Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Time Horizons and Empiricism

I think I've mentioned this before, but the whole liberals value the present more than the future. Or they have a shorter time horizon and higher discount rate is part of a symbiotic relationship with placing large amount of emphasis on what is quantifiable, empirical and measurable.

In the material world, the planets revolved around the Sun yesterday, still do today, and in all likelihood will tomorrow. Galileo's and Kepler's observations and the laws drawn from them still hold.

When it comes to social phenomenona, by which I mean anything involving human thought and action, our observations have a much shorter shelf life. That's why there are constant opinion polls and the stock market constantly fluctuates. And even when data is gathered over a long period of time, it's not like a mechanical system where we can easily assume any trend will probably continue subject to the laws of physics.

This brings me to this quotation that Reihan picked out of a Ezra Klein post:
A lot of conservatives believe, I think, that their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people's philosophical preference for big government. But that's not true: Their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people's practical preference for larger government in certain areas where it seems to make sense.

Just to repeat, I am still astonished by why everybody thinks Ezra is so great. He seems like a green eye shade, bean counter to me with little higher level analysis that's worth reading. But that kinda all makes sense given my little theory.

Liberals, always desiring to be rational, empirical, and scientific, naturally focus on what can be easily measured. This necessarily means limiting one's focus. For example, when conservatives worried/worry about death panels because of health reform, Ezra points out that the bill in question doesn't contain anything like them. That's an empirical, fact-based statement. But it also doesn't address the real issue, which is that health care reform will require cost controls and those cost controls presumably will fall on those who account for the most costs, which means people toward the end of life, which means death panels. It's not about the specifics of the health care bill, but the incentives it sets up. The road where it leads in the long run.

Anyway, returning to the quote above, I believe this plays into my theory perfectly. Conservatives hold a position that says more government is deleterious in all sorts of ways both economic and social. Moreover, many of the deleterious effect are difficult to perceive and measure because they are indirect and manifest only over many years. This is an ideological position.

Ezra views himself and others like him as not holding an ideological position, but rather one rooted in practicality, rationality, and empiricism. But, as I mentioned above, the validity of empirical data regarding human thoughts, opinions, actions is fleeting. Moreover, intervening in such a system even with adequate data is far more difficult than doing so in a mechanical system because humans, unlike inanimate objects, react to interference, whether benign or not.

My point here is that despite the pretensions of those who would use government of they're being rational, scientific, and most importantly practical, they in fact hold an ideological position that policy makers can gather enough information and use it effectively enough that unintended consequences are mitigated. And to do that one must necessarily limit the scope of their analysis, for practical reasons, to the near term.

Look, I'm not pro-irrationality, anti-empiricism, or hate practicality. Rational, practical, and empirical approaches are extremely useful and should be the starting point. On the other hand, not everything that is important, and many of the most important things, cannot be directly measured. And the full effects of our actions cannot be determined, especially as we increased the scope of our analysis. Therefore, to hold that one side, the other side, is merely ideological, while our side is merely making practical decisions based upon rational looks at the present facts is just too much to stomach. And this gets back to my comments about why I have no admiration for Ezra. He's a small thinker who baffles everybody with numbers, complexity, and insider information. Never once have I read a post by him and come away thinking about something in a new light like I have reading many other liberal bloggers.

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