We need a better concept of collective morality to be able to deal with climate change

Suppose God told you that you would go to hell if the median human faith of humanity is insufficient when you die. If the median faith of humanity is good enough, then everyone goes to heaven, but if not, than everyone goes to hell. That would be a radically different kind of religion than any the world has seen; it would be a religion with a universal collective morality rather than focused on individual morality. Collective issues like climate change are like this because mother nature will judge every individual based on humanity’s collective actions and ignore how people behaved as individuals.

Westerners are particularly individualistic and most try to focus upon the morality of each person’s individual actions. We are taught that we should mind our own business about other people’s morality because other people’s choices are their individual personal responsibility. Western moral philosophers have neglected collective moral responsibility and when they do identify it, it is often disparaged because some forms of collective morality are problematic including:

  1. Intergenerational moral guilt is an idea that is in the Old Testament. It condemns descendants for the sins of their fathers “unto the third and fourth generation.” Even more dramatically, it says that all humans are collectively punished for the original sin of Adam and Eve. Some of the calls for reparations for slavery are based upon ancestral sin to atone for ancestral trauma. A better justification for reparations would be to forget about intergenerational moral guilt and just look at intergenerational wealth inheritance. People don’t inherit wealth due to any moral merit and if someone inherited something that is stolen, then that should be returned even though there is no moral guilt upon the possessor unless they knowingly try to keep stolen goods.
  2. A more common instinct for collective morality is moral tribalism. For example, Russian-speaking kids who live outside of Russia are being bullied around the world because of being blamed for Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. This kind of collective morality comes all too easily to human instinct, and it is one of the motivations for nationalistic wars and racism. This kind of collective morality leads to the guilt by association fallacy such as when Putin bombs Ukrainian civilians because they support the Ukrainian resistance and so they are partly guilty by association.
  3. Corporate anthropomorphism wherein people act like a corporation (or other group) is a moral person that is separate from the individuals that run it. This is frequently used to shield decisionmakers from moral responsibility as illustrated by the concept of limited liability.

Now we need a new kind of collective morality to help address global problems like climate change. Individual morality isn’t enough and intergenerational morality won’t suffice and tribalistic morality just creates strife and pulls peoples apart when we really need for everyone to pull together. We need a universal collective morality because global warming is a moral issue unlike any the world has faced before. With previous moral issues, each individual’s harms created identifiable victims because the harms were much more concentrated. For example, untreated sewage had the biggest impact on the nearest neighbors downstream and reducing it immediately increases their chances of staying healthy. But no individual* creates enough greenhouse gas to have any effect on anyone whatsoever. Humans will be judged collectively for the total greenhouse gasses and the amount any individual contributes is too small to have a measurable impact.

It doesn’t matter whether I stop producing greenhouse gasses entirely or whether I produce 100 times more. My carbon footprint affects nobody. Nonetheless, most people cannot stop thinking selfishly about their own individual responsibility for global warming. When someone entirely stops producing carbon emissions, that just means that they are doing nothing to solve the real problem. We need a collective response to solve climate change, not just individual responses. You might quibble that the collective response is just the sum of individual responses, but even a lot of individual responses are not going to be enough. For example, a large nation like the US cannot solve the problem by eliminating our greenhouse gas emissions because that will just delay the inevitable by about 11%. Even if all the rich countries in the world completely eliminated their greenhouse gas emissions, it would only delay climate change because the majority of greenhouse gas emissions are now being produced by developing nations and their emissions are growing rapidly. What the planet truly needs is a way for developing countries to grow economically without the massive carbon emissions that rich countries relied upon to get rich. It isn’t fair that rich nations got rich by burning massive amounts of fossil fuels and the globe cannot afford to let everyone else follow the same path too. What we really need is an alternative path to solve climate change. Rich nations simply cannot solve the problem by cutting emissions without finding a way for developing nations to develop without burning lots of carbon.

