Whereof Game Theory Cannot Speak….

Conor Clarke’s interview with Thomas Schelling is fascinating. And also a bit confusing. And disappointing. Schelling is one of my intellectual heroes. But in this interview, he seems to bounce back and forth between the kind of reasoning I  learned from his work and a kind of aspirational moralizing that I learned from his work to distrust.

For example, when Schelling speaks as an economist, he makes a great deal sense to me:

I think the best hope for India is to grow its economy as fast as it can in order to outgrow its vulnerability to climate change.

[…]

If I were to come clean to the American public I would say that, except for a very low probability of a very bad result — which is the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which would put Washington DC under water — we are probably going to outgrow any vulnerability we have to climate change. And in case we’ll be able to afford to buy food or import it is necessary. You know, very little of the US economy is susceptible to climate. All of agriculture is less than 3% of our gross product. Forestry may be endangered. Fisheries may be endangered. But recreation might actually benefit!

So if we can double our GDP in the next 70 or 80 years, even if we lose some of our GDP from climate change — even if we lose 10% of our GDP from climate change — we’re still ahead so much that the effect of climate change wouldn’t be noticed. But it would be pretty disastrous in a lot of the less developed parts of the world. And that’s why I think it’s crucially important not to demand anything of China, India and so forth that will significantly impede their economic progress.

Right on.

But I feel like Schelling is not very enlightening on questions about policies that will affect future generations. For example:

[Clark] I wanted to ask more question, to go back to the moral issue here. It does seem to me that the strongest case for mitigating the effects of global climate change is a moral one. It is based on not on our own interest but on the interests of people in the developing world who don’t yet exist. But it also seems to me that — while I don’t know much about game theory — collective bargaining theories generally assume the participants are rational and self-interested. So how does one go about making sense of an arrangement where we must set our self-interest aside? How does one make the moral case in a situation like this? Or is my description of collective bargaining just totally idiotic?

Well, I think you have to realize that most people have very strong moral feelings. I think in a lot of cases they’re misdirected. I wish moral feelings about a two-month old fetus were attached to hungry children in Africa. But I think people have very strong moral feelings. In fact, I’m always amazed by the number of people who at least pretend they’re worried about the polar bears.

That’s not wrong, but it’s terrifically weak stuff. Which is not very surprising. There is little for a game theorist to do but moralize here, since game theory doesn’t apply here. As readers of Derek Parfit know, deliberation about harm to future generations is doubly confusing because it’s not even quite right to say that, although we can affect people in the future beyond our deaths, those people can’t affect us. Who are “those people” we are talking about? There is a temptation to see future populations as determinate but simply yet-to-be-realized. That’s wrong. Future populations are indeterminate. What we do now, the results of the games we are playing presently, determines who will and will not exist in the future.

So, for example, if we anticipate that the burdens of global warming will fall most heavily on future people in particular regions, we can mitigate those harms in any number ways. We could encourage a lower birthrate later by encouraging various techniques of birth control now. The fewer future Bangladeshis there are, the lower the possible total harm to future Bangladeshis. But… I’m not a fan of this idea. However, in some ways, economic growth is a form of birth control, since birthrates tend to fall with income growth. So, not only does greater wealth allow for greater adaptation, it lowers the expected total harm of current activities by reducing the expected population. Does anybody try to model this?

Or, to take another tack, if the negative consequences of today’s actions will fall most heavily upon poorer people in certain regions a century hence, the regions most likely to benefit from warming, and those best equipped to adapt, can open themselves more fully to immigration from places where the greatest harm is predicted. We could increase the gains to warming by increasing the proportion of the world population residing in areas likely to benefit from it. Now, that sounds crazy. But it’s just as much a possibility as massive wealth transfers from rich to poor countries, which Schelling recommends (and which, based on the record of development aid, I would anticipate to have many negative consequences).

The interesting question is how we coordinate now to facilitate any prevention or mitigation strategy. And Schelling is not even very helpful here. He is clearly worried. But, at the same time, he sounds pessimistic about the possibility of really effective coordination. It sounds like he thinks the best developed countries can do is to announce the intention to do something and start doing it, while basically hoping that it makes a difference. And the best advice he gives is not advice, but moral exhortation. And even then, it’s pretty indirect. He exhorts churches to do more exhortation about climate change.

