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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Curious Case of Senate Filibuster

Gatto Mimmo in preda al panico by Maccio Capatonda from flickr (CC-NC-SA)
American Constitution states as clearly as it ever states anything, that to pass a law majorities of House and Senate are required, and doesn't know anything about filibuster process - this silly Senate regulation in which 60 votes are required to even bring anything to final voting.

And it would be so easy to get rid of such rule - mere 50+VP majority in Senate can change Senate procedures. Even more curiously - it would clearly be in interest of the majority party - be them Republicans or Democrats - to get rid of such silly rule. The argument that they might want to keep it for the future, as they might end up in minority later is obviously wrong, as your Democratic/Republican Senate keeping filibuster doesn't do anything to stop the next Republican/Democratic Senate from abolishing it.

Persistence of such major non-Constitutional feature which clearly favors the minority party is extremely curious.

Voting Power

The mystery will be resolved soon. For now let's step aside for a moment and imagine a Parliament of a fictional European country with four parties - Armadillo Party, Bear Party, Cat Party, and Dog Party, with 45%, 45%, 6%, and 4% representation in their Parliament. As it's a fictional country, let's assume perfect party discipline, and simple majority required to pass anything. How important are the parties?

Furry Friday Kitten by Four Doxn from flickr (CC-NC-ND)

Naively looking at their statistics, it would seem that Armadillo and Bear parties should be vastly more important than Cat Party, which should be just slightly more important than the Dog Party. This is entirely wrong. To pass anything you need one of the following sets on board:
  • Armadillo Party and Bear Party
  • Armadillo Party and Cat Party
  • Bear Party and Cat Party
The Cat Party with its 6% of vote has as much power as Armadillo and Bear parties with 45% each! And Dog Party with its 4% has no power whatsoever - its support makes no difference for whether a bill will pass or not!
Armadillo Year by Mr. Ducke from flickr (CC-NC)

This highly counterintuitive result is mathematized as two "power indexes" - Banzhaf power index and Shapley-Shubik power index. They differ in minor details, but basically they tell you how important are different players in a complex voting system.

Now there's important caveat with voting power indexes - they assume interests of parties are entirely independent - Armadillo Party is as likely to agree with Bear Party as with Cat Party as with Dog Party - something which is not true in the real world at all. No see why it is important imagine a Bear-Cat coalition - having 51% of votes together they have 100% of power, while Armadillo and Dog Parties become entirely irrelevant. Why wouldn't Bear and Cat Parties want to start one? Mostly because coalition victories won't do you any good if you don't agree with other coalition members. Bears might push for taxpayer subsidies for honey production, something that Cats would much rather not have - and could shut down the idea together with Armadillos if they weren't in this silly Bear-Cat coalition. Increased coalition's voting power is usually countered by having to vote for things coalition wants that you're not terribly enthusiastic about.

Anyway, let's look at American system, both as its specified in the Constitution, and as it works with the filibuster. USA is no Europe, so we cannot assume any Party discipline - let's go further and assume every Representative's and every Senator's votes are entirely uncorrelated. This isn't true for many issues which follow left-right party lines, but is very much so for the highly essential pork barrel spending and other things they do for lobbyists in exchange for campaign contributions. The only exception to the independence rule I'm going to make is assuming that Vice-President always does what the President tells him to, and is no independent actor. If there were any votes in history in which they disagreed, I'd like to know about it.

Assuming I coded it right, Shapley-Shubik voting powers of the President, individual Senators, and individual Representatives in Constitutional system are 16.66%, 0.391%, and 0.102% respectively - president is worth almost 43 Senators, and a Senator is worth 3.8 Representatives. By the way that's why elections for President - supposedly "executive" function - focus primarily much on legislative issues. American President has large levels of control over legislative and judiciary branches of government, in addition to his executive responsibilities - as extremely unhealthy concentration of power.