Another way to illustrate the moral issues is to think of it as a trolley problem. Suppose you are on a trolley together with eight billion people, and it is careening toward a precipice. Nearly every single person on the trolley is pushing it towards the cliff. Some are pushing it harder than others, and you are have been pushing harder than most, but If you stop pushing the trolley, it isn’t going to make any difference at all. If you stop pushing, there is no reason at all to feel smug about it because you have done literally nothing to solve the problem. To solve the problem will require everyone else to stop pushing the trolley too, so your primary moral responsibility is to convince as many people as possible to stop pushing. That matters much more than how much you yourself are pushing the trolley.

When Greta Thurnberg came to America to campaign for greenhouse gas reductions, she sailed across the Atlantic rather than flying in an airplane because she felt a personal responsibility to avoid the carbon produced by buying an airplane ticket. But the carbon produced by an airplane trip literally makes zero difference and humans will ultimately be judged for our collective greenhouse emissions, not for anyone’s individual emissions. If her voyage helped convince the world to collectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then it doesn’t matter if she rode on an airplane. Even worse, her sailing trip caused some of the sailors to fly across the ocean, so even though Greta could feel virtuous that she hadn’t flown herself, she actually caused more flights than if she had just bought an airplane ticket for herself. A focus on individual moral purity solves nothing. The important question is whether the sailing trip helped her influence the world to find a collective solution or whether it made her less influential because it allegedly made her seem elitist and out of touch.

Each person needs to transfer more resources away from thinking about our own carbon footprint and put more resources into solving the collective carbon footprint. Reducing your own carbon footprint is only worth doing if it also helps influence others to do the same. For example, buying solar panels can help develop economies of scale which will help lower costs and hasten the day when solar is cheaper than fossil fuels. But when people focus on their own individual carbon footprint there is a danger of falling into moral license in which they feel like they have done their part and don’t have to worry about what other people are doing about global warming. Another danger is self-righteousness which could alienate other people who we need to join the effort. The priority for Americans who are worried about climate change should be to influence their fellow Americans to care. So far we cannot even get a majority of Americans to agree to make any sacrifice to reduce global warming and if we can’t even get most people in rich nations to care, then individual sacrifices are doomed to failure.

To return to the original thought experiment, if you want to go to heaven and eligibility is entirely dependent upon the collective faith of humanity rather than your own individual faith, then you would put most of your efforts into building up other people’s faith. The only effort you would put into maintaining your own faith would be the bare minimum necessary to keep up your efforts for helping others build the collective faith. Global warming is the same kind of moral issue. Don’t worry about your individual carbon footprint except so much as it helps you influence the carbon footprint of the rest of the world.

As Jesus might say based upon Matthew 7:5:

If having a log of wood in your own eye helps you remove specks from other people’s eyes, then don’t worry about the log in your own eye. Only worry about the log in your own eye if it impacts how much you can reduce the total wood in all eyes.

This is the kind of universal collective morality we need to deal with global issues like climate change.

*If you believe the corporate anthropomorphist idea that corporations are people, then the 25 largest fossil-fuel corporations produce 50% of carbon emissions! But they couldn’t do it without the cooperation of billions of customers, and millions of workers so the individual responsibility is still very diffuse.

Posted in Environment, Philosophy and ethics

Part of the campaign to change how people use pronouns is caused by Sapir-Whorf

If people used the pronoun ‘ki’ when referring to the earth, would that make people treat the earth more environmentally? That is the hypothesis of Robin Wall Kimmerer the author of Braiding Sweetgrass. She doesn’t like calling the earth an ‘it’ nor a ‘she’ because she doesn’t think those pronouns are special enough and she thinks that if we invent a new pronoun just for the earth that we’ll respect the earth more.

This idea is a product of the theory of strong linguistic determinism. This theory is also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which claims that “language determines thought” and “linguistic categories …determine cognitive categories.” This theory is wrong and it is easy to see evidence.  For example, this theory created the bizarre myth that “Humans Didn’t Actually See Blue Until Modern Times” based on the idea that people couldn’t see blue because most languages didn’t have a word for it.  However, the average person can distinguish between about a million colors even though most people only have about a dozen words for colors.

