,000 are by public transit. That leaves 4.4 trillion passenger-miles traveled by car. About 60% of US transportation emissions are due to cars, while 88% of US transportation is by car. About 12% of US transportation emissions are due to airplanes, while 12% of US passenger-miles are traveled by airplane. This means that cars produce about 2/3 as much carbon per passenger-mile, even though we tend to fill up airplanes to the brim and most Americans drive alone most of the time.

Moreover, we know how to reduce emissions from cars. We can use hybrid vehicles, we can carpool more, or best of all we can switch to entirely electric vehicles charged off a grid that is driven by solar and nuclear power. It is theoretically possible to make personal emissions from car travel zero. (Though making car manufacturing truly carbon-neutral may not be feasible; electric cars actually produce somewhat more carbon in their production, though not enough to actually make them worse than conventional cars.)

We have basically no idea how to reduce emissions from air travel. Jet engines are already about as efficient as we know how to make them. There are some tweaks to taxi and takeoff procedure that would help a little bit (chiefly, towing the aircraft to the runway instead of taking them there on their own power; also, taking off from longer runways that require lower throttle to achieve takeoff speed). But there’s basically nothing we can do to reduce the carbon emissions of a cruising airliner at altitude. Even very optimistic estimates involving new high-tech alloys, wing-morphing technology, and dramatically improved turbofan engines only promise to reduce emissions by about 30%.

This is something that affects me quite directly; air travel is a major source of my personal carbon footprint, but also the best way I have to visit family back home.
Using the EPA’s handy carbon footprint calculator, I estimate that everything else I do in my entire life produces about 10 tons of carbon emissions per year. (This is actually pretty good, given the US average of 22 tons per person per year. It helps that I’m vegetarian, I drive a fuel-efficient car, and I live in Southern California.)

Using the ICAO’s even more handy carbon footprint calculator for air travel, I estimate that I produce about 0.2 tons for every round-trip economy-class transcontinental flight from California to Michigan. But that doesn’t account for the fact that higher-altitude emissions are more dangerous. If you adjust for this, the net effect is as if I had produced a full half-ton of carbon for each round-trip flight. Therefore, just four round-trip flights per year increases my total carbon footprint by 20%—and again, by itself exceeds what my carbon emissions need to be reduced to by the year 2050.

With this in mind, most ecologists agree that air travel as we know it is simply not sustainable.

The question then becomes: What do we do without it?

One option would be to simply take all the travel we currently do in airplanes, and stop it. For me this would mean no more trips from California to Michigan, except perhaps occasional long road trips for moving and staying for long periods.

This is unappealing, though it is also not as harmful as you might imagine; most of the world’s population has never flown in an airplane. Our estimates of exactly what proportion of people have flown are very poor, but our best guesses are that about 6% of the world’s population flies in any given year, and about 40% has ever flown in their entire life. Statistically, most of my readers are middle-class Americans, and we’re accustomed to flying; about 80% of Americans have flown on an airplane at least once, and about 1/3 of Americans fly at least once a year. But we’re weird (indeed, WEIRD, White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic); most people in the world fly on airplanes rarely, if ever.

Moreover, air travel has only been widely available to the general population, even in the US, for about the last 60 years. Passenger-miles on airplanes in the US have increased by a factor of 20 since just 1960, while car passenger-miles have only tripled and population has only doubled. Most of the human race through most of history has only dreamed of air travel, and managed to survive just fine without it.

It certainly would not mean needing to stop all long-distance travel, though long-distance travel would be substantially curtailed. It would no longer be possible to travel across the country for a one-week stay; you’d have to plan for four or five days of travel in each direction. Traveling from the US to Europe takes about a week by sea, each way. That means planning your trip much further in advance, and taking off a lot more time from work to do it.

Fortunately, trade is actually not that all that dependent on aircraft. The vast majority of shipping is done by sea vessel already, as container ships are simply far more efficient. Shipping by container ship produces only about 2% as much carbon per ton-kilometer as shipping by aircraft. “Slow-steaming”, the use of more ships at lower speeds to conserve fuel, is already widespread, and carbon taxes would further incentivize it. So we need not fear giving up globalized trade simply because we gave up airplanes.

But we can do better than that. We don’t need to give up the chance to travel across the country in a weekend. The answer is high-speed rail.

A typical airliner cruises at about 500 miles per hour. Can trains match that? Not quite, but close. Spain already has an existing commercial high-speed rail line, the AVE, which goes from Madrid to Barcelona at a cruising speed of 190 miles per hour. This is far from the limits of the technology. The fastest train ever built is the L0 series, a Japanese maglev which can maintain a top speed of 375 miles per hour.

This means that if we put our minds to it, we could build a rail line crossing the United States, say from Los Angeles to New York via Chicago, averaging at least 300 miles per hour. That’s a distance of 2800 miles by road (rail should be comparable); so the whole trip should take about 9 and a half hours. This is slower than a flight (unless you have a long layover), but could still make it there and back in the same weekend.

