27 April 2006

Choosing Resource Consumption Consistent with the Purpose of Life

(My Team Ethics Essay with Ji Hee Song)

If we adhere to the natural ethic, or the use of methods, systems and materials that sustain the purpose of life, to which consumption strategy can we rightly adhere?

This essay assumes that the purpose of life in nature is to carry genetic material through time. Actions motivated by this purpose are defined as natural. Therefore, in many regards, human action is natural; it tends toward the security of the physical body and the (at least short-term) propagation –through reproduction– of human genetic material. However, not all human action is natural as defined here. Humans, in comparison to other organisms, have incredible command over their will. This command can lead to extreme reduction in present consumption that reduces the present generation’s ability to reproduce and care for its young. On the other hand, technology has allowed humans to increase their command of the environment. This command can lead to over-consumption of natural resources to the extent that future generations cannot adequately provide for themselves. Because strategies which exercise these commands to their extremes disregard the purpose of life, they are unnatural. Yet, even between these two extremes lay unnatural strategies. If we adhere to the natural ethic, we must discover and follow a sustainable consumption strategy.

Strict preservation denotes “human actions which reserve, protect, or safeguard the natural environment from natural disturbance” [Italics added] [1]. Natural in this definition is misapplied because strict preservation rejects the human role in nature. Because strict preservation subtracts human needs from the natural environment it compares the damages humans inflict on the environment to an insignificant benefit. This will always lead the preservationist to call for a reduction in human consumption. However, humans must consume resources from the environment to fulfill the purpose of life.

A major component in this fulfillment is energy consumption, whether to enhance food transportation and production, increase defense against nature and enemies, increase productivity and hence ability to purchase food, etc. Sources include fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas), renewable energy sources (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal), as well as nuclear and hydrogen. If strict preservationists opt for any unnatural energy production, they will opt for renewable energy sources because they place the least load on the natural environment. They neglect or discount too heavily the cost that total conversion to these sources will require. This high cost is evidenced the low current usage of renewable resources (about 6% versus about 86% for fossil fuels in 2004) [2]. Strict reliance on these sources as a blanket solution is unnatural because it does not simultaneously leave many humans sufficient wealth to adequately address other aspects of life essential fulfilling the purpose of life (e.g., housing, transportation, medication, and productivity enhancing technologies).

An extreme consumption strategy is equally unnatural. It promotes the use of available resources to meet human needs and wants. Extreme consumption excludes future generations’ needs when calculating total social benefit which leads them to compare the benefits humans gain from resources to an insignificant cost (present costs of consumption). Therefore, as long as it is economically viable, the consumption strategy will call for an increase in human resource utilization. However, to fulfill the purpose of life, humans must ensure the availability of resources for future generations.

Extreme consumption, while improving human’s ability to reproduce and care for their young, leads to both a higher future population and reduced resource supply to sustain it. For example, extreme energy consumption and its related processes (fossil fuel extraction and combustion for the production of energy) reduce energy resource supplies and pollute other non-energy resources. Reducing the availability of these resources such that future generations cannot fulfill their needs is contrary to the purpose of life, violating the natural ethic.

The natural ethic requires a strategy with both preservation and consumption elements, yet at neither extreme. Sustainability is defined as "improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems” [3]. The obvious question is: where on the spectrum does sustainable consumption lie? Without perfect information about nature, we cannot pinpoint the most sustainable consumption level. However, we can begin to define unsustainable regions of the spectrum.

By definition, genetic extinction occurs when the human population reaches zero. However, risks to genetic material begin whenever the population decreases significantly. One risk is maintaining allele levels (genetic diversity) from generation to generation. As the purpose of life is to carry genetic material, it is desirable to avoid reductions in genetic diversity which may reduce adaptability to changing conditions [4]. This would suggest that sustainable consumption excludes any strategy along the spectrum that does not maintain a human population sufficient to ensure reasonable genetic diversity.

To narrow the range of strategies, we define reasonable genetic diversity as that level of diversity great enough to adapt to catastrophes that are likely to arise in the course of time relevant to the human species, perhaps 2 million years. We do not assume to know the exact severity of these catastrophes. However, their existence implies a threshold value, δ, such that sustainable genetic diversity must be at least δ above the reasonable genetic diversity level (figure 1). If not, a natural disturbance could bring the population to a level that would lead to genetic extinction in the long term. Therefore this region of the figure is labeled “unsustainable strategy” and δ is called the “safety margin.”