Now with filibuster, the situation changes drastically - President's power drops to 9.115%, Senators' powers increase to 0.716%, and Representatives' plummet all the way to 0.044%. Now President is worth only 12.7 Senators as opposed to previous 43 - and more what's even important - each Senator is worth over 16 Representatives!

Numbers are considerably different with Banzhaf index - it's 3.996%, 0.295%, 0.153% Constitutionally and 2.468%, 0.564%, 0.094% with filibuster - but the story is the same - filibuster greatly increases Senator's powers. Knowing that it's not terribly surprising that Senators are not too eager to abolish filibuster - they would be giving away a lot of influence with it!

This result might be surprising at first, but there's straightforward intuition behind it - if there are multiple requirements for a law to pass - the one which is most difficult determines the process - Constitutionally passage in House and in Senate are equally difficult, giving each of them equal powers - but if Senate decides to make passage harder - it will be very unlikely for any bill to have 60% support in Senate without also accidentally having at least 50% in the House.

State Size

But wait - there is more! Small states are massively over-represented in Senate, while having only fair representation is House of Representatives. By unduly strengthening the Senate, filibuster increases power of small states. By how much? As situation becomes a bit too difficult for exact methods, I ran a quick Monte-Carlo simulation of Shapley-Shubik voting powers, assuming all states vote as blocks - so we have 50 states voting, each with 2 Senate votes and some number of House votes; plus independent President.

Constitutionally President has 14.88% power in such case, the most populous state California 8.08%, while the least populous states with one Representative like Wyoming has 0.79%. That's a huge unfair and undemocratic overrepresentation already - California has 69x the population of Wyoming, but merely 10x as much power. With filibuster it gets far far worse - President's power drops to 9.49% - not surprisingly since more of it goes to Senate, but now the difference between California and Wyoming is merely 5.10% to 1.34% - 3.8x. Californians are underrepresented relative to Wyomingites by a factor of 18x. Not terribly democratic, is it? Actually I'd love to discuss the point that less democratic systems like American are not in any obvious way less effective at solving real world problems than more democratic systems like let's say German - but let's leave that for another post.

Even if you're from a small state, you shouldn't be getting too happy - small state Senators are the most corrupt members of Congress, and the baseline isn't terribly good either. There's the usual disclaimer that power indexes refer to idealized situation in which everyone votes independently from everyone else - which describes pork barrel spending and miscellaneous lobbying much better than it describes issues of economy or abortion. Still, let's not be as naive as Al Gore about the Senate - if this lobbyist-infested place couldn't even get popular, life-saving, deficit-reduring, and sensible from every other possible point of view public option, what are the chances of it passing expensive and unpopular climate bill which will only benefit some Bangladeshis decades from now? Nobel Prize offers no protection from wishful thinking.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Misunderstanding statistical significance

Fumer nuit gravement à votre santé. by Ségozyme from flickr (CC-NC-ND)

People are natural cargo cultists - they (I'm saying "they" as I'm secretly a cat - just don't tell anyone) have natural tendency to focus too much on superficial characteristics - if something is good, everything vaguely associated with it must be good too! Or if something is bad, everything vaguely associated with it must be bad. So as people got into their heads once that Soviet Union and its "socialism" were "bad", everything "socialist" must be "bad" - like single payer healthcare, financial system regulations, and minimum wages. Never mind that even the basic premise is wrong, as performance of Communist economies was fairly decent, and as research says, Soviet growth performance was actually slightly above the global average in the period 1960-89, at 2.4 percent per year. Eastern Europe's growth was somewhat lower than USA's, Western Europe's, or Japan's, but it managed to beat by huge margins growth in capitalist countries of Latin America, South Asian, or even UK for that matter. Not to mention China vs India, or spectacularly good performance of the "socialist" Scandinavia. Or how pre-Reagan socialist USA was much better off economically than after Reaganite revolution.