How much would such a rail system cost? Official estimates of the cost of maglev line are about $100 million per mile. This could probably be brought down by technological development and economies of scale, but let’s go with it for now. This means that my proposed LA-NY line would cost $280 billion.

That’s not a small amount of money, to be sure. It’s about the annual cost of ending world hunger forever. It’s almost half the US military budget. It’s about one-third of Obama’s stimulus plan in 2009. It’s about one-fourth Trump’s proposed infrastructure plan (that will probably never happen).

In other words, it’s a large project, but well within the capacity of a nation as wealthy as the United States.

Add in another 500 miles to upgrade the (already-successful) Acela corridor line on the East Coast, and another 800 miles to make the proposed California High-Speed Rail from LA to SF a maglev line, and you’ve increased the cost to $410 billion.
$410 billion is about 2 years of revenue for all US airlines. These lines could replace a large proportion of all US air traffic. So if the maglev system simply charged as much as a plane ticket and carried the same number of passengers, it would pay for itself in a few years. Realistically it would probably be a bit cheaper and carry fewer people, so the true payoff period might be more like 10 years. That is a perfectly reasonable payoff period for a major infrastructure project.

Compare this to our existing rail network, which is pitiful. There are Amtrak lines from California to Chicago; one is the Texas Eagle of 2700 miles, comparable to my proposed LA-NY maglev; the other is the California Zephyr of 2400 miles. Each of them completes one trip in about two and a half daysso a week-long trip is unviable and a weekend trip is mathematically impossible. Over 60 hours on each train, instead of the proposed 9.5 for the same distance. The operating speed is only about 55 miles per hour when we now have technology that could do 300. The Acela Express is our fastest train line with a top speed of 150 miles per hour and average end-to-end speed of 72 miles per hour; and (not coincidentally I think) it is by far the most profitable train line in the United States.

And best of all, the entire rail system could be carbon-neutral. Making the train itself run without carbon emissions is simple; you just run it off nuclear power plants and solar farms. The emissions from the construction and manufacturing would have to be offset, but most of them would be one-time emissions, precisely the sort of thing that it does make sense to offset with reforestation. Realistically some emissions would continue during the processes of repair and maintenance, but these would be far, far less than what the airplanes were producing—indeed, not much more than the emissions from a comparable length of interstate highway.

Let me emphasize, this is all existing technology. Unlike those optimistic forecasts about advanced new aircraft alloys and morphing wings, I’m not talking about inventing anything new here. This is something other countries have already built (albeit on a much smaller scale). I’m using official cost estimates. Nothing about this plan should be infeasible.

Why are we not doing this? We’re choosing not to. Our government has decided to spend on other things instead. Most Americans are quite complacent about climate change, though at least most Americans do believe in it now.

What about transcontinental travel? There we may have no choice but to give up our weekend visits. Sea vessels simply can’t be built as fast as airplanes. Even experimental high-speed Navy ships can’t far exceed 50 knots, which is about 57 miles per hour—highway speed, not airplane speed. A typical container vessel slow-steams at about 12 knots—14 miles per hour.

But how many people travel across the ocean anyway? As I’ve already established, Americans fly more than almost anyone else in the world; but of the 900 million passengers carried in flights in, through, or out of the US, only 200 million were international Some 64% of Americans have never left the United States—never even to Canada or Mexico! Even if we cut off all overseas commercial flights completely, we are affecting a remarkably small proportion of the world’s population.

And of course I wouldn’t actually suggest banning air travel. We should be taxing air travel, in proportion to its effect on global warming; and those funds ought to get us pretty far in paying for the up-front cost of the maglev network.

What can you do as an individual? Ay, there’s the rub. Not much, unfortunately. You can of course support candidates and political campaigns for high-speed rail. You can take fewer flights yourself. But until this infrastructure is built, those of us who live far from our ancestral home will face the stark tradeoff between increasing our carbon footprint and never getting to see our families.

Is intellectual property justified?

Feb 12, JDN 2457797

I had hoped to make this week’s post more comprehensive, but as I’ve spent the last week suffering from viral bronchitis I think I will keep this one short and revisit the topic in a few weeks.

Intellectual property underlies an increasingly large proportion of the world’s economic activity, more so now than ever before. We don’t just patent machines anymore; we patent drugs, and software programs, and even plants. Compared to that, copyrights on books, music, and movies seem downright pedestrian.

Though surely not the only cause, this is almost certainly contributing to the winner-takes-all effect; if you own the patent to something important, you can appropriate a huge amount of wealth to yourself with very little effort.

Moreover, this is not something that happened automatically as a natural result of market forces or autonomous human behavior. This is a policy, one that requires large investments in surveillance and enforcement to maintain. Intellectual property is probably the single largest market intervention that our government makes, and it is in a very strange direction: With antitrust law, the government seeks to undermine monopolies; but with intellectual property, the government seeks to protect monopolies.

So it’s important to ask: What is the justification for intellectual property? Do we actually have a good reason for doing this?