And one thing that I think ought to help but doesn’t is that — and my impression is that maybe this is slightly changing — the organized churches in American don’t take seriously preserving the heritage that God gave us. I’ve heard congressmen confess to being devote Episcopalians say that what god gave us ought to be preserved. But I get no impression that Protestants and Catholics are sermonizing on the importance of preserving the bounty of the earth, the richness of the species, or preserving the planet as we would like to know it. And I think that if someone could mobilize the church to be interested…

I spent a long time concerned with smoking behavior. And when I was a boy the churches were very adamant about smoking. And my grandfather, who was sort of devout, he wouldn’t hire a boy to mow the lawn if he knew the boy smoked. And we know how potent the churches can be, because nobody smokes on campus at the University of Utah. And nobody smokes among the Seventh-Day Adventists or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And the Mormons aren’t supposed to drink coke and coffee, let alone smoke.

And I think the churches don’t realize that they could have a potent effect in not letting so much of gods legacy — in terms of flora and fauna — be destroyed by climate change.

More than a bit disappointing.

Advertisements

25 thoughts on “Whereof Game Theory Cannot Speak….

  1. I know. I'm multi-tasking and want to do better later.I think the two areas for expansion are (1) how tight GDP expansion really is with our other goals, and (2) how human motivations really map to game theory.I suspect that the theme between 1-2 is that we have economic and moral selves in our society of mind, but that the dominance of one or the other cannot be assumed to be stable for individual or society.

  2. Pingback: Whereof Game Theory Cannot Speak….

  3. People who don't go to church always want to co-opt the churches to join in their favorite secular campaign. This won't work, because those of us who go to church are not automatons; we are makers of rational choices.

  4. nobody smokes on campus at the University of UtahI can only assume he's thinking of BYU (where smoking is coincidentally banned, not merely avoided because of unspoken Church pressure).U of U is where the non-Mormons go if they don't just leave the state, and I somehow doubt that they've become thoroughly infiltrated by the Church since I was last on campus and saw people smoking.I suspect rates have dropped, since it's been nearly 20 years and smoking is less popular, but …

  5. Pingback: Whereof Game Theory Cannot Speak…. | India Economy

  6. One thing that seems to be missing from the generational aspect of things is the fact that future generations are likely to attach different values to things than we do today. Consider the library at Alexandria, which contained much of the ancient world's knowledge but was burned down, causing its contents to be lost to history. Now, I would say that I–as a person living in 2009–value that library far more than any person valued it when it was still around. If I were to somehow go back in time and become the ruler of Alexandria, decree number one would be diverting resources to making sure the information in that library couldn't be lost. Concerns that would have been of the utmost priority at the time–maintaining order, keeping the Romans from invading, etc.–would come in a distant second on my agenda. All for the simple reason that affairs of state, the quality of life of people–those are all transient things that cease to have value beyond the lifetimes of the people who live them. But knowledge has permanent value–it will be valuable to all of humankind for the rest of history.The same thing could apply to the current situation. It could be that, hundreds of years from now, people will see the ecological destruction wrought by climate change as a “burning of the library of Alexandria”: all those extinct species gone forever, all those regions geographically altered forever. So even if it would cost excessive amounts of lost GDP, lower quality of life, or even loss of life, it may be that someone from the future, if they ruled in our world today, would heavily favor an outcome in which ecological degradation were minimized.Now, I don't think that this person from the future would necessarily be making the right decision–but still, I think it's a complication worth thinking about.

  7. Why are you looking to a Game Theorist for advice about climate change?Seriously. The questions you're asking about the natural world…causes of, effects of, nature of climate change … are best answered and asked by scientists working in the relevant disciplines, where the consensus opinion is that our planet's future looks pretty bleak indeed. For questions of the economic costs and benefits of various public policy options … well, there are experts to be consulted here too. But what can a games theorist contribute to these discussions?

  8. Tom Schelling isn't just a game theorist as people might like to pigeonhole him. He's an omnivorous social scientist who, when he's on his game, has a lot more to offer than “just” what he won the Nobel for.He is decidedly not on his game in this interview.

  9. interesting analogy, but isn't it a little bit like saying that if your house were burning down, you would save the family heirlooms before you saved your kids?