Similarly, pronouns have no effect on how people treat others. Consider Chinese which has no gendered pronouns for the Earth or anyone else and that hasn’t stopped China from causing more pollution than any other nation on earth today. Similarly, Chinese culture is not less sexist nor it is friendlier to transgender people than cultures with bi-gendered languages like Spanish in which every noun and adjective is either male or female and nothing is gender-neutral. Nearly 100% of 1,640 Chinese transgender people surveyed reported experiencing violence from a parent or guardian and a UN report found that transgender people in China experience more discrimination than any other minority group.

So, inventing a new gender-neutral pronoun for the earth isn’t going to make people treat the earth differently any more than pronouns will end transgender discrimination. But language does affect how people think about our own identities, so a gender-neutral pronoun for people can help them feel differently about themselves.  Identity isn’t important for the earth, but it is important for people and pronouns are important for self-identity which is why many people have recently been using ‘they’ as a gender-neutral singular pronoun in English.

I wish we would invent a new gender-neutral pronoun because using ‘they’ is not particularly cognitively kind.  It is confusing because 99% of the time ‘they’ is a plural pronoun and traditionally when it is used as a singular pronoun it was chosen because individuality was indefinite and multiple different people could have been the indefinite person. Changing its usage to singular for a clearly defined individual makes English a bit more confusing.

Nearly all languages have both singular and plural pronouns. Even when a language doesn’t have separate words for both, speakers create modifiers to distinguish between the two. For example, the plural form of you in English was ‘ye’ and when some English dialects lost that word, people created new plural versions of the pronoun like y’all, you guys, yinz, yous, or you people. So if we are going to stick with ‘they’ as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, we are going to switch to a new plural version such as ‘they-all’ or ‘those guys’. Lots of languages don’t have gendered pronouns, but plurality is quite ubiquitous because it is particularly useful for communication.

I’d prefer to create a new 3rd-person singular gender-neutral pronoun to reduce confusion, but I suspect one reason why nonbinary people prefer the pronoun ‘they’ over some new gender-neutral pronoun is that it is hard to turn ‘they’ into a term of abuse. English already has a gender-neutral singular 3rd-person pronoun, ‘it’ which can have insulting connotations, and it is easy to see how a new attempt at a gender-neutral 3rd-person pronoun could end up in a similar fate. ‘They’ is unlikely to be turned into a term of abuse because it is too much of a linchpin of the language to be converted into an insult.

Plus, many languages have a tradition of using plural pronouns as an honorific towards respected individuals of status, so perhaps human brains tend to associate plural pronouns with status. The one difference between the singular ‘they’ and honorific pronouns in other languages is that honorifics are usually limited to 2nd-person pronouns or 1st-person pronouns like the royal we. I couldn’t find any language that had 3rd-person plural honorific pronouns, but I’m not a linguist, so let me know if I’m wrong.

Again, contra the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, there is no evidence that honorific pronouns like the royal we causes other people to feel more respect, but it affects self identity for the person who prefers them and identity has a big impact on people.

Another evolving tradition in gender identity is how it is announced in writing. When English speakers announce their gender identity beside their name or on a biography, they recently have been writing multiple different grammatical cases of the same pronoun such as “he/him/his” rather than just “he”. This would seem to imply that some people have a different gender identity depending on the grammatical case! It only makes to list different grammatical forms of a gendered pronoun if it is possible that some people’s preferred gender changes with grammatical case such as, “they/his/her”! A more grammatically consistent set of pronouns would be exclusively plural pronouns such as “we/ye/they” for first/second/third-person pronouns. Making them all plural could also augment an identity of feeling respected because numerous traditional linguistic patterns use plural pronouns as a signifier of social status.


I predict that someday people will write a single adjective to identify their gender rather than a set of pronouns as is current practice. Instead of a woman writing ‘she/her,’ she will use an adjective like ‘female’ instead. There are a lot more adjectives for different genders than pronouns, so adjectives are more descriptive and they are a more natural grammatical structure than pronouns for identifying classifications like gender.

Someday pronouns will flow naturally from gender and it will be interesting to see how gender norms evolve regarding infants too.  A traditional question people have commonly asked parents about new babies is, “Is it a girl or a boy?”  Oddly, the pronoun ‘it’ has not been insulting in this context. But some parents may dislike this question because it assumes a binary conception of gender.  As norms change, parents might prefer to identify their baby as some other gender.  So perhaps the polite way to ask the question will become, “What gender is they?”