The basic argument goes something like this:

Many intellectual endeavors, such as research, invention, and the creation of art, require a large up-front investment of resources to complete, but once completed it costs almost nothing to disseminate the results. There is a very large fixed cost that makes it difficult to create these goods at all, but once they exist, the marginal cost of producing more of them is minimal.

If we didn’t have any intellectual property, once someone created an invention or a work of art, someone else could simply copy it and sell it at a much lower price. If enough competition emerged to drive price down to marginal cost, the original creator of the good would not only not profit, but would actually take an enormous loss, as they paid that large fixed cost but none of their competitors did.

Thus, knowing that they will take a loss if they do, individuals will not create inventions or works of art in the first place. Without intellectual property, all research, invention, and art would grind to a halt.

 

That last sentence sounds terrible, right? What would we do without research, invention, or art? But then if you stop and think about it for a minute, it becomes clear that this can’t possibly be the outcome of eliminating intellectual property. Most societies throughout the history of human civilization have not had a system of intellectual property, and yet they have all had art, and most of them have had research and invention as well.

If intellectual property is to be defended, it can’t be because we would have none of these things without it—it must be that we would have less, and so much less that it offsets the obvious harms of concentrating so much wealth and power in a handful of individuals.

I had hoped to get into the empirical results of different intellectual property regimes, but due to my illness I’m going to save that for another day.

Instead I’m just going to try to articulate what the burden of proof here really needs to be.

First of all, showing that we spend a lot of money on patents contributes absolutely nothing useful to defending them. Yes, we all know patents are expensive. The question is whether they are worth it. To show that this is not a strawman, here’s an article by IP Watchdog that takes the fact that “a new study showing that academic patent licensing contributed more than $1 trillion to the U.S. economy over eighteen years” is some kind of knockdown argument in favor of patents. If you actually showed that this economic activity would not exist without patents, then that would be an argument for patents. But all this study actually does is shows that we spend that much on patents, which says nothing about whether this is a good use of resources. It’s like when people try to defend the F-35 boondoggle by saying “it supports thousands of jobs!”; well, yes, but what about the millions of jobs we could be supporting instead if we used that money for something more efficient? (And indeed, the evidence is quite clear that spending on the F-35 destroys more jobs than it creates.) So any serious of estimate of economic benefits of intellectual property must also come with an estimate of the economic cost of intellectual property, or it is just propaganda.
It’s not enough to show some non-negligible (much less “statistically significant”) increase in innovation as a result of intellectual property. The effect size is critical; the increase in innovation needs to be large enough that it justifies having world-spanning monopolies that concentrate the world’s wealth in the hands of a few individuals. Because we already know that intellectual property concentrates wealth; they are monopolies, and monopolies concentrate wealth. It’s not enough to show that there is a benefit; that benefit must be greater than the cost, and there must be no alternative methods that allow us to achieve a greater net benefit.
It’s also important to be clear what we mean by “innovation”; this can be a very difficult thing to measure. But in principle what we really want to know is whether we are supporting important innovation—whether we will get more Mona Lisas and more polio vaccines, not simply whether we will get more Twilight and more Viagra. And one of the key problems with intellectual property as a method of funding innovation is that there is only a vague link between the profits that can be extracted and the benefits of the innovation. (Though to be fair, this is actually a more general problem; it is literally a mathematical theorem that competitive markets only maximize utility if you value rich people more, in inverse proportion to their marginal utility of wealth.)

Innovation is certainly important. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that innovation is the foundation of economic development and civilization itself. Defenders of intellectual property often want you to stop the conversation there: “Innovation is important!” Don’t let them. It’s not enough to say that innovation is important; intellectual property must also be the best way of achieving that innovation.

Is it? Well, in a few weeks I’ll get back to what the data actually says on this. There is some evidence supporting intellectual property—but the case is a lot weaker than you have probably been led to believe.

In defense of slacktivism

Jan 22, JDN 2457776

It’s one of those awkward portmanteaus that people often make to try to express a concept in fewer syllables, while also implicitly saying that the phenomenon is specific enough to deserve its own word: “Slacktivism”, made of “slacker” and “activism”, not unlike “mansplain” is made of “man” and “explain” or “edutainment” was made of “education” and “entertainment”—or indeed “gerrymander” was made of “Elbridge Gerry” and “salamander”. The term seems to be particularly popular on Huffington Post, which has a whole category on slacktivism. There is a particular subcategory of slacktivism that is ironically against other slacktivism, which has been dubbed “snarktivism”.

It’s almost always used as a pejorative; very few people self-identify as “slacktivists” (though once I get through this post, you may see why I’m considering it myself). “Slacktivism” is activism that “isn’t real” somehow, activism that “doesn’t count”.

