Home > Economics - General > The Onion meets Poe’s Law — Crooked Timber

The Onion meets Poe’s Law — Crooked Timber

February 18th, 2011

A little while ago, my son pointed me to a news item in a periodical called The Onion, reporting Republican opposition to an Obama proposal to protect the earth against destruction by asteroid impact. The usual libertarian arguments were advanced, pointing out that everyone would be forced to pay for this protection, thereby undermining the incentive to act for themselves.

At the time, I was suspicious that this might be some sort of satirical gag[1]. But now I see the proposal being discussed, and rejected, at the very serious Volokh blog (H/T Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias).

So, based on my extensive agnotological studies, let me make some predictions about some of the scientific claims we are likely to see advanced (by the same people, but at different times), once the debate over Obama’s socialist plan hots up.

  • Asteroids don’t exist
  • The law of gravity means that an impact between an asteroid and the earth is physically impossible
  • An asteroid would inevitably burn up in the atmosphere
  • In a quest for grant funding, NASA has fiddled the data on asteroid orbits to overstate the risk of a collision
  • Massive asteroids hit the earth all the time and nothing bad happens
  • Asteroid strikes are natural so environmentalists are hypocritical in opposing them
  • Al Gore is fat

The general point is that if some physical state of the world would require government action inconsistent with libertarian principles or conservative tribal taboos, then since libertarianism/conservatism is always right, logic dictates that the physical state in question must be impossible.

fn1. I’m susceptible enough that I believed DD when he said that Natalie Portman was starring in the movie version of Nassim Taleb’s book. I just went to see it, and, at the very least, the screenwriters took a lot of liberties with the text.

Posted via email from John’s posterous

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  1. Ikonoclast
    February 18th, 2011 at 21:39 | #1

    I’d call it Quiggin’s Law.

    “If some physical state of the world would require government action inconsistent with libertarian principles or conservative tribal taboos, then since libertarianism/conservatism is always right, logic dictates that the physical state in question must be impossible.”

    It satirises libertarian conservatism brilliantly.

  2. Donald Oats
    February 18th, 2011 at 21:54 | #2

    Yosemite is an asteroid crater and people live there, so asteroids don’t hurt people.

    We have asteroid craters in Australia and none of us heard it (when it hit), so it couldn’t have been that bad.

    Didn’t some guys show how a couple of small nukes could take out a comet or meteor or something – Bruce Willis was his name I think?

    Oil is made from plant and dinosaur guts, and an asteroid pasted them good; therefore, asteroids CREATE WEALTH! Why would we want to stop that?

    [PS: no attempt at factual accuracy has been made as ficts don't hurt people, only facts hurt people. Some philosopher said that.]

  3. Freelander
    February 18th, 2011 at 22:43 | #3

    @Ikonoclast

    Is that a satire? Seems a simple and true claim about libertarian thought processes. An implication of AGW is that their ideology fits less than perfectly with this reality. Having zealously invested so heavily in a belief in the supposed perfection of their ideology, AGW presents them with a choice – this universe and its ‘facts’ or their alternative universe and its whatever which is floating their boats.

    Likewise, you get some of the religious AGW deniers who have a problem because AGW is apparently inconsistent with their ideology concerning the nature of their ‘religion’ and nature of their ‘god’. They can be heard to dismiss AGW with: “The arrogance of man. As if man could change the climate; as if God would allow it.” (A Tower of Babel inspired refutation of AGW fact.)

    As for the asteroid problem. Again, for a true believer, an alternative is market to the rescue. Any problem with a threatening asteroid could be solved simply by defining property rights over the entity, placing it as the sole possession of an asteroid holding company, and then privatising the vehicle. Market forces would retard any deviant motion on a dangerous trajectory due to fear of litigation, potential diminution of the company’s market value, and the significant risk to the Director’s and Senior Executive’s annual performance bonuses.

  4. February 18th, 2011 at 23:07 | #4

    Well….

    * No massive asteroids hit the planet when Bush and Howard were running the place;

    * Even if this impact thing is real, which it isn’t, we need BAU because it is far better to adapt than mitigate;

    * Above all – none of these outcomes are rock-solid guaranteed. Until we are absolutely 100% certain, we must continue this excellent and open debate. We at News Ltd will give the planet the benefit of the doubt with our new “One Degree Of Something” campaign. Pick up your “Open Debate” bucket hat, aussie flag and T-shirt when you collect 5 coupons from our newly five-fold-increased-circulation Sunday Mail and pick up a free Scripture Union “Intelligently Designed Dinosaur” DVD (while stocks last!).