Anyway, science. Two practices of science get fetishized to a nauseating degree. They are peer review and statistical significance. I cringe every time some (let's generously say "misinformed") person says that peer review is somehow central to science, and something being "peer reviewed" is somehow evidence of quality. The only thing peer review does is enforcing standards of whichever field the research is in. For example while Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought peer-reviews its articles, I doubt they're worth that much more than Youtube comments. And creationists have their own peer-reviewed journals too! And in spite of widespread use of peer review, there's very little evidence that its variations affect quality in any way.

Most disciplines are not as bad as Mormon theology or young-Earth creationism, but standards of the field have nothing to do with solid science. First, there's a problem of entirely arbitrary standards which simply waste everybody's time like this and various incompatible citation rules:
I remember when I first started writing on economics, I was scolded for formatting my papers in a two-column, single-spaced format.  While that format was common in computer science, to be taken seriously in economics a paper must be formatted as single-column, double-spaced.

But all academics eventually learn those. A much greater problem than these time-wasters are standards which are actively harmful, like...

Statistical significance

Probably the single biggest problem of science is appalling quality of statistical analysis. As a funny anecdote, I remember back at the University when I had to go through a bunch of database optimization papers - which implemented various performance hacks, and measured how well they do - and more often than not they did it on completely bogus data generated just for this case. If you spend even five seconds thinking about it, it's obviously wrong - all non-trivial optimizations highly depend on characteristics of data access patterns, and differences in results are many orders of magnitude. But for one reason or another using realistic data never got to be part of "good" database optimization research.

For one historical reason or another, almost all science got affected by obsession with "statistical significance". Typical research goes as follows:
  • Gather data
  • Throw data at some statistical package
  • Keep tweaking "hypothesis" until you get "statistically significant" answer, and send for publication
  • If no "statistically significant" answers are obtained, usually forget about the entire thing, or maybe send for publications anyway and hope it gets accepted
  • Watch people misinterpret "statistically significant" as "almost certainly true" and "not statistically significant" as "almost certainly false"
But of course, "statistically significant" results are false very often. Assuming perfectly run research, which is never true, 95% statistical significance only guarantees at most 1 false positive per 20 tested hypotheses (well, independent hypotheses, but let's skip complications here). So if you tweaked your hypothesis 50 times in your statistical package, your "significant" results are very likely to be wrong. Then according to established scientific practice you can publish a paper claiming that "broccoli reduces risk of cancer in Asian women aged 40-49 (p<0.05)", "global warming causes malaria (p<how dare you question Al Gore)", or somesuch.

Still, that's nothing compared with uselessness of something being "not statistically significant". Even otherwise smart people routinely misinterpret it as "with high probability not true". If so, let me start a study in which I will take wallets of randomly selected half of 10 such people, and we'll measure if there's any statistically significant reduction of wealth from me taking their wallets. Double blinded and all! And as science will prove no statistically significant reduction relative to control group, which court would dare to question science and convict me for doing so?

While false positives - wrongly rejecting null hypothesis - can come from either bad luck, or bad study; false negatives - not rejecting wrong null hypothesis - can come from either of those, or from insufficient sample size relative to effect strength. How strong would the effect need to be?

Let's get back to the smoking trial:
A randomised controlled trial of anti-smoking advice in 1445 male smokers, aged 40-59, at high risk of cardiorespiratory disease. After one year reported cigarette consumption in the intervention group (714 men) was one-quarter that of the “normal care” group (731 men); over 10 years the net reported reduction averaged 53%. The intervention group experienced less nasal obstruction, cough, dyspnoea, and loss of ventilatory function.

During the next 20 years there were 620 deaths (231 from coronary heart disease), 96 cases of lung cancer, and 159 other cancers. Comparing the intervention with the normal care group, total mortality was 7% lower, fatal coronary heart disease was 13% lower, and lung cancer (deaths+registrations) was 11% lower.

Which is not statistically significant. And some libertarian will surely use it to "prove" that smoking is perfectly fine, and it's all government conspiracy to mess in people's lives.

