What would I ask the president in an interview?

My favorite podcast really hit the Big Time this week. Marc Maron interviewed President Obama last week and released the episode today. Marc Maron does a great job interviewing his guests but this episode is (naturally) pretty different. Obama mostly gives a lot of fluff, but he did make some interesting points on the role of political institutions in polarizing politics, as well as the role of [implicit] property rights in shaping political outcomes.

While I was waiting for this episode to be released I wondered what I would have done in Maron’s position. It’s tempting to say “just scream non-stop for an hour until the president agrees to be better.” But of course, that wouldn’t do anyone any good (although I think it would sell advertising on cable news). The question is then “how do I avoid throwing softballs, maintain a good conversation, and still nudge in the direction of change I’d like to see?”

One thing I think would be important were I in that position is to restrict the number of issues I bring up. The limits of human attention mean that we simply can’t handle more than a handful of things at once. Piling on all the issues and complexities of the world would only serve to reduce anyone’s ability to do anything positive. Another thing I think would be important is focusing on areas where we already mostly agree. Nobody over the age of 25 is likely to change their opinion on just about anything, so why waste your energy. That’s sunk ideology. And besides, even if you’re talking to a real piece of work, you have some obligation to do a good job of being a conversationalist, and focusing on differences is less likely to lead to a good conversation.

So what would I ask Obama in an interview?

  • What do you see as the path forward to immigration liberalization?
  • Will you please push for a bill that allows any law-abiding person to work in the United States without giving them access to the Welfare state? (I would word that differently if I were actually interviewing the president, but you get my drift…)
  • Would you please let Nassim Taleb explain his risk-management argument for climate change interventions? And can he please also be required to comment on his argument’s relationship to the Law of Unintended Consequences?
  • What is your favorite episode of South Park?

That third point should be at least a little bit controversial. I’m agnostic on whether there’s anything to be done about climate change (although I’m all for using it as an excuse to liberalize immigration for the world’s poor). I’m seriously skeptical of governments’ ability to do any good in that arena. I’d really rather not add fuel to the fire, but I think it’s important to raise the standards of debate, and I think Taleb’s argument* is the most sensible one. Not only that, it has wide applications that should push (benevolent/benign) politicians to support simpler rules and fewer interventions.

Oh yeah, and I’d ask him if he’s a secret gay muslim. (“Does your mom know you’re a secret gay muslim?” Anyone else remember playing that game?)


* Taleb’s argument goes roughly as follows: We face uncertainty, but there is a non-zero probability of a catastrophically bad outcome. Maximizing expected utility is not the appropriate risk-management strategy in this case. Our most urgent need (our highest marginal benefit course of action) is to eliminate the possibility of the catastrophic outcomes–and perhaps after that start thinking about maximizing expected utility. Essentially the argument is “don’t play Russian Roulette!” But an essential underpinning is that a probability distribution describing outcomes in complex systems often exhibits “wild randomness”. In contrast to the “mild randomness” of the normal distribution, in wildly random situations it’s difficult or impossible to even have an expected utility. The conclusion I would hope they would draw is that intervening in complex systems (and particularly creating new complexity through increased regulation and more tax loopholes) is best avoided, and particularly at the national level.

David Friedman on Judging Outside Your Expertise

David Friedman writes:

Accepting the views of experts on a question you are not competent to answer for yourself, assuming that you can figure out who they are and what they believe, is often a sensible policy, but one can sometimes do better. Sometimes one can look at arguments and evaluate them not on the basis of the science but of internal evidence, what they themselves say.

He goes on to give examples of inconsistent claims made by global warming alarmists. His (short) post is worth the read. Here are my 2 cents:

First, (in response to the block quote) deferring to experts is sensible but requires a certain degree of expertise in picking out who they are which is a difficult task. We’re all human, and it’s hard to hold something in your head without thinking it’s true. That makes it hard to not be arrogant. We need to emphasize strongly that interpreting information is hard, and the outcomes are not at all obvious. Those concerned with anthropogenic climate change (myself included) are better served by stressing the uncertainty involved and making arguments centered on appropriate risk management.*

Second, The issue of climate change boils down to a series of sub-issues that need to be considered carefully:

We need to think about costs and benefits. A warmer world would be a boon for many people. If we could set the average world temperature, we would want it to be higher than 0 Kelvin. We might even want it to be warmer than it is today.

We need to think about the uncertainty surrounding what’s happening, as well as what we can do about it. We should be particularly skeptical about cost estimates for any effort to try to control the environment.

(This one’s a bit of a non sequitur.) We should use this as an excuse to do things that would help reduce the costs of climate change that we should be doing anyways. Specifically, we need to liberalize immigration policy in wealthy nations. Let’s say there’s a 0.00001% chance that climate change has a bad outcome, and that specifically that outcome is that the entire country of Bangladesh will catch fire and kill everyone. That’s a good excuse to let Bangladeshi’s come to America, but we should be doing that anyways. It’s a low cost (actually a negative net-cost) solution to a potential problem of climate change.

Here’s one that I think the smarter alarmists/deniers already recognize: this is a political discussion. Politics and the truth don’t mix. But recognizing this point and making it widely known may allow people to tone down and argue something closer to the truth.

skepticalscience
Global warming will lead to catastrophic… life?

Both sides like to think of themselves as skeptical (as demonstrated by that masthead which warns that we might have to suffer through the addition of a habitable continent (?)), and good for them. We should value skepticism in this. But that skepticism shouldn’t lead us to make bold claims on one side or the other. It should lead us to ask a lot of “what if?” questions. This is a risk management issue, not a social engineering one.

* I like Taleb but I’m not as worried by GMO’s as he apparently is, but I haven’t read that paper either.