Of course, that raises the question: What “counts” as legitimate activism? Is it only protest marches and sit-ins? Then very few people have ever been or will ever be activists. Surely donations should count, at least? Those have a direct, measurable impact. What about calling your Congressman, or letter-writing campaigns? These have been staples of activism for decades.
If the term “slacktivism” means anything at all, it seems to point to activities surrounding raising awareness, where the goal is not to enact a particular policy or support a particular NGO but to simply get as much public attention to a topic as possible. It seems to be particularly targeted at blogging and social media—and that’s important, for reasons I’ll get to shortly. If you gather a group of people in your community and give a speech about LGBT rights, you’re an activist. If you send out the exact same speech on Facebook, you’re a slacktivist.

One of the arguments against “slacktivism” is that it can be used to funnel resources at the wrong things; this blog post makes a good point that the Kony 2012 campaign doesn’t appear to have actually accomplished anything except profits for the filmmakers behind it. (Then again: A blog post against slacktivism? Are you sure you’re not doing right now the thing you think you are against?) But is this problem unique to slacktivism, or is it a more general phenomenon that people simply aren’t all that informed about how to have the most impact? There are an awful lot of inefficient charities out there, and in fact the most important waste of charitable funds involves people giving to their local churches. Fortunately, this is changing, as people become more secularized; churches used to account for over half of US donations, and now they only account for less than a third. (Naturally, Christian organizations are pulling out their hair over this.) The 60 million Americans who voted for Trump made a horrible mistake and will cause enormous global damage; but they weren’t slacktivists, were they?

Studies do suggest that traditionally “slacktivist” activities like Facebook likes aren’t a very strong predictor of future, larger actions, and more private modes of support (like donations and calling your Congressman) tend to be stronger predictors. But so what? In order for slacktivism to be a bad thing, they would have to be a negative predictor. They would have to substitute for more effective activism, and there’s no evidence that this happens.

In fact, there’s even some evidence that slacktivism has a positive effect (normally I wouldn’t cite Fox News, but I think in this case we should expect a bias in the opposite direction, and you can read the full Georgetown study if you want):

A study from Georgetown University in November entitled “Dynamics of Cause Engagement” looked how Americans learned about and interacted with causes and other social issues, and discovered some surprising findings on Slacktivism.

While the traditional forms of activism like donating money or volunteering far outpaces slacktivism, those who engage in social issues online are twice as likely as their traditional counterparts to volunteer and participate in events. In other words, slacktivists often graduate to full-blown activism.

At worst, most slacktivists are doing nothing for positive social change, and that’s what the vast majority of people have been doing for the entirety of human history. We can bemoan this fact, but that won’t change it. Most people are simply too uniformed to know what’s going on in the world, and too broke and too busy to do anything about it.

Indeed, slacktivism may be the one thing they can do—which is why I think it’s worth defending.

From an economist’s perspective, there’s something quite odd about how people’s objections to slacktivism are almost always formulated. The rational, sensible objection would be to their small benefits—this isn’t accomplishing enough, you should do something more effective. But in fact, almost all the objections to slacktivism I have ever read focus on their small costs—you’re not a “real activist” because you don’t make sacrifices like I do.

Yet it is a basic principle of economic rationality that, all other things equal, lower cost is better. Indeed, this is one of the few principles of economic rationality that I really do think is unassailable; perfect information is unrealistic and total selfishness makes no sense at all. But cost minimization is really very hard to argue with—why pay more, when you can pay less and get the same benefit?

From an economist’s perspective, the most important thing about an activity is its cost-effectiveness, measured either by net benefitbenefit minus cost—or rate of returnbenefit divided by cost. But in both cases, a lower cost is always better; and in fact slacktivism has an astonishing rate of return, precisely because its cost is so small.

Suppose that a campaign of 10 million Facebook likes actually does have a 1% chance of changing a policy in a way that would save 10,000 lives, with a life expectancy of 50 years each. Surely this is conservative, right? I’m only giving it a 1% chance of success, on a policy with a relatively small impact (10,000 lives could be a single clause in an EPA regulatory standard), with a large number of slacktivist participants (10 million is more people than the entire population of Switzerland). Yet because clicking “like” and “share” only costs you maybe 10 seconds, we’re talking about an expected cost of (10 million)(10/86,400/365) = 0.32 QALY for an expected benefit of (10,000)(0.01)(50) = 5000 QALY. That is a rate of return of 1,500,000%—that’s 1.5 million percent.

Let’s compare this to the rate of return on donating to a top charity like UNICEF, Oxfam, the Against Malaria Foundation, or the Schistomoniasis Control Initiative, for which donating about $300 would save the life of 1 child, adding about 50 QALY. That $300 most likely cost you about 0.01 QALY (assuming an annual income of $30,000), so we’re looking at a return of 500,000%. Now, keep in mind that this is a huge rate of return, far beyond what you can ordinarily achieve, that donating $300 to UNICEF is probably one of the best things you could possibly be doing with that money—and yet slacktivism may still exceed it in efficiency. Maybe slacktivism doesn’t sound so bad after all?