  5. hc
    February 19th, 2011 at 06:23 | #5

    Deflecting the asteroid is impossible with foreseeable technology so the likelihood of a hit that wipes out the human species reduces the value of human efforts to survive. We should therefore have a party, accept that we will all perish and ignore all concern.

    A variant. Consider an asteroid with 1 in 45000 chance of hitting earth before 2036 with damages of $500 billion and expected damages of $5 million. Spending $5 million would not cover NASA’s costs of a deflection program so the risk should be ignored.

    Sensible or sendup?

  6. Ikonoclast
    February 19th, 2011 at 07:12 | #6

    @Freelander

    It is a simple and true claim about libertarian thought. It is also a satire when coming from JQ’s pen. See Poe’s Law.

    http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Poe's_Law

  7. Hermit
    February 19th, 2011 at 08:16 | #7

    I’d like to know which Republican members of Congress have declined to accept salary payments because that’s socialism, kinda like national healthcare.

  8. Freelander
    February 19th, 2011 at 08:18 | #8

    @hc

    Maybe we could go for mitigation? If we know where it is going to hit we can move. NASA could turn the information into an earner. Before releasing the information, NASA could create more funding by playing the market in anticipation of the destruction. [The government could save on the justice budget. Move prisoners into the contact area? No, no. I didn't suggest that. Similarly, the US budget deficit could be solved by moving Social Security recipients. Or better still, move defense contractors and their lobbyists and the military? The downsizing options are myriad.]

    With enough prior warning deflection ought to be possible. It probably wouldn’t take much thrust from a rocket motor, if applied over a long time to deflect an asteroid safely. If that fails, Bruce Willis might be long in the tooth by then but I am sure Ben Affleck and Clint Eastwood would oblige.

  9. Fran Barlow
    February 19th, 2011 at 08:35 | #9

    @Megan

    Don’t forget:

    *asteroids have hit us in the past and they will hit us again. It’s all part of a natural cycle
    *We should focus on real dangers from space and this is a distraction
    *What about malaria?
    *Doesn’t Rajendra Pachauri have shares in an interstellar magic flying carpet business?
    *Didn’t Sir John Houghton say “we have to scare the public? Doesn’t this show that Frank Furedi’s fears of a nanny-state are well founded? Does anyone really want Mary Poppins fighting asteroids and if shew were really the achetype of a nanny state shouldn’t she be sugar-coating it?
    *in the future people will be richer and thus better placed to accept dying. The loss to them should be discounted since they will be better off than us.

  10. February 19th, 2011 at 08:42 | #10

    And we could demand that the Australian National Audit Office investigate NASA who have made all kind of non-random adjustments to their observations of the trajectory of the asteroid – http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2011/02/the_war_on_the_bureau_of_meteo.php.

    Don’t forget Fran “We don’t know the precise point at which the asteroid will hit the Earth, and it is a travesty that we don’t” and “I have added on the actual observations of the trajectory at the end in order to hide the decline in its orbit”.

  11. Jill Rush
    February 19th, 2011 at 08:43 | #11

    Dont forget
    * s**t happens
    * Chicken Little warned us.

    An amusing post on prophecy

  12. Fran Barlow
    February 19th, 2011 at 08:51 | #12

    @David Horton

    I don’t trust you for a second David. You’re probably just a relative of that other Houghton.

    More importantly, those NASA scientists have no idea. They are just boffins who could never get a real job. In between running my own independent business (and paying the gubbmint too much tax!!!!) I’ve long had a hobby looking at space through my telescope and I have to say, it looks just the same as it did when I was 10 — all dark and sparkly. Not a single asteroid anywhere.

    Now cosmic rays — that’s what you’ve got to worry about! Oh … and neutrinos. I think they might be turning me into a newt.

  13. Uncle Milton
    February 19th, 2011 at 10:05 | #13

    We shouldn’t pay for asteroid deflection unless others countries do too.

  14. Fran Barlow
    February 19th, 2011 at 11:16 | #14

    Quite right Uncle Milton. Think of the fugitive asteroid credits that we’d be giving to rivals. And do we really know that we won’t get an advantage if some competitor is relatively more disadvantaged by an asteroid strike?

    It could be a blessing.