But what were the changes of getting statistically significant results? For clarity let's skip all statistical complications and do it the most brutal possible way, and even make both groups the same size. Control group size 720, intervention group size 720, true chance of death in control group 45%, true chance in intervention group 42% (7% reduction in mortality) - we just don't know it yet. Statistical significance levels 95%. So control group had 95% chance of getting between 298 and 343 deaths (I'll skip the issue of one-sided and two-sided tests of significance as the entire idea is highly offensive to Bayesians). Chance of intervention group having fewer deaths than 298 - merely 38%. So assuming entirely implausibly that this 1440-person-strong 20-year study was perfectly run, there's be 62% chance that the results will be worthless because 1440 people is very far from enough. Except as maybe fodder for a meta-analysis.

By the way reduction is merely 7% as what was studied was "trying to convince people to stop smoking". Most people wouldn't be convinced or would relapse; and many in control group would stop smoking on their own.

Anyway, how many people would we need for study with 45% and 42% death rates groups to have less than 5% chance of both false positive (conditional on null hypothesis being true) and false negative (conditional on null hypothesis being false)? 3350 in each group, or 7100 altogether. And that was smoking - the biggest common health risk we know. How many people would we need if we studied normal-risk people, let's say 10% death rates during study time, and levels of relative risks typical for diet/lifestyle intervention, let's say 1%? Two times 1.2M, or 2.4M people. More than the entire population of Latvia. And that's before you consider how highly non-random are dropouts from such studies, and how they will swamp out any results we would get. And any double-blindness here?

In all likelihood, we will never get any data about effects of this kind of interventions. Science will have no idea if fish oil cures cancer, vegetables lower risk of obesity, or if organic is better for you than non-organic.

Hammy the Hamster tries organic food
The only thing we will have will be lower quality indirect studies with highly ambiguous interpretations, which we might actually have to accept. That, and misunderstandings of statistical significance.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Libertarianism is externality denialism

...non fidarsi è meglio - my scared cat / gatto by Paolo Màrgari from flickr (CC-NC-ND)
Yesterday I wrote about libertarian blogosphere, skimming 5 posts each from what is supposedly top 20 libertarian blogs.

There seems to have been quite a few angry reactions, which I will partially address in this post.


All ways of discussing politics are flawed, and so was the method I used. But it was hopefully flawed in a different way. It was a methodological experiment.

As my attitude towards libertarianism is not difficult to figure out, I tried to limit my bias by relying on someone else's list of top libertarian blogs, and use transparent selection procedure. At first I wanted to just take the most recent 5 posts from each blog, but there were too many link-only posts, personal stuff, meta-information, and such, which I believed would only introduce noise to the results. I didn't establish clean-cut criteria for selecting which posts qualify for inclusion, so a few decisions might have been somewhat dubious. It's inevitable when something new is tried, and I don't think it affects the results significantly. From one of the comments:
I can only assume that a certain amount of skimming was involved in garnering your links as it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that smoking would feature high. Freedom2Choose is a grass roots pro-choice organisation, set up with the express purpose of opposing bans on lifestyle choices (and before you follow the usual line - no, no funding except from working class members who are angry about the increasing restrictions and bans). The subject would therefore be naturally prominent. The Frank Davis blog was set up expressly in anger at the smoking ban (the clue is the fact that his sub-title is "Banging on about the smoking ban"), and seeing as libertarians oppose authoritarianism, and that the UK ban is as authoritarian a policy as we have seen recently, of course it's going to figure.

I assume the top 20 list is representative of libertarian blogosphere. Pro-smoking articles appeared on 4 different blogs on this list, so it's not accidental inclusion of just one or two smoking-centric blogs. And unlike with climate change which is in news right now, and therefore overrepresented, nothing new is happening that's related to smoking, so I doubt this is an artifact - smoking seems to be quite solidly one of the big libertarian subjects.

Externality denialism

One thing which I observed in both original posts, and in feedback comments I got was persistent denial of existence of externalities.

This is economics 101 diagram of any economic activity - a firm produces a product, which it gives to consumer for their money. Both production and consumption have some external costs and benefits, which they impose on others regardless of their wishes.