Of course, the net benefit of your participation is higher in the case of donation; you yourself contribute 50 QALY instead of only contributing 0.0005 QALY. Ultimately net benefit is what matters; rate of return is a way of estimating what the net benefit would be when comparing different ways of spending the same amount of time or money. But from the figures I just calculated, it begins to seem like maybe the very best thing you could do with your time is clicking “like” and “share” on Facebook posts that will raise awareness of policies of global importance. Now, you have to include all that extra time spent poring through other Facebook posts, and consider that you may not be qualified to assess the most important issues, and there’s a lot of uncertainty involved in what sort of impact you yourself will have… but it’s almost certainly not the worst thing you could be doing with your time, and frankly running these numbers has made me feel a lot better about all the hours I have actually spent doing this sort of thing. It’s a small benefit, yes—but it’s an even smaller cost.

Indeed, the fact that so many people treat low cost as bad, when it is almost by definition good, and the fact that they also target their ire so heavily at blogging and social media, says to me that what they are really trying to accomplish here has nothing to do with actually helping people in the most efficient way possible.

Rather, it’s two things.

The obvious one is generational—it’s yet another chorus in the unending refrain that is “kids these days”. Facebook is new, therefore it is suspicious. Adults have been complaining about their descendants since time immemorial; some of the oldest written works we have are of ancient Babylonians complaining that their kids are lazy and selfish. Either human beings have been getting lazier and more selfish for thousands of years, or, you know, kids are always a bit more lazy and selfish than their parents or at least seem so from afar.

The one that’s more interesting for an economist is signaling. By complaining that other people aren’t paying enough cost for something, what you’re really doing is complaining that they aren’t signaling like you are. The costly signal has been made too cheap, so now it’s no good as a signal anymore.

“Anyone can click a button!” you say. Yes, and? Isn’t it wonderful that now anyone with a smartphone (and there are more people with access to smartphones than toilets, because #WeLiveInTheFuture) can contribute, at least in some small way, to improving the world? But if anyone can do it, then you can’t signal your status by doing it. If your goal was to make yourself look better, I can see why this would bother you; all these other people doing things that look just as good as what you do! How will you ever distinguish yourself from the riffraff now?

This is also likely what’s going on as people fret that “a college degree’s not worth anything anymore” because so many people are getting them now; well, as a signal, maybe not. But if it’s just a signal, why are we spending so much money on it? Surely we can find a more efficient way to rank people by their intellect. I thought it was supposed to be an education—in which case the meteoric rise in global college enrollments should be cause for celebration. (In reality of course a college degree can serve both roles, and it remains an open question among labor economists as to which effect is stronger and by how much. But the signaling role is almost pure waste from the perspective of social welfare; we should be trying to maximize the proportion of real value added.)

For this reason, I think I’m actually prepared to call myself a slacktivist. I aim for cost-effective awareness-raising; I want to spread the best ideas to the most people for the lowest cost. Why, would you prefer I waste more effort, to signal my own righteousness?

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people refuse to do cost-benefit analysis

July 27, JDN 2457597

My title is based on a famous quote often attributed to Edmund Burke, but which we have no record of him actually saying:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

The closest he actually appears to have written is this:

When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.

Burke’s intended message was about the need for cooperation and avoiding diffusion of responsibility; then his words were distorted into a duty to act against evil in general.

But my point today is going to be a little bit more specific: A great deal of real-world evils would be eliminated if good people were more willing to engage in cost-benefit analysis.

As discussed on Less Wrong awhile back, there is a common “moral” saying which comes from the Talmud (if not earlier; and of course it’s hardly unique to Judaism), which gives people a great warm and fuzzy glow whenever they say it:

Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he had saved the whole world.

Yet this is in fact the exact opposite of moral. It is a fundamental, insane perversion of morality. It amounts to saying that “saving a life” is just a binary activity, either done or not, and once you’ve done it once, congratulations, you’re off the hook for the other 7 billion. All those other lives mean literally nothing, once you’ve “done your duty”.

Indeed, it would seem to imply that you can be a mass murderer, as long as you save someone else somewhere along the line. If Mao Tse-tung at some point stopped someone from being run over by a car, it’s okay that his policies killed more people than the population of Greater Los Angeles.

Conversely, if anything you have ever done has resulted in someone’s death, you’re just as bad as Mao; in fact if you haven’t also saved someone somewhere along the line and he has, you’re worse.

Maybe this is how you get otherwise-intelligent people saying such insanely ridiculous things as George W. Bush’s crimes are uncontroversially worse than Osama bin Laden’s.” (No, probably not, since Chomsky at least feigns something like cost-benefit analysis. I’m not sure what his failure mode is, but it’s probably not this one in particular. “Uncontroversially”… you keep using that word…)

Cost-benefit analysis is actually a very simple concept (though applying it in practice can be mind-bogglingly difficult): Try to maximize the good things minus the bad things. If an action would increase good things more than bad things, do it; if it would increase bad things more than good things, don’t do it.

What it replaces is simplistic deontological reasoning about “X is always bad” or “Y is always good”; that’s almost never true. Even great evils can be justified by greater goods, and many goods are not worth having because of the evils they would require to achieve. We seem to want all our decisions to have no downside, perhaps because that would resolve our cognitive dissonance most easily; but in the real world, most decisions have an upside and a downside, and it’s a question of which is larger.