Figure 1. Genetic diversity versus consumption level (authors).

A likely objection is to assert that the natural ethic requires the maximization of genetic diversity and hence the likelihood of the material’s survival. In other words, only one strategy is in accordance with the natural ethic. While technically valid, figure 1 is misleading in that we do not know the exact functional relation between genetic diversity and consumption level (i.e., we do not know the shape of the curve). This uncertainty does not affect the required level of genetic diversity but it does reduce our ability to choose a precise consumption level.

As we further explore nature and the relationship between genetic diversity and consumption over a long period, we will reduce this ambiguity. The natural ethic requires genetically non-essential resources be diverted to this endeavor as it will allow for the optimization of resource utilization. Translated into practical terms, those most able (e.g., the rich, the intelligent, etc.) should reduce non-essential consumption (if it exists) to pursue this end, while those whose present needs remain unmet should increase consumption until these needs are met. A practical public policy in accordance with the natural ethic is to tax the rich’s surplus to support research into genetic diversity while concurrently reducing penalties on the poor for increasing utilization of resources that improve their ability to fulfill their purpose of life (including, if necessary, non-renewable, polluting resources).


1 Ministry of Forestry, British Columbia. Glossary, 2001. Accessed April 25, 2005.

2 Energy Information Administration. U. S. Energy Consumption by Energy Source, August, 2005. Accessed April 25, 2005. <http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/solar.renewables/page/trends/table1.html>

3 H. Odum. Energy in Ecosystems. Environmental Monographs and Symposia. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1986; C. Cleveland. Natural Resource Scarcity and Economic Growth Revisited: Economic and Biophysical Perspectives. Ecological Economics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, 289; J. Gever et al. Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades. Cambridge, Mass.: Harper & Row, 1986; and R. Ayres and K. Martinas. Waste Potential Energy: The Ultimate Ecotoxic. Economic Applications. 43, no. 2, 1995.

4 Pearman, P.B. & Garner, T.W.J. Susceptibility of Italian agile frog populations to an emerging strain of Ranavirus parallels population genetic diversity. Ecology Letters. Vol. 8, no. 4, April 2005.

24 April 2006

Oil price conspiracy

Finding myself a new car owner would presumably lead me to flip the proverbial bird at oil companies. I mean Exxon stole $36 billion from our pockets last year, a U.S. record! The evil oil executives must be awfully proud of themselves for getting away with highway robbery (pun intended).

So what do you make of this

If we simply divide Exxon Mobil's net income by sales, we discover that the company reported a 10.7% profit margin in the quarter. That's probably a bit above the U.S. industrial average, but it is hardly remarkable.

For instance, the nation's moist prominent critic of "oil profiteering" - Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly — works for a company (News Corp.) that reported a 10.2% profit in the fourth quarter.

If you're after big earners, check out Yahoo (a 45.5% profit margin), Citigroup (33.4%), Intel (24%) or Apple (22.7%).

Read the rest here (by Peter Van Doren and Jerry Taylor) before you say, "but what about..." That said, I would love lower gas prices. That requires either lower crude oil prices or lower refining costs. If Exxon wants to continue to earn profit past the next 5-10 years, they'll use their profits today to expand refining and exploration. Otherwise, everybody will be driving hybrids and Exxon won't make much at all. The thing is, they will do this, if the government doesn't take these profits. Like the authors say, "If consumers were better served by lower corporate earnings, we'd all be visiting Zimbabwe for economic advice."

23 April 2006

Imperfection information: new car-style

From the car salesman's perspective, you want to let the customer know about all relevant features available on the car. Relevant means features that increase the customer's demand and hence offer price. Whereas a mother may care a lot about safety features, a teenager about horse-power, etc., it is hard to know exactly what each customer cares about. Sure the salesman asks questions to tease out this information. Well some features are bound to get overlooked.

From a customer's perspective discovering these features after purchase is a nice "bonus." I ascribe non-zero value to these features, yet did not calculate them into my offer price and so I essentially didn't pay for them. Two that I discovered today deal with the audio system. I'm sure they are both "old" technologies, but as they are new to me, I'm pretty excited.