Posted in Philosophy and ethics

The BA.2 Covid variant is spiking. But it is still a good bet that the Pandemic will be over this spring.

Two months ago, I wrote that the pandemic would be over this spring. We are now officially in the second day of spring and my prediction does not look good at first glance because Covid BA.2 infections are spiking in Europe and Asia. But I still feel good about the celebratory essay I wrote and I’m sticking with my optimistic stance that Covid will move into the endemic phase this spring because almost 95% of Americans have either had a Covid vaccine or been infected by the virus according to the CDC and we still have three months to go until the end of spring. I think we are witnessing the end of the Pandemic!

Unfortunately, most vaccinated Americans have not had their booster, but even just two doses of vaccine reduce the chance of hospitalization and death. So the virus is running out of the easiest targets to kill. But get your booster now if you haven’t done it yet!

The new variant is likely to be a serious problem in Asian nations that haven’t already had lots of infections, but Americans have already been sharing infections with each other like there is no tomorrow. The official count of Covid infections in America (shown above) is a severe undercount because it only includes people who tested positive with PCR tests in states like Ohio where I live and most of the people I know who got infected just diagnosed the infection with an at-home test which goes unrecorded with the public health statistics.

So get prepared for another spike of Covid this spring, but it will be less deadly than the last one and infections will come crashing down again before summer. Plus warmer weather will soon bring reduced virus transmission because of more airflow in buildings and more outdoor socializing. I am still optimistic that the end is in sight and we will see record low infection rates this summer in America.

Posted in Health

The rise of the Passport Bureaucracy

For most of history, passports and visas were two words for the same thing and in Europe and the US they were only occasionally required during wartime in order to exclude dangerous foreigners. In 1941, the US was again at war and congress again created the authority to deny entry into the US of foreigners who were deemed dangerous to the Republic and this time the authority was never revoked. In 1979, the US government made it illegal for Americans to travel abroad without a passport (except to Mexico and Canada). Until around this time there was essentially no de-facto controls over people crossing America’s land border with Mexico and Canada. That gradually began to change and as a result, Mexican migration became a lot more permanent. Mexicans had been accustomed to just doing seasonal work in the US and then returning home to Mexico because they could cross the border freely and after border crossings started to be regulated, they started to put down roots in America in much larger numbers.

In the early 2000s, the government started talking about requiring passports for travel to Canada and Mexico for the first time. In 2006, about 75 million travelers crossed the US-Canadian border by land and about 87 million by air. By contrast, there were 234 million crossings of the US border with Mexico. In June 2009, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) started requiring passports (or related international travel documents) for movement across these borders and the percent of U.S. citizens owning a valid passport has nearly doubled since the government started talking about requiring passports for travel to our nearest neighbors:

One reason passports are becoming more popular is that international tourism has been growing, and the other reason is that government bureaucrats have been increasing their control over international travel over the past century. The Statue of Liberty is undoubtedly happy about the first reason and sad about the latter.

Posted in Globalization & International

What caused hyperglobalization?

Paul Krugman says that transportation technology and free-trade policies caused globalization:

…In the mid-1980s, world trade had recovered from the disruptions and protectionism of the interwar period, but exports as a share of world G.D.P. were still back only to around their level in 1913. Starting around 1988, however, there was a huge surge in trade — sometimes referred to as hyperglobalization — that leveled off around 2008 but left the world’s economies much more integrated than ever before:

Exports as percentage of world G.D.P.Credit…World Bank

This tight [global] integration has played an important …role in pandemic economics. Vaccine production is very much an international enterprise, with production of each major vaccine relying on inputs from multiple nations. On the downside, our reliance on global supply chains has introduced forms of economic risk: One factor in recent inflation has been a worldwide shortage of shipping containers.

But how did we get so globalized? There are, it seems to me, two main narratives out there.

