Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Success Breeds Failure

Robert Samuelson finds a parallel between the BP disaster and the financial crisis: Our very success over a long period of time led to carelessness and complacency, which led to disaster. Every silver lining has its cloud!

One of the problems with human beings having the power to change the earth is that we really aren't very good, by and large, at calculating probabilities and acting appropriately. There seem to be built-in biases toward optimism or pessimism which have very little to do with any objective measure of risk. This is, in large part, why the mass of investors buy at the top of the market and sell at the bottom. They aren't ready to change their behavior until there has been a long trend in one direction, which is actually an indication that the forces driving the trend are nearing exhaustion.

Another problem lies in the phrase "a long period of time." Humans don't do well at evaluating processes with time dimensions outside the human lifetime. One of the underlying drivers in the global warming debate is our inability to deal with time. On the one hand, I think we have too little data, over too short a time period, to be as certain as some people are of the consequences for the climate. Climate operates in cycles of hundreds of thousands of years. On the other hand, some people give far too much weight to a record cold day in their town as indicating that global warming isn't happening. There is a lot of randomness in the weather system.

This is sometimes called, I believe, the local fallacy. That is, people give far too much weight to proximate events, occurrences close to them in time or space, and far too little weight to more distant phenomena.

Souter Rejects Originalism

This is one of my favorite arguments. I think I've referred before to Original Meanings by Jack N. Rakove (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). Now E. J. Dionne uses his column to bring to our attention a speech given by retired Associate Justice David Souter reaffirming the intellectual poverty of originalism.

Souter gave the commencement address at Harvard this year, and he used that occasion to give a rather important speech on the flaws in the orginalist (or as he called it, "fair reading") approach to constitutional interpretation. One of those flaws is historical. The Constitution is a political document, created over a period of time in a contentious political process, and is not a unified whole, developed in a single, philosophically consistent mind. Therefore, there are tensions among various principles enunciated in the Constitution.

These tensions were based upon the tensions among the fundamental principles whose fulfillment we desire. Dionne quotes Souter as saying that "the Constitution emodies the desire of the American people, like most people, to have things both ways. We want order and security, and we want liberty. And we want not only liberty but equality as well." When the French said they wanted "liberty, equality, and brotherhood," or when Jefferson asserted our right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," they failed to acknowledge that these aspirations may be incompatible, even conflicted, in practice.

Dionne offers another good essay, and I'm glad he has brought Justice Souter's speech to our attention.