First, is Auto-Scan. This feature scans the FM/AM band and temporarily stores the strongest stations as your presets. Great in unfamiliar areas, such as that no-where land between Charlottesville and Fairfax... though it is shrinking. The second is MP3 compatibility. An standard audio CD can hold about 18-25 songs, I think. Well when stored in MP3 format you can use the entire capacity of the CD, some 700 MB. At 4MB a pop, that is 175 songs on ONE CD. And you can organize it into folders so you can easily switch among different genres, artists, albums, or however you organize your music, without switching CDs all the time.

Is the minimum wage really $5.15?

If we raise the minimum wage to a "living wage," or about $11/hr here in Charlottesville, we have to worry that some employers will not be willing to pay that much and simply fire some staff and cut back production. But as Don Boudreaux notes, money isn't everything,

A worker's job quality surely matters to him. How many breaks is he allowed to take while at work? How readily does his employer forgive him for innocent mistakes? How willing is his employer to allow him to take a day off to sit with his sick child? How comfortable and safe is the workplace? These and countless other "non-price" features of a job are vitally important even though they don't show up in the wage figure.

If employers respond to this hike in the minimum wage not by hiring fewer low-skilled workers but instead by working their low-skilled workers harder, the quality of low-skilled jobs falls. Of course, these workers are now being paid a higher wage. But only those who focus exclusively on wages will conclude that this increase in the minimum wage definitely makes workers better off.

Many argue that empirical analysis show no significant increase in unemployment due to minimum wage laws. Is there any analysis of work quality? This would be pretty important, especially with respect to the current push by some UVa students to increase the wage earned by UVa employees, who will probably keep their jobs (at least initially) even after a wage hike.

21 April 2006

My split second inspiration to become a DJ

My first mixed song
Ya know y'all when you be readin a blog
And wanta spit ya thoughts at dat dawg

Ya know ya gotta tap out some crazy keys
Ta be shure you legit, not some skeeze

Ya know it be random, zeros and ones at play
Well it idn't as I found out today

And it don't need no fixin
Because it inspired anutmxn!

The Rix-inator Returns

I'm getting excited about the new spat of posts by Alex Rixey at Look Both Ways. Take the Loofah challenge.

20 April 2006

Reading Faster

I'm pretty sure everybody that I think is smart also reads faster than I do. If forced to conjecture, I'd claim causation on the side of smarts. This is how I rationalize not taking speed reading courses. Being able to process information faster allows one to read faster. Sure I can look at the words faster, but the concepts don't congeal at that speed. Nor, as some claim, do they congeal afterwards as if the information that I "read" was still at hand.

That hasn't stopped me from, at times, attempting to read faster. And it has served a purpose; to quickly gain a general understanding of a piece of writing. It has never substituted for my normal pace.

19 April 2006

Too many M & M arguments

That's M for Motivation, as opposed to consequences. Arnold Kling distiguishes between the two is a critique of some Paul Krugman articles. Basically,

A hypothetical example of a Type C argument would be, "Well, Arnold, studies actually show that the minimum wage does not cost jobs. If you read the work of Krueger and Card, you would see that the minimum wage probably reduces poverty."

A hypothetical example of a Type M argument would be, "People who want to get rid of the minimum wage are just trying to help the corporate plutocrats."
Environmentalists also love Type M arguments.

Why Landsburg is not an Environmentalist

I've enjoyed few pieces as much as Steven Landsburg's on the religion of Environmentalism. After reading it, I am persuaded to agree that Environmentalism is a very bad thing. I insert an explanation here because we have been so indoctrinated with Environmentalism, that merely disagreeing with it is considered morally reprehensible. Yet it is equating Environmentalism with morality which Landsburg finds so disagreeable. I would excerpt here but I just can't bear to break quotes out of context. Also, please don't comment on this post unless you read the article; then please post whatever you want.

18 April 2006

More energy obsessions.

