Vaccination is a collective action problem

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the difficulty many people have grasping the logic of collective action problems — where the outcome of an interaction is bad, but where no individual has an incentive to stop doing the thing that is leading to that bad outcome (here).

I’m reminded of this problem every morning these days, since vaccination has been in the news, first with the NHL players, and now with a measles outbreak in Toronto. The debate over vaccination is a perpetual source of frustration for me, because people insist on treating parents who refrain from vaccinating their children as irrational, whereas in most cases they are not being irrational, they are actually free riding, which is perfectly rational, in at least one sense of the term (i.e. the one used by economists). Thus they should be criticized for acting immorally, as opposed to irrationally.… Continue reading

On philosophical and economic illiteracy

As I may have mentioned, I’m in the Netherlands this week, giving a paper at an Ethics and Economics conference in Utrecht. My paper (here) starts out by belabouring some of the issues that were raised by N. Gregory Mankiw’s much-derided attempt to defend the incomes of the top 1% (here). There was a huge amount of criticism piled onto Mankiw in the wake of this, but one of the things I noticed was that few economists challenged the most problematic feature of his argument – namely, that it is based on the zombie idea that paying workers according to their “marginal productivity” is equivalent to paying them the actual product of their labour, and therefore corresponds to some pre-theoretic concept of what they “deserve.” (According to this view, the marginal productivity theory of wages provides the foundations for a moral justification for the distribution of income under capitalism.) This is an argument that was bandied about a lot in the early 20th century (and given its most spirited defence by John Bates Clark in his 1899 book, on The Distribution of Wealth), and is almost universally regarded as having been defeated.… Continue reading

Academic roundup

No blogging lately, not just because of the holidays, but also because I’ve been working on a number of different academic projects. Here is a quick set of links, for those interested.

First of all, a Habermas paper that I have been fiddling around with for a long time finally came out, in Philosophy and Social Criticism. It’s called Rebooting Discourse Ethics. The official version is gated, but the MS can be found here. Thanks to PSC for letting me go on at length!

I’ve also posted a series of papers that I’m working on over at my page. The first, Why Do People Behave Immorally When Drunk? is coming out in Philosophical Explorations soon. I’m happy to see this one in print, as it was a huge amount of work. My co-author, Benoit Hardy-Vallée, wrote the first draft while he was doing a SSHRC post-doc with me at UofT maybe 10 years ago.… Continue reading

A note on hypocrisy

This is a long-standing pet peeve of mine. Many people, and most noticeably many journalists, do not seem to have a clear understanding of what hypocrisy is. To keep things simple, let’s go with the everyday definition of hypocrisy as “saying one thing, while doing another.” This is fine, except that it’s important, when accusing people of hypocrisy, to pay careful attention to what they are saying. In particular, it is important to pay careful attention to the distinction between what people would like the general rule to be, and what their preferences over their own actions are, given the existing rules. (Viktor Vanberg and James Buchanan introduced the term “constitutional preferences” and “action preferences” to distinguish the two, which is maybe not the best terminology, but their discussion of the distinction is invaluable.)

Let me give a concrete example. I was reading a little article the other day about Bill Gates’s five favorite books of 2014.… Continue reading

Oil prices: is this what the endgame looks like?

If there’s one conference that’s been generating a lot of talk lately, it was the “stranded assets” conference held a couple weeks ago in Toronto for investors, sponsored by Suncor and Royal Bank. I wasn’t able to make it, but more and more I’m wishing I had. The “stranded assets” concept has to do with the fact that, right now, proven fossil fuel reserves are about four times larger than what we can safely burn (i.e. without causing dangerous climate change). So roughly 3/4 of the world’s current, proven oil reserve are “unburnable carbon.” As a result, oil extraction has now become something like a giant game of musical chairs, where everyone wants to get as much out of the ground as they can before the music stops. For investors, the issue is important because the stock valuation of the big oil companies suggests that investors are still valuing these reserves as though they will all be extracted and sold.… Continue reading

The Economist drops tiny truth bomb

One of the things that I look forward to in The Economist is that they have a little “Canada beat” with usually one article per issue on something that’s been going on here. It’s never something that I don’t already know the details of. What is interesting is just hearing an outsider’s perspective. Sometimes what’s interesting is seeing what people outside the country consider the biggest news story going on here. Often, however, what’s interesting is that they describe events in ways that Canadians never would, because we’re too wrapped up in things, or because our own national discourse is somewhat distorted. (For example, The Economist will typically describe the Liberal Party of Canada as a centre-left party, or even just a left-wing party, because any party that is, on most issues, to the left of the U.K. Labour Party strikes them as appropriately designated “left-wing.” Canadians, by contrast, tend to situate the national political parties by comparing them to one another.)

Anyhow, I got a chuckle this week, when they chose to describe the federal government’s income-splitting proposal in the following terms:

The prime minister, Stephen Harper, defends traditional family values and recently announced tax incentives for women to look after their kids at home.

Continue reading

Bad arguments against capitalism, vol. 1

Most of us have probably heard, over the years, an enormous number of arguments against capitalism. This is not all that surprising. Looking around, it’s easy to find irrationality and waste in the way that our economy is organized. But turning this into an argument for wholesale change in the system – as opposed to just an argument for regulation and readjustment – is much more difficult. Because in order to argue that “the system” needs to go, you need to be able to provide at least some reason to think that some imagined alternative system is going to be better.

And yet lots of people ignore this obligation. There are many egregious examples of this, with Naomi Klein’s recent book being a typical example. (It’s a 500+ page denunciation of capitalism, without any serious attempt to explain what the alternative is supposed to look like.)

On the other hand, the way that economists have presented the basic argument for capitalism, over the past half century, has tended to invite this style of criticism.… Continue reading

Evolution of a sound bite

A while back, Barack Obama made a speech in which he said the following:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me—because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own… If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

Here a link to the video for anyone who wants to watch it again (Fox News ran it hundreds of times, and spent literally hours discussing its import). The quote became kind of famous, because the word “that” in the penultimate sentence is ambiguous. If you want to make sense of what Obama said, then the natural reading is that “that” refers to the “roads and bridges” of the previous sentence, making it a truism.… Continue reading