  15. February 19th, 2011 at 11:20 | #15

    “Today, Prime Minister Gillard addressed a joint sitting of both houses of parliament and said: ‘I believe in asteroids. I believe that we need to let the market set a price on asteroid avoidance. That’s why my government is introducing an Asteroid Impact Reduction Scheme. To show how real this issue is, and how seriously we are taking it, we are subsidising think tanks hundreds of billions of dollars to bring to market an Asteroid Capture Sequestration and Storage system. The asteroid will be captured and sequestered in a black hole until it is rendered harmless. We are seeking tenders from the best qualified companies to undertake this exciting PPP.’”

    Mr Abbott said, “Great big new asteroid tax.”

  16. Fran Barlow
    February 19th, 2011 at 12:15 | #16

    @Megan

    Abbott also suggested that if elected, the opposition would house illegal boat people on the asteroid once it had been excised from Australia’s migration zone, proividing of course the boat people agreed to pay their own fares. Anything less, Abbott suggested, would amount to encouraging people to get onto risky boats and would be a boon to people (as opposed to budgie) smugglers .

    The Minerals Council welcomed the move but wanted to ensure that the mineral rights attaching to the asteroid were tax free and that people shipped there would be compelled to work for their members in exchange for board. We call it mutual obligation, said Mr Hooke. In the Congo, he said, they already work for tuppence a week and a ripe banana and we could lose our competitive edge.</

    The National Irrigators Lobby was quick to cotton onto the benefits saying that any water found on the asteroid whould be given to cotton and rice growers and added that they were glad that Mike Taylor had been punted. Barnaby Joyce said something about Gallileo but nobody could work out what it was. He went onto make clear that he liked using Productivity Commission reports with which to wipe his rear end, when he wasn’t using them to cover his mouth and insist they report on the NBN. Turnbull said that the growth of wireless and iPads would stop the asteroid completely. Wilson Tuckey said that everyone was crooked, especially the bloke who took his seat.

  17. Fran Barlow
    February 19th, 2011 at 12:16 | #17

    @Megan

    Abbott also suggested that if elected, the opposition would house illegal boat people on the asteroid once it had been excised from Australia’s migration zone, providing of course the boat people agreed to pay their own fares. Anything less, Abbott suggested, would amount to encouraging people to get onto risky boats and would be a boon to people (as opposed to budgie) smugglers .

    The Minerals Council welcomed the move but wanted to ensure that the mineral rights attaching to the asteroid were tax free and that people shipped there would be compelled to work for their members in exchange for board. We call it mutual obligation, said Mr Hooke. In the Congo, he said, they already work for tuppence a week and a ripe banana and we could lose our competitive edge.</

    The National Irrigators Lobby was quick to cotton onto the benefits saying that any water found on the asteroid whould be given to cotton and rice growers and added that they were glad that Mike Taylor had been punted. Barnaby Joyce said something about Gallileo but nobody could work out what it was. He went onto make clear that he liked using Productivity Commission reports with which to wipe his rear end, when he wasn’t using them to cover his mouth and insist they report on the NBN. Turnbull said that the growth of wireless and iPads would stop the asteroid completely. Wilson Tuckey said that everyone was crooked, especially the bloke who took his seat.

  18. Donald Oats
    February 19th, 2011 at 12:40 | #18

    @Ikonoclast
    Just read the link on Poe’s Law: now, Poe’s Law isn’t itself a case of Poe’s Law, is it?

  19. paul walter
    February 19th, 2011 at 12:41 | #19

    “…undermining the incentive to act for themselves”.
    Yep. You’ll see.
    The only ones who’ll survive the strike will be those of us who thought to buy brollies.
    Nice to see everyone’s had their thinking caps on, this early on a Saturday.

  20. Donald Oats
    February 19th, 2011 at 12:43 | #20

    Yes, I am aware that this is itself a reaffirmation of Poe’s Law – how many levels, oh so deep! This time, I will attach a :-)

  21. PSC
    February 19th, 2011 at 13:22 | #21

    We worked out an asteroid will destroy the world – but we have a one year window to destroy the asteroid and save future generations.

    We have calculated that a $1m expenditure today will stop the asteroid hitting the earth in 1000 years time. But $1m today at a discount rate of 2% will be worth 10 times current world GDP in 1000 years. We think a cost of 10x world GDP is very very big, and so on any sensible cost benefit analysis it makes sense to keep the million and let the world be destroyed in a thousand years.

  22. February 19th, 2011 at 15:27 | #22

    Quite right PSC, well calculated, you can tour the world, staying in luxury hotels, blonde on your arm, pointing that out to people. Only need to add of course that the $1million would be far better spent on the poor, buying them DDT and iphones and such like. Well, not the whole $1million of course, they certainly don’t deserve that, but, let us say $1 thousand that should do it. The rest of the $1million could be added to business subsidies. Anyone who objects to the poor getting $1 thousand, or less, say $500, don’t want to stop them pulling themselves up by the bootstraps (what’s that thing about giving the poor salmon instead of a fishing line?), must be one of those greenies who hate humanity.