Why is it that so many people—especially good people—have such an aversion to cost-benefit analysis?

I gained some insight into this by watching a video discussion from an online Harvard course taught by Michael Sandel (which is free, by the way, if you’d like to try it out). He was leading the discussion Socratically, which is in general a good method of teaching—but like anything else can be used to teach things that are wrong, and is in some ways more effective at doing so because it has a way of making students think they came up with the answers on their own. He says something like, “Do we really want our moral judgments to be based on cost-benefit analysis?” and gives some examples where people made judgments using cost-benefit analysis to support his suggestion that this is something bad.

But of course his examples are very specific: They all involve corporations using cost-benefit analysis to maximize profits. One of them is the Ford Pinto case, where Ford estimated the cost to them of a successful lawsuit, multiplied by the probability of such lawsuits, and then compared that with the cost of a total recall. Finding that the lawsuits were projected to be cheaper, they opted for that result, and thereby allowed several people to be killed by their known defective product.

Now, it later emerged that Ford Pintos were not actually especially dangerous, and in fact Ford didn’t just include lawsuits but also a standard estimate of the “value of a statistical human life”, and as a result of that their refusal to do the recall was probably the completely correct decision—but why let facts get in the way of a good argument?

But let’s suppose that all the facts had been as people thought they were—the product was unsafe and the company was only interested in their own profits. We don’t need to imagine this hypothetically; this is clearly what actually happened with the tobacco industry, and indeed with the oil industry. Is that evil? Of course it is. But not because it’s cost-benefit analysis.

Indeed, the reason this is evil is the same reason most things are evil: They are psychopathically selfish. They advance the interests of those who do them, while causing egregious harms to others.

Exxon is apparently prepared to sacrifice millions of lives to further their own interests, which makes them literally no better than Mao, as opposed to this bizarre “no better than Mao” that we would all be if the number of lives saved versus killed didn’t matter. Let me be absolutely clear; I am not speaking in hyperbole when I say that the board of directors of Exxon is morally no better than Mao. No, I mean they literally are willing to murder 20 million people to serve their own interests—more precisely 10 to 100 million, by WHO estimates. Maybe it matters a little bit that these people will be killed by droughts and hurricanes rather than by knives and guns; but then, most of the people Mao killed died of starvation, and plenty of the people killed by Exxon will too. But this statement wouldn’t have the force it does if I could not speak in terms of quantitative cost-benefit analysis. Killing people is one thing, and most industries would have to own up to it; being literally willing to kill as many people as history’s greatest mass murderers is quite anotherand yet it is true of Exxon.

But I can understand why people would tend to associate cost-benefit analysis with psychopaths maximizing their profits; there are two reasons for this.

First, most neoclassical economists appear to believe in both cost-benefit analysis and psychopathic profit maximization. They don’t even clearly distinguish their concept of “rational” from the concept of total psychopathic selfishness—hence why I originally titled this blog “infinite identical psychopaths”. The people arguing for cost-benefit analysis are usually economists, and economists are usually neoclassical, so most of the time you hear arguments for cost-benefit analysis they are also linked with arguments for horrifically extreme levels of selfishness.

Second, most people are uncomfortable with cost-benefit analysis, and as a result don’t use it. So, most of the cost-benefit analysis you’re likely to hear is done by terrible human beings, typically at the reins of multinational corporations. This becomes self-reinforcing, as all the good people don’t do cost-benefit analysis, so they don’t see good people doing it, so they don’t do it, and so on.

Therefore, let me present you with some clear-cut cases where cost-benefit analysis can save millions of lives, and perhaps even save the world.

Imagine if our terrorism policy used cost-benefit analysis; we wouldn’t kill 100,000 innocent people and sacrifice 4,400 soldiers fighting a war that didn’t have any appreciable benefit as a bizarre form of vengeance for 3,000 innocent people being killed. Moreover, we wouldn’t sacrifice core civil liberties to prevent a cause of death that’s 300 times rarer than car accidents.

Imagine if our healthcare policy used cost-benefit analysis; we would direct research funding to maximize our chances of saving lives, not toward the form of cancer that is quite literally the sexiest. We would go to a universal healthcare system like the rest of the First World, and thereby save thousands of additional lives while spending less on healthcare.

With cost-benefit analysis, we would reform our system of taxes and subsidies to internalize the cost of carbon emissions, most likely resulting in a precipitous decline of the oil and coal industries and the rapid rise of solar and nuclear power, and thereby save millions of lives. Without cost-benefit analysis, we instead get unemployed coal miners appearing on TV to grill politicians about how awful it is to lose your job even though that job is decades obsolete and poisoning our entire planet. Would eliminating coal hurt coal miners? Yes, it would, at least in the short run. It’s also completely, totally worth it, by at least a thousandfold.

We would invest heavily in improving our transit systems, with automated cars or expanded rail networks, thereby preventing thousands of deaths per year—instead of being shocked and outraged when an automated car finally kills one person, while manual vehicles in their place would have killed half a dozen by now.