Libertarians are really uncomfortable with economics - at least with anything resembling modern science - they sure have their own folk version of it. They pretend that red part of the diagram doesn't exist. The thinking seems to be something like:
  • I feel that governments are always and without exceptions evil
  • If externalities existed, governments would actually be useful
  • So I won't believe in existence of externalities

It starts with values, and ends with statement about reality, as if the nature cared about your values. It is of course logically invalid, but humans are extremely prone to this kind of rationalizations.

Disregarding artificial controversy influenced to large extent by industrial interests (tobacco industry was the leader of this, and this is extremely well documented), science is quite sure about existence of health risks of second hand smoking, anthropogenic climate change, and such. And equally real is plain irritation of non-smokers due to people smoking in their faces. But these facts are very uncomfortable to libertarian position, so you can find arguments like these:
You will also not find one of those posts disputing the link between smoking and cancer. Passive smoking and cancer, yes, simply for the reason that there are hugely more studies showing it to be a construct of the hysterical anti-smoking lobby shilling for the superrich pharmaceutical companies (thought you were against such things?). That debate is nowhere near over as many would have you believe.

Not one post I have read on any of the aforementioned blogs talks of non-smokers being denied the right 'not to have smoke blown in their faces'.

The fact that you use the phrase "climate change denial" shows that you believe the AGW hypothesis. Fair enough. However, if you do not believe the hypothesis (or think that it is pretty darn suspect) then cap-and-trade—for all its internalising of externalities—is a total nonsense because CO2 does not do damage to the environment (in fact, it's actively beneficial because it helps trees and plants grow). Do you see?
They not only disagree with particular solutions, such as smoking bans, or cap&trade - but deny existence of externalities in the first place.

Externalities and the Pigou Club

The mainstream economic position is that externalities are not only real but very important, and the best way to deal with them is internalizing them, usually by appropriate taxes or subsidies, or mostly equivalent ways such as cap&trade, which strangely some consider Pigovian, and some don't:

While Pigovian taxes are economically-preferred way to deal with externalities, they're not the only way and that's due to the second big concept which libertarians pretend doesn't exist - transaction costs.

Transaction costs

Now I'll get quite far away from the main subject. Smoking is harmful to others, but amount of harm depends on circumstances - smoking in your own home without anyone around is less harmful than smoking inside a train filled with people. Standard Pigovian solution would be taxing different contexts of smoking at different levels, but such scheme would be highly impractical.

Driving is also harmful to others - not only due to greenhouse gases emissions and straightforward pollution, but also because of traffic congestion it generates. Taxing driving on a rural road differently from driving in rush hours in Central London would be a good idea, and it would also be highly impractical. This is actually attempted in spite of impracticality, and very high costs of running the system with the scheme barely breaking even if capital costs are included.

So every now and then economic analysis would advise doing something more brutal than just taxation - like an outright smoking ban in public places, ban on leaded gasoline, or my favourite ban on leaded solders. Sometimes no realistic method of Pigovian taxation can be implemented, and so direct regulation is necessary.

Standard anti-Pigovian arguments

Mankiw described 4 basic reasons why someone could be against Pigovian Taxation in a logical flowchart.
1. You deny the existence of these externalities as a type of market failure. Perhaps you think you live in a Coasian fantasy world where people bargain without transaction costs to reach efficient allocations. (Note: I am not suggesting that Coase himself thought we lived in such a world—he considered it only a useful thought experiment.)

2. You recognize the externalities but you don’t think the government should try to respond to them. You are such a believer in small government that you are willing to live with inferior economic outcomes, such as pollution and congestion.
3. You recognize the externalities, think the government should try to correct them, but think the current low taxes we put on gasoline are sufficient. In this case, you have weighed and rejected the evidence, such as that of Parry and Small, that higher Pigovian would be optimal. (Parry and Small calculate an optimal tax of $1.01 for the United States in today's dollars. After my proposed phase-in of a $1 hike, the U.S. tax would be $1.40. Assuming 10 years of 3 percent inflation, the tax in real terms would approach almost exactly what Parry and Small recommend. By the way, the published version of Parry and Small was in the American Economic Review, September 2005.)