  23. Fran Barlow
    February 19th, 2011 at 15:35 | #23
  24. may
    February 19th, 2011 at 16:47 | #24

    @David Horton

    but i don’t want a blond.

    i don’t even want to be blond.

    apparently that trump hair is worried that americans are being laughed at.

    i don’t know what he’s on about,what else can a person do in the face of guns,grunts and greedy godbotherers?

    i know.

    evasive action.

    avoid.

    duck.

    i laughed out loud more than once on this thread.

    cheers all.

  25. Freelander
    February 19th, 2011 at 18:40 | #25

    There is a moral hazard attached to deflecting asteroids. Will people expect government to deflect every collision destined asteroid? Where will nanny-statism stop?

  26. PB
    February 20th, 2011 at 07:51 | #26

    Love this from The Onion article:

    “This law is a job killer,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), who argued the tax increases required to save the human species from annihilation would impose unbearably high costs on businesses.

  27. gerard
    February 20th, 2011 at 15:49 | #27

    if you read the actual thing, the guy admits that what he’s saying is “absurd”.

    it’s an excellent exhibit of why modern libertarianism is basically trolling rather than a political philosophy. don’t bother pointing out the absurdity of a libertarian’s arguments – they make the arguments because they are absurd.

  28. James
    February 20th, 2011 at 21:09 | #28

    @Fran

    I personally would like to see Professor Garnaut head up a study on the economic impact of inaction against the alleged ‘asteroid’ event, with a bipartisan senate committee headed by the capable Ms Wong to oversee adoption. My first choice for implementation would be Ms Plibersek, but I’m not sure her remarkable achievement in attaining the most expensive housing in the OECD in her previous outing as Minister for Such under Monsieur Rudd gives her the most relevant experience.

    Then the lovely Mr Combet can offer a pragmatic approach (perhaps partial funding of a test solution) that will Shorten the odds of the government getting reelected. Problem solved.

  29. Freelander
    February 20th, 2011 at 23:35 | #29

    The asteroid heading for the earth doesn’t intend any harm. Collision is the only way it can obtain the scientific data it is after.

  30. Donald Oats
    February 21st, 2011 at 10:21 | #30

    @James
    I have been critical in the past concerning Professor Garnaut’s argument for settling for lower targets than those necessary to appropriately mitigate against AGW (anthropogenic global warming). I won’t quote chapter and verse, but he basically sets the 5% to 15% GHG reductions based on whether he reckoned the argument for the even higher – but scientifically determined – targets could get through the Copenhagen Meeting. Rather than try and fail, he wanted to start with a lower target first, and I am presuming he was hoping to then “argue it upwards” at some unspecified later date.

    Having said all that, perhaps the Garnaut review that you would like to see wrt asteroid impact should employ the same philosophy: Garnaut determines from the scientific evidence that the world must work together and build a set of one gigatonne yield nukes, and the massive launchers to send them way out of the solar system to blow the asteroid off target and into tiny little bits, years before it is due to arrive with a bang. He then decides – unilaterally and pre-emptively – that the world isn’t ready to spend the time and effort required, so instead he sets a more modest target of each country building/supplying one converntional missile with a 1000km range, and later hopes “to argue it upwards”. If governments still won’t accept that, he’ll settle for a missile-simulation package and 100km range (simulated).

    Or something like that. Extinction is a life-choice :-(

  31. Fran Barlow
    February 21st, 2011 at 15:40 | #31

    @Donald Oats

    Just being serious for a moment …

    While I regard your criticism of Garnaut as fair, he did at least get the architecture pretty right. The actual target is an expressly political choice, whereas the architecture is a mostly technical question.

    Had he suggested 80% under 1990 and no REDD credits or landuse change allowances (what I’d like) by 2020 that’s all anyone would have heard. I think he could have gone for the 25-40% range quoted internationally pre Bali-Copenhagen.

  32. Donald Oats
    February 21st, 2011 at 17:53 | #32

    @Fran Barlow
    Yeah, my criticism is more to the politics/pragmatics side rather than other material.

    Being not-so-serious again: that Australia is only 1.5% of the problem so why should we harm ourselves economically until others do? refrain that went around in the nOz and the denial-o-sphere leading up to Copenhagen; imagine that being applied to the problem of a potentially catastrophic asteroid strike…

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