  10. …and I cringe at the infelicitous, unintended pun in the use of “on his game.” I feel like Exhibit A in avoiding cliches when writing.

  11. Can governments please wait for 10 more years of warming before doing anything?The past 10 years have showed a cooling trend while more CO(2) was released. That is a short time period, but it goes against current models and theories. If another 10 years go by without much warming, we may want to hold off on drastic actions.

  12. “Consider the library at Alexandria, which contained much of the ancient world's knowledge but was burned down, causing its contents to be lost to history. Now, I would say that I–as a person living in 2009–value that library far more than any person valued it when it was still around.”This is a rather poor example, considering that 1. most people in 2009 likely have no idea what the library of Alexandria even was, and would not much care if they did know, and 2. I seriously doubt those of us today who do lament its loss suffer any sort of serious distress from it.

  13. cardy ugg boots On sale,Find newest Ugg Collection there. cardy uggs Special sale,Order now,Save 38% immediately cardy uggs boots This season hit the store,Only $99Would you like a pair of classic short ugg home,make this winter warm,let you feet keep comfort every day. Newest classic short uggs is in stock now,Save more off,Win lucky coupon code.women's bailey button UGG this season hottest Short style UGG Boots,you should never miss it. Bailey Button UGGs keep your feet amazing comfort,Special sale time is limited this week,Order nowUGGs Bailey Button Boots can't find?You can go our shop,Will save more 25%.UGG Bailey Button Sale Come in stock,win more discount now.Chestnut Bailey Button Boot this season hottest Ugg boots,every one is talk about that,Take them home now. bailey button leopard Ugg boots let the fashion on your feet now,A pair of this will give you all.<H3>Leopard Uggs New version of Ugg Bailey Button hit the store</H3><H3>UGG Australia Highkoo 2009-2010 this winter a new rasie trendy along with bailey button button.</H3><H3>UGG Women's Highkoo Will the best gift for christmas,for your girlfriend,your family member</H3><H3 jQuery1250860456437=”26″>UGG Grey Women's Highkoo keep rising,don's miss this opportunity to get them home with cheapest price you never imagin.</H3><H3> </H3><H3> </H3>   

  14. Who would I speak too about may theories abot so many things, for example does the Universe have North, South, West and East and if so where do we stand. I know In Dragonball Z they say we are in The North Quatrant but its fantasy and not real so let me show what I am talking about. 1 up 1left 1 right—————————————Oearth——————————— 1 southSo you get North, East, West and South Quatrant. I Know my therioes are Far Out but what is really been bothering is there anything below earth? And If so why ? Would That Mean that the Universie has some sort of Compass? I have 1000's of theroies maybe somebody could derict me to the right place. Thank You,Hiram GutierrezCell 915-503-0113

  15. I was reading Some of the comments and I was thinking about how unimportant are our problems to rest of the universe, I mean a comet hits Jupiter that is more inportant on the Galatic Scale Than our worthless problems. What you guys think?

  16. I think importance is ultimately a subjective characteristics that is only meaningful relative to some goal or value system. That means our problems are important to us. They may not be important to some unknown intelligent species out there somewhere (if there are any), but their problems aren't especially important to us so that makes us even.

  17. Who would I speak too about may theories abot so many things, for example does the Universe have North, South, West and East and if so where do we stand. I know In Dragonball Z they say we are in The North Quatrant but its fantasy and not real so let me show what I am talking about. 1 up 1left 1 right—————————————Oearth——————————— 1 southSo you get North, East, West and South Quatrant. I Know my therioes are Far Out but what is really been bothering is there anything below earth? And If so why ? Would That Mean that the Universie has some sort of Compass? I have 1000's of theroies maybe somebody could derict me to the right place. Thank You,Hiram GutierrezCell 915-503-0113

  18. I was reading Some of the comments and I was thinking about how unimportant are our problems to rest of the universe, I mean a comet hits Jupiter that is more inportant on the Galatic Scale Than our worthless problems. What you guys think?

  19. I think importance is ultimately a subjective characteristics that is only meaningful relative to some goal or value system. That means our problems are important to us. They may not be important to some unknown intelligent species out there somewhere (if there are any), but their problems aren't especially important to us so that makes us even.

Comments are closed.