4. You recognize the externalities but think the government should try to correct the market failure through regulations (such as CAFE standards) or through market-based solutions that do not raise government revenue (such as cap-and-trade systems). Perhaps you are concerned that government would waste the extra revenue on useless government programs.
It's definitely possible to make an intelligent case against Pigovian taxes, based on #2, #3, #4, or some more creative argument - here's one by Bryan Caplan, here's another by Arnold Kling. My problem is not libertarian conclusions (that internalizing externalities is bad), but that they take the #1 route of living in fantasy land in which externalities don't exist.

Back on-topic

I strayed quite far off-topic, but off-topic asides are as central to my blogging as cats. This extended writing on externalities is due to libertarian blogosphere's obsession with externality denial - climate and smoking posts together constitute 41% of all posts.

The second most popular subject is taxation - quite related to the first one, as the point of government is largely taxing and subsidizing in a way that corrects market failures, and running parts of the economy which market is particularly bad at running - such as police, healthcare, pensions, social security and such. And at least in Britain the train system, which seems private companies seems to be completely incapable of running compared to Deutsche Bahn or even TFL.

Now it's perfectly fine position to support lower or higher levels of taxation, deficits, or spending. But what libertarians care most about?
  • Lowering taxes on rich bankers, and other super-rich, even though their very jobs exist only thanks to taxpayers' bailouts. This increases deficits, which leads to...
  • lowering deficits by layoffs and pay cuts in public sector, reducing welfare payments and such.
And we end up with massive transfer of wealth from everyone else to the super-rich. If that's not shilling, what is it?

By the way I'm surprised that my post was misunderstood - I wasn't trying to find out if libertarian blogosphere is any good, but mainly what it writes about. My finding that I find it boring was coincidental.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Timing of peak CO2 emissions

Cat Conspiracy by Tjflex2 from flickr (CC-NC-ND)

I previously argued (1, 2, 3) that we can expect peak CO2 emissions around 2050. Copenhagen summit draft calls for peaking before 2020. Now it's not entirely impossible, but I would say it's quite unlikely.

Here's a quick list of my assumptions, and how timing of the peak, size of warming, and likelihood of geoengineering would change if they were wrong:
  • Economic development of poor countries - faster development means more emissions. As this is the main driver of energy demand for the next few decades in my analysis, much slower development of poor countries will indeed move the peak a lot earlier. The consequence of slower growth is economic genocide, and it's far worse than anything climate change could do, with or without geoengineering. It's not a theoretical possibility, economic genocide is happening right now.
  • Correctness of climate science - putting Climategate fraud accusations entirely aside, IPCC has ridiculously wide confidence intervals. Their A1 scenario which is closest to what I describe here expects likely temperature growth to be between 1.4C and 6.4C by 2010, and their likely means merely a 66% confidence interval. If you know anything about science, "95% confidence" turns out to be wrong more often than not, and these estimates are merely scenarios conditional on countless assumptions, not actual forecasts. So what IPCC is saying is essentially "it will get hotter, we have no idea whatsoever by how much". If warming turns out to be on the low end of IPCC estimates, we'll likely see slower adoption of technologies to reduce CO2 emissions, and no geoengineering. If warming turns out to be on the high end of IPCC estimates, we'll likely see faster adoption of emission-reducing technologies, and massive scale geoengineering will be as inevitable as I predict. This is not as relevant as it seems as timing of CO2 peak depends on decisions we'll make in the next few decades, long before we find out 2100's warming.
  • Technological progress - faster technological progress can result in lower emissions. If we get breakthroughs in cheap solar energy, battery technology, algae biofuels and such, it might result in much faster peak, maybe even before 2020. But I wouldn't rely on this, a lot of money was spent on these technologies and progress has been slow - what we need is not just some incremental progress which we'll undoubtedly see, but huge breakthroughs and really fast.
  • Multicentric world - if we had a world government, we could just take a vote, set up whichever emission caps or taxes we wished, problem solved. If we had a small number of important powers like we do now, we could get them to agree on some flawed solution. But the world seems to be evolving towards multicentricity - right now only US, EU, and China matter, plus maybe Japan, India, and Russia a bit - but in the future other countries will probably count a lot too - and the more players you have, the harder it will be to reach meaningful agreement.
  • Economic development of rich countries - CO2 emissions per capita don't increase significantly past certain level of income, so it won't matter much either way.
  • Demographic growth - faster growth means more emissions, but uncertainty about 2050 population isn't that high, so it can only have modest effect.
  • Attitude towards nuclear energy - if people become more supportive of nuclear energy, it will reduce CO2 emissions somewhat.
  • Policy of US, China, India, and the entire developing world - matters a lot, as they are current and future main emitters, they have a lot of demographic and/or economic growth ahead, and it's highly uncertain what their policies will be.
  • Policy of EU - matters very little, as EU is already highly efficient for GDP it has, has little economic or demographic growth, and it can be relied on to do further reductions no matter what others will do.