I've been slightly obsessed with this energy thing lately. A previous post questions the effects our waste has on future generations. This is the classic negative externality. We benefit from energy production and we pay for that benefit, yet we do not pay for the negative effects that will accrue on future generations, and thus we produce more than the socially optimal level of pollution/fuel depletion. (note: perhaps socially optimal excludes future generations, but that doesn't seem socially responsible!)

There is another way to look at this. Perhaps the benefits of our energy production is not entirely consumed by us. A toy factory that will employ future generations is only economical to build today because of affordable energy. The toy makers increase the demand for energy and elicit more supply. Producing this supply causes pollution. It also allows the toy makers to operate, creating jobs not only today but the possibility of jobs for future toy makers.

So the next generation incurs some costs, (additional pollution, viewing a huge factory where there once was a beautiful meadow, etc.) and is not paid any compensation for such. Yet they also gain benefits, the availability of additional employment opportunities for toy makers. That is a positive externality; toy makers are paid nothing for providing this benefit.

Perhaps it can be said that future generation pay for these positive benefits by enduring the negative ones. The problem is that they choose neither which benefits they receive nor the costs they incur. To me this is a suboptimal outcome. Hence the delema: how much energy should we produce, using which methods, and to what extent must we allocate money/effort to mitigate pollution thusly caused?

More on Nuclear Power

The co-founder of Greenpeace decides nuclear power is good after all. His view on proliferation:

· Nuclear fuel can be diverted to make nuclear weapons. This is the most serious issue associated with nuclear energy and the most difficult to address, as the example of Iran shows. But just because nuclear technology can be put to evil purposes is not an argument to ban its use.

Over the past 20 years, one of the simplest tools -- the machete -- has been used to kill more than a million people in Africa, far more than were killed in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings combined. What are car bombs made of? Diesel oil, fertilizer and cars. If we banned everything that can be used to kill people, we would never have harnessed fire.

Pretty much all the opinions I've looked at so far have said nuclear power operation is very safe. So the main issues are proliferation, terrorist attacks, and disposal of nuclear wastes. I think we can hand the last two, and even if the U.S. stops producing nuclear power, that doesn't affect the proliferation -- so diplomacy is necessary there.

17 April 2006

My country, right or wrong!

... even when you know you are wrong. David Friedman experienced some "hardwired tribalism" the other day, when a usenet poster labeled him Pro-Bush just because he said something bad about Clinton,

Not long after, I heard a radio report about the French government caving in to the demands of demonstrators that they rescind legislation making it possible for employers to fire young workers. Oddly enough, part of my reaction was a feeling of satisfaction. The news implied a further decline of the wealth, power, and status of France, France is part of Europe, Europe is at the moment the obvious status rival to America, and I am an American. Speaking as an economist, my best guess is that the decline of the French economy makes me worse off, not better off. But to some part of my mind hardwired by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution in hunter/gatherer bands, there is only us and them, and anything that is bad for them is good for us.
I remember thinking the exact same thing when I heard the news!

Is it really a War on Terror?

Jonathan Rauch has this to say about the war

Jihadism is not a tactic, like terrorism, or a temperament, like radicalism or extremism. It is not a political pathology like Stalinism, a mental pathology like paranoia, or a social pathology like poverty. Rather, it is a religious ideology, and the religion it is associated with is Islam.

But it is by no means synonymous with Islam, which is much larger and contains many competing elements. Islam can be, and usually is, moderate; Jihadism, with a capital J, is inherently radical. If the Western and secular world's nearer-term war aim is to stymie the jihadists, its long-term aim must be to discredit Jihadism in the Muslim world. [This strike me as both true and utterly scary]

No single definition prevails, but here is a good one: Jihadism engages in or supports the use of force to expand the rule of Islamic law. In other words, it is violent Islamic imperialism. It stands, as one scholar put it 90 years ago, for "the extension by force of arms of the authority of the Muslim state." . . .

Jihadists, she writes, are not merely angry about U.S. policies. They believe that America is the biggest obstacle to the global rule of an Islamic superstate. Ultimately, in the Jihadist view, "Islam must expand to fill the entire world or else falsehood in its many guises will do so." Violence is by no means mandated, but it is assuredly authorized.

