Home > Economics - General > Non sequitur (Crossposted at CT)

Non sequitur (Crossposted at CT)

January 9th, 2007

In the Monday Message Board, Michael Greinecker points to a truly strange response to arguments for a zero rate of social time preference.

Crucial quote

I found myself becoming very curious whether economists who support Sir Nicholas’s social discount rate of zero, such as econ bloggers John Quiggin and Brad DeLong, identify themselves as pro-choice or pro-life, and whether they had considered the Stern Report from this angle.

My response has been anticipated by a commenter who observes

Strange as it may seem to Economist writers, there are phenomena in the world that aren’t particularly illuminated by applying economic concepts. Attitudes towards abortion have nothing at all to do with discounting rates.

Others in the comments thread spell this out.

One odd feature of the Economist blog is that contributions are anonymous. I know that Megan McArdle (aka Jane Galt) has something to with the site. While I’m used to pseudonymous commenters, most economics bloggers are (as Matt Yglesias puts it) proudly eponymous, or at least easily identified, and I find this a more satisfactory mode for arguing about issues like the Stern Review, though can’t exactly say why.

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  1. guthrie
    January 10th, 2007 at 04:49 | #1

    I suggest it is better and easier arguing with people who have one real name and stick to it. It suggests something more permanent than a whimsical name, and suggests also that they have a real life somewhere. People like names, why do you think we have them.

  2. January 10th, 2007 at 21:35 | #2

    It is customary to have at least two names. A first name and a surname.

  3. gordon
    January 11th, 2007 at 08:56 | #3

    The abortion argument in the Economist is quite amazing, but not surprising given that the anonymous Economist blogger is American, and Americans take abortion so very, very seriously. Far more seriously than attacking foreign countries and causing havoc among the already hatched, which they do without a second thought. Far more seriously than depriving civilians of civil rights and torturing them, which they also regularly do. Far more seriously than spending fortunes on military equipment and “security” rather than on medical and other social infrastructure which would help both present and future generations stay alive. But abortion, now there’s a really important moral issue…

  4. O6
    January 11th, 2007 at 10:33 | #4

    Abortion is always the result of a failure somewhere else in the social system, never a triumph. Even abortion of a foetus that would otherwise have been a human who never achieved any semblance of normal humanity (e.g. Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome). If a 19th century medico had a patient with TB, s/he didn’t regard that person’s death from TB as a medical triumph, even though the dead patient wouldn’t infect anyone else from the grave. It’s this aspect of abortion that makes it hard to defend, I think, even though there is (disputed) evidence that abortion as ‘late stage contraception’ prevents the growing up of lots of unwanted, socially deprived young people.
    So it’s hard to be happy about a high incidence of abortion, even if one is basically in favour of abortion on request and a woman’s right not to have a baby. And complacency would as usual be foolish.

  5. KY Choong
    January 11th, 2007 at 21:03 | #5

    Re: The economic (ethical?) case for/against climate change measures …

    I too found the Economist comment rather odd. I would have thought that the Stern assumption on inter-generational equity more directly calls into question our view on intra-generational equity.

    That said, I don’t know if Stern’s choice of the social discount rate can be seen as a purely “economic concept” free from moral judgement. As Mr Quiggin’s paper pointed out, the Stern model rests on a theory of utility which, if I understand it correctly, assumes that it is desirable (“efficient” would be the term preferred by the Productivity Commission) to maximise aggregate utility. This in turn, if I understand Amartya Sen in “Inequality Re-examined” correctly, assumes an ethical system in which everyone’s utility is given equal value.

    It would be interesting to consider what the case for investing in climate change measures would be if the Stern Review had sought, not inter-generational equity in respect of utility, but inter-generational equity in respect of “capability” (i.e., the freedom to achieve well-being), which is what I assume Amartya Sen would argue for. As the case of the United States reminds us, even the wealthiest country on earth is not free from poverty. In that sense, Nordhaus’ view that future generations are less deserving of the current generation’s sympathy because they (i.e., the future generation) will be far more wealthy fails to consider whether a future generation would have equal capacity to achieve a level of well-being that the current generation takes for granted.

    It’s remarkable how many interesting (and difficult) issues the Stern Review throws up for consideration!

  6. Majorajam
    January 12th, 2007 at 02:02 | #6

    The abortion argument is ill considered. Of the reasons given by women (and men) for the right to abortion, a lesser value of the fetus’ future consumption is not one. That does not however mean that (more sophisticated) economic arguments for legal abortion don’t exist. These include but may not be limited to the social implications of driving underground behavior that cannot be easily monitored (I read a while back that Brazil had the highest abortion rate despite the fact it was illegal), the effect on social function of heavy handed government interference in private affairs, (tends to be a slippery slope), and the effect on social welfare of unwanted/abandoned children.

    By contrast, anti-abortion advocates tend to argue the veracity of their position strictly from the point of view that the potential for life of these fetus’s is sacred. On that basis, the fairer question is to ask those who simultaneously oppose abortion and any preventative action on global warming how they rectify these beliefs. As it is it would appear their compassion for life ebbs rapidly at their electricity bill.

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