And regardless of those, the most important factor is politics - global warming is a very unusual situation in which not only everybody's emissions affect everybody equally (straightforward externality / tragedy of commons), but also everybody's current emissions only affect people living in far future. We're asking for 2009's Americans to make significant sacrifices for the sake of 2100's Bangladeshis. 3000's Bangladeshis even, as IPCC says that "anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will continue to contribute to warming and sea level rise for more than a millennium".

Let's take an outside view, and make a reference class forecast - in situations in which current sacrifices of people living in one country could make a difference to people living in entirely unrelated country a century ahead - how often were the sacrifices made? To the best of my knowledge the answer is a reliable never. It just doesn't happen. If one country like EU now (and to not that significant extent) were to sacrifice money to limit its emissions, others would just take advantage of cheaper fossil fuels due to reduced demand and burn more of it.

In theory a global carbon emission market could be established, but good luck getting everyone to agree on allocation of emission rights, or income from their sales. The more severe the cuts, the more expensive will emission rights get, and the worse will the fight be. If we allocate most rights to rich countries, poor countries will correctly complain that it hinders their economic development. If we allocate most rights to poor countries, it will amount to massive transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor, and good luck getting voters to agree to that.

We're talking about tens of trillions of dollars. It's not a metaphor, just the proposed American system is estimated to be valued $80bln / year - $80bln times 40 years and 5x (world emissions / American emissions), it will be worth $16 trillion, and growing as supply gets restricted and demand grows due to economic development. How will these tens of trillions of dollars in either emission rights or auction profit receipts be allocated? Yes, good luck with that.

The alternative is not caring about greenhouse gases emissions, and geo-engineering the temperature growth away if need be.

What is libertarianism - blog edition

sparky by gadgetgirl from flickr (CC-NC-ND)
Usually when people talk about politics, they use language of good and evil. So if you ask an American "liberal", "conservatives" are stupid, bigoted shills for the super-rich willing to destroy the planet and kill people home and abroad in name of some short term profits.

And if you ask an American "conservative", "liberals" are baby-murderers who destroy economy by excessive taxation, overregulation, useless spending, and huge budget deficits.

Some of these accusations are valid, some are nonsense, in many cases politicians from both sides are equally guilty. And it's not a uniquely American phenomenon - in most countries people's levels of rationality reach their lows when discussion turn to politics. This isn't really intellectually satisfying.

Another way to talk politics is what Tyler Cowen's has done in his series of posts about progressivism, conservatism, transhumanism, and then some others like Leigh Caldwell's about libertarianism etc. The idea is to describe a political view as a list of beliefs, about which all sides can agree that Xers believe in them and non-Xers don't, without taking sides on their truth-value.

One problem with this approach is that it has no way of distinguishing core values of an ideology from insignificant baggage that grew around it due to historical processes. Is opposition to gay marriage central to conservatism or fairly irrelevant? How important is public option to liberals? These are interesting questions.