I don't know enough about Islam to understand the relation Jihadists have to moderate, main stream Muslims. I hope the moderates have some influence in the long run and win out (hat tip, instapundit.com)

Why we aren't greener

The major green movement is for the increased use of renewable energy and increasing efficiency of use. Why don't we use more renewable energy? Simply because it is not yet cost effective to do so. Energy companies, like all others, operator for profit. So long as other sources are readily available and governments do not artificially affect prices, current production means are cheaper. Why don't we increase efficiency? Largely for the same reasons. The alternatives are simply to costly. We could buy hybrid cars, but they just cost too much right now. We could turn down our thermostats, but we can afford to keep them high. The same applies for industry as for individuals.

16 April 2006

Ethics in Nuclear Power

Is producing nuclear waste wrong if we don't have a viable long-term disposal plan? A lot of environmentalists say yes. But is it really different from other sources of waste, from coal, natural gas, and oil?

Conservation will come from increasing costs. However, we typically are only paying for our individual consumption and not for the affects that our consumption has on others.

I'm particularly interested in the effect on future generations due to present consumption. They derive no benefit yet will be stuck with clean up costs. For nuclear power this would mainly consist of high level waste (spent fuel rods). Of course the risk of proliferation and terrorist uses cannot be discounted (they may be even greater). In fossil fuels, there is no risk of terrorism or proliferation, but there is the greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants.

So to me, if we can reasonably expect to operate safely and securely, then nuclear power is the best option. And if we don't expect things to go well, we still need to move away from energy from fossil fuels as they are a major source of greenhouse gas production.

If we account for all future risks and costs, renewable energy may a good option for richer nations. But there is this whole, "well, if they don't have to do it, then why to we" mentality. This will be especially prevalent with Iran and it growing nuclear capability. Especially since we will likely operate our plants more safely and securely.

14 April 2006

Don't let this happen in America

Or has it already begun...

13 April 2006

Internet: A haven for creativity

Everybody remembers the guy that said he would eat his pet rabbit, Toby, if he didn't raise $50,000 via PayPal contributions by some date (now Nov 2006).

Well the next big thing is trading up (hat tip MR). Kyle MacDonald started with one red paper clip on July 12, 2005. His goal is to keep trading until he eventually trades for a house. He has made several large leaps (i.e., a snow mobile for a keg of beer and a neon sign) and now he is offering a year's free rent in a Pheonix home. Got any offers for him?

Why not execute rapists?

Don Boudreaux has an interesting article on the rationale for sentencing rapists and armed robbery less severely than murder. The basic argument is that the reduced sentence "allows" rapist/robbers to commit their crime without incentivizing them to kill their victims. Twenty years in prison is different from execution. If the sentencing is the same, some who are willing to commit the "lesser" crime will go ahead and kill their victims (they are witnesses after all).

Of course there is one issue to address, which is that with lighter sentencing there will be more crimes, just lesser in severity. This has an interesting application to the single sanction policy at the University of Virginia. Basically, if convicted of an honor violation, you get kicked out of school (educational execution). I think few would disagree that there are varying levels of dishonesty. Punishing them all the same incentivizes dishonest students to take their actions to the extreme. This assumes that the chance of getting caught is the same for both common dishonest acts (e.g. unauthorized help on a lightly weighted homework) as more damaging acts (e.g. stealing an exam and sharing it with some classmates).

The single sanction argument is, "dishonesty is dishonesty; we want none of it!" Well, it's here, yes, even at Mr. Jefferson's University. The question is whether we want to trade-off an increase in less damaging honesty violations with decrease in horrendous violations . Or is the biggest damage the loss of the community of trust?

10 April 2006

Question about space

Do people put two spaces after a period these days or just one? Seems like I have seen a lot of both. I've always used two and I am hating merging my document with a teammates work that uses only one space. Einstein is silent on this one.

The best advice my brother has given me

About 7 years ago, my brother gave me some advice. After reading one of my school papers, he suggested that I use fewer prepositions in my writing to aid in clarity and economy. Everytime I write for school, I'm reminded of this advice.

This is in contrast to my mother's advice which came much earlier. My mom suggested adding fluff to meet minimum length requirements. This worked well in elementary and middle school.

Funny thing is, these days there aren't minimum length requirements. As my thesis professor says, if you get the job done, you can never be too brief.