We would disarm all of our nuclear weapons, because the risk of a total nuclear apocalypse is not worth it to provide some small increment in national security above our already overwhelming conventional military. While we’re at it, we would downsize that military in order to save enough money to end world hunger.

And oh by the way, we would end world hunger. The benefits of doing so are enormous; the costs are remarkably small. We’ve actually been making a great deal of progress lately—largely due to the work of development economists, and lots and lots of cost-benefit analysis. This process involves causing a lot of economic disruption, making people unemployed, taking riches away from some people and giving them to others; if we weren’t prepared to bear those costs, we would never get these benefits.

Could we do all these things without cost-benefit analysis? I suppose so, if we go through the usual process of covering of our ears whenever a downside is presented and amplification whenever an upside is presented, until we can more or less convince ourselves that there is no downside even though there always is. We can continue having arguments where one side presents only downsides, the other side presents only upsides, and then eventually one side prevails by sheer numbers, and it could turn out to be the upside team (or should I say “tribe”?).

But I think we’d progress a lot faster if we were honest about upsides and downsides, and had the courage to stand up and say, “Yes, that downside is real; but it’s worth it.” I realize it’s not easy to tell a coal miner to his face that his job is obsolete and killing people, and I don’t really blame Hillary Clinton for being wishy-washy about it; but the truth is, we need to start doing that. If we accept that costs are real, we may be able to mitigate them (as Hillary plans to do with a $30 billion investment in coal mining communities, by the way); if we pretend they don’t exist, people will still get hurt but we will be blind to their suffering. Or worse, we will do nothing—and evil will triumph.

Oppression is quantitative.

JDN 2457082 EDT 11:15.

Economists are often accused of assigning dollar values to everything, of being Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic, someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. And there is more than a little truth to this, particularly among neoclassical economists; I was alarmed a few days ago to receive an email response from an economist that included the word ‘altruism’ in scare quotes as though this were somehow a problematic or unrealistic concept. (Actually, altruism is already formally modeled by biologists, and my claim that human beings are altruistic would be so uncontroversial among evolutionary biologists as to be considered trivial.)

But sometimes this accusation is based upon things economists do that is actually tremendously useful, even necessary to good policymaking: We make everything quantitative. Nothing is ever “yes” or “no” to an economist (sometimes even when it probably should be; the debate among economists in the 1960s over whether slavery is economically efficient does seem rather beside the point), but always more or less; never good or bad but always better or worse. For example, as I discussed in my post on minimum wage, the mainstream position among economists is not that minimum wage is always harmful nor that minimum wage is always beneficial, but that minimum wage is a policy with costs and benefits that on average neither increases nor decreases unemployment. The mainstream position among economists about climate policy is that we should institute either a high carbon tax or a system of cap-and-trade permits; no economist I know wants us to either do nothing and let the market decide (a position most Republicans currently seem to take) or suddenly ban coal and oil (the latter is a strawman position I’ve heard environmentalists accused of, but I’ve never actually heard advocated; even Greenpeace wants to ban offshore drilling, not oil in general.).

This makes people uncomfortable, I think, because they want moral issues to be simple. They want “good guys” who are always right and “bad guys” who are always wrong. (Speaking of strawman environmentalism, a good example of this is Captain Planet, in which no one ever seems to pollute the environment in order to help people or even in order to make money; no, they simply do it because the hate clean water and baby animals.) They don’t want to talk about options that are more good or less bad; they want one option that is good and all other options that are bad.

This attitude tends to become infused with righteousness, such that anyone who disagrees is an agent of the enemy. Politics is the mind-killer, after all. If you acknowledge that there might be some downside to a policy you agree with, that’s like betraying your team.

But in reality, the failure to acknowledge downsides can lead to disaster. Problems that could have been prevented are instead ignored and denied. Getting the other side to recognize the downsides of their own policies might actually help you persuade them to your way of thinking. And appreciating that there is a continuum of possibilities that are better and worse in various ways to various degrees is what allows us to make the world a better place even as we know that it will never be perfect.

There is a common refrain you’ll hear from a lot of social justice activists which sounds really nice and egalitarian, but actually has the potential to completely undermine the entire project of social justice.

This is the idea that oppression can’t be measured quantitatively, and we shouldn’t try to compare different levels of oppression. The notion that some people are more oppressed than others is often derided as the Oppression Olympics. (Some use this term more narrowly to mean when a discussion is derailed by debate over who has it worse—but then the problem is really discussions being derailed, isn’t it?)

This sounds nice, because it means we don’t have to ask hard questions like, “Which is worse, sexism or racism?” or “Who is worse off, people with cancer or people with diabetes?” These are very difficult questions, and maybe they aren’t the right ones to ask—after all, there’s no reason to think that fighting racism and fighting sexism are mutually exclusive; they can in fact be complementary. Research into cancer only prevents us from doing research into diabetes if our total research budget is fixed—this is more than anything else an argument for increasing research budgets.