Blog edition

So I wanted to try something else - figuring out what some political ideology is based on what its adherents blog about. It is in a way a fairly objective standard - assuming we can figure out a list of top blogs from some perspective, and that we can categorize posts' subjects in a unbiased way, every analysis should reach similar conclusions regardless of analyst's views.

I took the following list of "Top 20 Libertarian blogs", with top 5 posts ignoring extremely short ones which just link somewhere else, and other funny/unrelated posts. List is very UK-centric, but it doesn't matter.
  1. Guido Fawkes
  2. Devil's Kitchen
  3. Old Holborn
  4. Obnoxio the Clown
  5. Underdogs Bite Upwards
  6. Tim Worstall
  7. Samizdata
  8. Boatang & Demetriou
  9. Dick Puddlecote
  10. LPUK Blog
  11. Last Ditch
  12. Constantly Furious
  13. Anna Raccoon
  14. Freedom to Choose
  15. Rantin' Rab
  16. Plato Says
  17. Charles Crawford
  18. An Englishman's Castle
  19. Frank Davis
  20. Oxford Libertarian Society

And the winner is...

I'm actually surprised by the most popular subject - climate change denial. 20% of posts (++++++++++++++++++++) deal either deny climate change or are skeptical about it, which in most cases just denial without balls. Further 12% (++++++++++++) are about Copenhagen summit or environment without being obviously denialist. It's really surprising, as global cap-and-trade system would be the best test case of how well libertarian / free market solutions can deal with problems of externalities, so naively libertarians should be extremely enthusiastic about it - and in any case there's no obvious reason why political ideology should have so much influence over question which is essentially apolitical - temperature changes.

Shilling for the superrich

The second most popular subject doesn't surprise - it's good old shilling for the rich. 10% of posts (++++++++++) were against taxing the rich, or regulating salaries and bonuses in taxpayer-bailed-out banks. Because owners' right to regulate management salaries ends the moment the owner is government. Related 4% of posts (++++) are generic anti-tax posts - but it's quite clear which taxes anger libertarians the most.

A surprise third most popular subject...

I sort of expected climate change to be popular, as Climategate and Copenhagen summit are in the news right now, but this one baffled me. It turns out the third most popular subject with 9% of posts (+++++++++) is smoking - with posts either opposing public places smoking bans (what about "rights" of non-smokers not to have smoke blown in their faces?), or even expressing skepticism about links between smoking and cancer.

The long tail

Further categories don't suprise. 5% (+++++) are offensive posts without much content - something you can expect in political blogs. 4% (++++) are anti-EU rants, 3% are (+++) culture wars / political correctness rants, further 3% (+++) are about budget deficits; copyright (++), religion (++), new media (++), and UK politics (++) get 2% each. There was a single post about each of: discrimination in Iraq (+), gold standard (+), Twitter (+), modern art (+), quality of mainstream media (+), regulation of banking (+), NHS (+), science (+), UK voting by mail (+), forced labour (+), Gordon Brown's typos (+), privacy (+), family law (+) natural rights (+), anarchy (+) Kosovo (+), and public funding of festivals (+) - all expressing the positions you'd expect. There was one pro-Iraq war post (+), one against ideology in politics (+) - notice the irony, and one posts each about Tiger Woods (+), Sarah Palin (+), and Ludwig von Mises (+). The libertarians' favourity shitty book writer Ayn Rand is strangely missing from the list.


I read a lot of blogs with which I disagree, but they tend to be high quality and quite insightful. So my contempt for libertarianism doesn't automatically mean I wouldn't find at least some good libertarian posts - Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson are fairly libertarian, and they're both in my RSS. But the posts I've seen were just so bad that of 100 I've checked I cannot point a single one that had any new insights or was interesting in any way. Few even pass basic sanity tests - not just by being contrarian - contrarian posts are much more interesting to read than ones that repeat the conventional wisdom - but by simply not having any idea what they write about.