One narrative stresses the role of technology, especially the rise of containerized shipping (which is why the box shortage is a big deal). As the work of David Hummels, maybe the leading expert on this subject, points out, there has also been a large decline in the cost of air transport, which is a surprisingly big factor: Only a tiny fraction of the tonnage that crosses borders goes by air, but air-shipped goods are, of course, much higher value per pound than those sent by water, so airplanes carry around 30 percent of the value of world trade.

By the way, pharmaceuticals, presumably including Covid-19 vaccine ingredients, are mainly shipped by air:

…An alternative narrative, however, places less weight on technology than on policy. …Globalists pushed to open our borders to imports, and that’s why foreign goods have flooded into our economy.

And the truth is that from the [late] 1930s up to Donald Trump, the U.S. government did, in fact, pursue a strategy of negotiating reductions in tariffs and other barriers to trade, in the belief that more trade would both foster economic growth and, by creating productive interdependence among nations, promote world peace.

But the long-run push toward more open trade on the part of the United States and other advanced economies mostly took place before hyperglobalization; tariffs were already very low by the 1980s:

…While there weren’t big changes in the policies of advanced economies, however, there was a trade policy revolution in emerging markets, which had high rates of protection in the early 1980s, then drastically liberalized. Here’s the World Bank estimate of average tariffs in low and middle-income countries:

Average tariffs in low- and middle-income nations…

You might ask why a reduction in emerging-market tariffs — taxes on imports — should lead to a surge in emerging-market exports. So let’s talk about the Lerner symmetry theorem …tariffs eventually reduce exports as well as imports, typically by leading to an overvalued currency that makes exporters less competitive. And conversely, slashing tariffs leads to more exports. Basically, nations can choose to be inward-looking [by using tariffs and trade restrictions], trying to develop by producing for the domestic market, or outward-looking, trying to develop by selling to the rest of the world.

What happened in much of the developing world during the era of hyperglobalization was a drastic turn toward outward-looking policies. What caused that trade policy revolution and hence helped cause hyperglobalization itself?

The immediate answer, which may surprise you, is that it was basically driven by ideas.

For more than a generation after World War II, it was widely accepted, even among mainstream economists and at organizations like the World Bank, that nations in the early stages of development should [be inward-looking and] pursue import-substituting industrialization: building up manufacturing behind tariff barriers until it was mature enough to compete on world markets.

By the 1970s, however, there was broad disillusionment with this strategy, as observers noted the disappointing results of I.S.I. (yes, it was so common that economists routinely used the abbreviation) and as people began to notice export-oriented success stories like South Korea and Taiwan.

So orthodoxy shifted to a much more free-trade set of ideas, [sometimes called the] Washington Consensus. …The new orthodoxy also delivered its share of disappointments, but… The important point, for now, is that the change in economic ideology led to a radical change in policy, which played an important role in surging world trade: We wouldn’t be importing all those goods from low-wage countries if those countries were still, like India [China, Vietnam, the entire Soviet Block] and Mexico in the 1970s, inward-looking economies living behind high tariff walls.

There are, I think, two morals from this story.

First, ideas matter. Maybe not as much as John Maynard Keynes suggested when he asserted that “it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil,” but they can have huge effects.

Second, it’s a corrective against American hubris. We still tend, far too often, to imagine that we can shape the world as we like. But those days are long gone, if they ever existed. Hyperglobalization was made in Beijing, New Delhi and Mexico City, not in D.C.

In addition to greater efficiencies in airplane transport and the box (containerized shipping), the drop in communications costs is by far the most dramatic. In the 1980s, it cost well over $2/minute (inflation adjusted) to make a transatlantic phone call and today we can make video calls across the globe for free. That probably has had the biggest impact on globalization of any technological change by helping multinational corporations thrive because without multinational corporations, there would be relatively little multinational trade. If nothing else, cheaper communication helped ideas about free trade spread around the world.

Posted in Globalization & International

Introduction to Factfulness by Hans Rosling

Below is an excerpt of the Introduction of Factfulness by Hans Rosling that is posted for free use by the publisher, McMillan. Before reading the introduction, please take the test it is based.  The test website interface is a bit confusing so read the hints below before heading over to the test.