But we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Oppression is quantitative. Some kinds of oppression are clearly worse than others.

Why is this important? Because otherwise you can’t measure progress. If you have a strictly qualitative notion of oppression where it’s black-and-white, on-or-off, oppressed-or-not, then we haven’t made any progress on just about any kind of oppression. There is still racism, there is still sexism, there is still homophobia, there is still religious discrimination. Maybe these things will always exist to some extent. This makes the fight for social justice a hopeless Sisyphean task.

But in fact, that’s not true at all. We’ve made enormous progress. Unbelievably fast progress. Mind-boggling progress. For hundreds of millennia humanity made almost no progress at all, and then in the last few centuries we have suddenly leapt toward justice.

Sexism used to mean that women couldn’t own property, they couldn’t vote, they could be abused and raped with impunity—or even beaten or killed for being raped (which Saudi Arabia still does by the way). Now sexism just means that women aren’t paid as well, are underrepresented in positions of power like Congress and Fortune 500 CEOs, and they are still sometimes sexually harassed or raped—but when men are caught doing this they go to prison for years. This change happened in only about 100 years. That’s fantastic.

Racism used to mean that Black people were literally property to be bought and sold. They were slaves. They had no rights at all, they were treated like animals. They were frequently beaten to death. Now they can vote, hold office—one is President!—and racism means that our culture systematically discriminates against them, particularly in the legal system. Racism used to mean you could be lynched; now it just means that it’s a bit harder to get a job and the cops will sometimes harass you. This took only about 200 years. That’s amazing.

Homophobia used to mean that gay people were criminals. We could be sent to prison or even executed for the crime of making love in the wrong way. If we were beaten or murdered, it was our fault for being faggots. Now, homophobia means that we can’t get married in some states (and fewer all the time!), we’re depicted on TV in embarrassing stereotypes, and a lot of people say bigoted things about us. This has only taken about 50 years! That’s astonishing.

And above all, the most extreme example: Religious discrimination used to mean you could be burned at the stake for not being Catholic. It used to mean—and in some countries still does mean—that it’s illegal to believe in certain religions. Now, it means that Muslims are stereotyped because, well, to be frank, there are some really scary things about Muslim culture and some really scary people who are Muslim leaders. (Personally, I think Muslims should be more upset about Ahmadinejad and Al Qaeda than they are about being profiled in airports.) It means that we atheists are annoyed by “In God We Trust”, but we’re no longer burned at the stake. This has taken longer, more like 500 years. But even though it took a long time, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this progress is wonderful.

Obviously, there’s a lot more progress remaining to be made on all these issues, and others—like economic inequality, ableism, nationalism, and animal rights—but the point is that we have made a lot of progress already. Things are better than they used to be—a lot betterand keeping this in mind will help us preserve the hope and dedication necessary to make things even better still.

If you think that oppression is either-or, on-or-off, you can’t celebrate this progress, and as a result the whole fight seems hopeless. Why bother, when it’s always been on, and will probably never be off? But we started with oppression that was absolutely horrific, and now it’s considerably milder. That’s real progress. At least within the First World we have gone from 90% oppressed to 25% oppressed, and we can bring it down to 10% or 1% or 0.1% or even 0.01%. Those aren’t just numbers, those are the lives of millions of people. As democracy spreads worldwide and poverty is eradicated, oppression declines. Step by step, social changes are made, whether by protest marches or forward-thinking politicians or even by lawyers and lobbyists (they aren’t all corrupt).

And indeed, a four-year-old Black girl with a mental disability living in Ghana whose entire family’s income is $3 a day is more oppressed than I am, and not only do I have no qualms about saying that, it would feel deeply unseemly to deny it. I am not totally unoppressed—I am a bisexual atheist with chronic migraines and depression in a country that is suspicious of atheists, systematically discriminates against LGBT people, and does not make proper accommodations for chronic disorders, particularly mental ones. But I am far less oppressed, and that little girl (she does exist, though I know not her name) could be made much less oppressed than she is even by relatively simple interventions (like a basic income). In order to make her fully and totally unoppressed, we would need such a radical restructuring of human society that I honestly can’t really imagine what it would look like. Maybe something like The Culture? Even then as Iain Banks imagines it, there is inequality between those within The Culture and those outside it, and there have been wars like the Idiran-Culture War which killed billions, and among those trillions of people on thousands of vast orbital habitats someone, somewhere is probably making a speciesist remark. Yet I can state unequivocally that life in The Culture would be better than my life here now, which is better than the life of that poor disabled girl in Ghana.

To be fair, we can’t actually put a precise number on it—though many economists try, and one of my goals is to convince them to improve their methods so that they stop using willingness-to-pay and instead try to actually measure utility by something like QALY. A precise number would help, actually—it would allow us to do cost-benefit analyses to decide where to focus our efforts. But while we don’t need a precise number to tell when we are making progress, we do need to acknowledge that there are degrees of oppression, some worse than others.

Oppression is quantitative. And our goal should be minimizing that quantity.