09 April 2006

A short insight on immigration restriction

I have a team paper coming up on technology and ethics. Considering current events, immigration reform bills, protests, etc., this seems a relevant problem.

All men created equal does not just apply to Americans. I think that good people should be able to move freely. If they can move, legally and cheaply, they will eventually end up where they are happiest. If not free, they'll do so illegally and therefore perhaps expensively. Yet if they are taking the risk, the reward must be very valuable.

That said, as many come, the value diminishes as the supply of labor and the spite of some neighbors grow. Not having a better option can be an incentive to make home a better place. So restricting the flow of immigrants may keep the value high, thereby reducing the incentive to make home countries better.

08 April 2006

Throw it up for Jason

Since I'm just off the bball high, I thought I'd share this one with you all. If you haven't heard of Jason yet, I'm surprised.

26 April addendum: Here is the ESPN spot. Really very inspirational. Hat tip to L.F.

06 April 2006

3 out of 2183 and 6 out of 9

So the NCAA basketball tourney is over. My bracket was number 3 out of 2,183 participants from UVa's on Facebook challenge. I was 342 out of 582,518 total facebook participants. This was essentially because I picked George Mason to go to the final four.

In the Systems Engineering bracket with 9 participants, I came in 6th. Needless to say, I didn't pick GM in that bracket. :(

Interesting links.

I am reaching the point where I can keep myself entertained without leaving my computer. This may be a bad thing. Want to know how... well here is a select subset of cool links:

Set this as a bookmark and read whenever your revolutionary spirits are low.

Ever wonder, "what is going on?" You could search google news or BBC news or CNN.com or something. I'd rather leave it to InstaPundit.

Want to see the left battle the right? I mean really see... watch these heads go at it.

Cool videos updated daily. Ignore the adult dating and porn links (there are plenty of others who will click there and keep the site's ad money flowing).

Everybody wants to read about other people's problem. Well, Prudence gives them straight up advice. Quick and dirty, kind of a Dr. Laura of the web.
Comment with your awesome links!

Passing... I mean Explaining Away

By now, everybody has heard about the prayer study. William Saletan has the most complete list of explanations for the poor results that I have seen. My favorite is

6. God is unmoved by the size of your lobbying team. The authors lament contamination from "background prayer" as though it were radiation. Patients "may have been exposed to a large amount of non-study prayer" from friends and family, they warn, possibly swamping "the effects of prayer provided by the intercessors." ...
In other news, the benefits of moderate drinking have come under severe criticism. The crux of the error

The common error was to lump into the group of "abstainers" people who were once drinkers but had quit.

Many former drinkers are people who stopped consuming alcohol because of advancing age or poor health. Including them in the "abstainer" group made the entire category of non-drinkers seem less healthy in comparison.

This second one gets me. I can't tell you have often people say, as evidence to support their point, "well, they've proved" this or that. Not only have these people not read the studies, they wouldn't understand if the study really proved this or that or not... heck, even the authors don't know! Oh and an article in Newsweek or Time is not proof.

03 April 2006

Consistency on the Radio

The FCC's ability to fine indecency is due to the scarcity of the radio. In order to avoid such fines, radio stations censor themselves. Which means the stuff they do play is generally permissible by the FCC. Which means they don't mind drug dealing, drug use, shooting people, killing in general, various sex acts... Sure stations bleep out one "offensive" word in a lyric to avoid the fine, but the meaning remains and is apparent. So I don't see how the "protect the children" argument works here.

I'd rather hear a curse word or two in a pleasant song, than a dirty song with some bleeped out words. Good example... T-Pain's song, "I'm in luv (wit a Stripper)" is changed to "I'm in luv (wit a Dancer)" but it is still quite clear what kind of dancer she is and what T-Pain wants to do to her.

This system is used beautifully by James Blunt. His, "You're Beautiful" easily converts from a drug induced hallucination into a cute, heartfelt, quixotic love song by changing just one word, f***ing to flying.

What is the work-around? Internet radio, which thankfully the FCC doesn't own, yet. Oh and then paid services like XM radio, where you can block certain channels.

In researching this piece I came across a funny wikipedia article on one of these dirty words, which is funny because it is so thoroughly complete and formal in terms of usage. (Disclaimer: This link may be offensive, if the s-word offends you).