Press the “start” button under the heading, “Test your global knowledge” to begin. You might have to get rid of a pop-up window covering part of the page first. (You can press the <esc> key or click on the X in the corner of the pop-up to get rid of it.) When you succeed in getting the right “test”, the first question should show a group of African school kids dressed in green.  Ok, you are ready to take the test at Factfulnessquiz.com.  Consider yourself a genius if you score better than chimpanzees!

After you take the test, then come back here and read what the author has to say about it below.

Read more ›

Posted in Development, Globalization & International

Steve Jobs got a small part of the Giant Turnip at Apple and a large part of it at Pixar

When Steve Jobs died in 2011, Matt Yglesias said that he was a net-worth failure compared to other computer executives like Michael Dell and Bill Gates:

The rivalry between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates that dominated the computer industry for decades is over. And it’s clear that Gates won. With his net worth of $66 billion, Gates still sits atop the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, as he has since 1995. Founding the most successful technology company in the world has its rewards. In fact, Microsoft’s victory over Apple was so decisive that current CEO Steve Ballmer and third co-founder Paul Allen, sitting on $16 billion and $15 billion, respectively, are substantially wealthier than Jobs’ widow, who must subsist on a mere $11 billion… Except of course, Microsoft isn’t a more successful company than Apple. Not even close. …Microsoft is a vastly profitable company. Its … $260 billion stock market capitalization is impressive. But Apple dwarfs those numbers with … a $400 billion market capitalization…

If productivity were related to pay, then Jobs should have been richer than Bill Gates because Jobs created a far more valuable company, but Bill Gates had six times more money than Jobs at his death. Jobs was more successful in business by every measure, but net wealth at that point. Jobs not only started Apple, the world’s most valuable company, but then he left it in 1985 and then it faltered. When he returned in 1997, Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy and Jobs deserves considerable credit for helping resurrect it to become a market dominating company again. Whereas Microsoft was a copycat company that used its monopoly power over Windows to invade markets others had established, Apple was an innovator that created entire markets and changed the way we live and do business today. Jobs sometimes said that his goal was to, “put a ding in the universe” and he made a bigger ding that most CEOs. His company pioneered the microcomputer revolution, the smartphone revolution, the computer interface that we all use with icons and a mouse, tablet computers, and digital music players (which were later subsumed by smartphones). Along the way, Apple’s digital audio systems revolutionized the entire music industry, bringing the world away from CDs into digital music with the Itunes store and transformed talk radio into a podcasting industry.

Despite all of that success, Jobs got very little of his fortune from Apple. Most of his wealth came from a lucky break with a relatively small investment he made in a business that he bought as a side hobby. After leaving Apple and cashing out his stock there, in 1986, Jobs bought the computer graphics division of George Lucas’ company for $10 million which he renamed Pixar. Pixar was a money loser for the first decade and Steve Jobs was only involved in a very part-time manner while he focused on his main business venture, NeXT, a struggling computer hardware startup that never became successful. Tim Ott says that Pixar, “was only being kept afloat through [Jobs’] personal checks, amounting to some $50 million through 1991… Pixar remained something of a side project; day-to-day operations were left to Lasseter and CTO Ed Catmull, the boss only showing up about once per week.” But then Pixar came out with Toy Story in 1996 which was hugely profitable and over the two decades that Jobs owned Pixar, it produced a grand total of five more movies after Jobs returned as CEO of Apple. When Jobs sold Pixar to Disney for $7.4 billion in January 2006, that was where the vast majority of his fortune came from. It wasn’t from the NeXT company that he worked so hard at nor at Apple where he put a ding in the universe while sometimes only drawing $1 in salary per year. It was by buying an animation company that merely produced six cartoons over the two decades he owned it and has only produced about one cartoon a year since then.

If pay were related to productivity, then Steve Jobs would have been the richest man in the business world, but pay is determined more by bargaining power than productivity.  Jobs didn’t bargain for a large share of Apple’s wealth while he was busy putting a ding in the universe there. Jobs got most of his wealth from Pixar because he got a huge share of its value even though it was only about 2% as big as Apple and didn’t put much ding in the universe.

Posted in Labor, Managerial Micro

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