Bryan Caplan  

The Priority Resolution

Gary Cohn on the Chinese curre... Stigler on Shaw on Marx...
News distorts policy priorities.  The primary mechanism: News showcases exciting stories with colorful characters, while ignoring boring stories with big numbers.  One story about Trump's relationship with Ivanka gets more coverage than most trillion-dollar pots of money.  A major secondary mechanism, though, is that stories that dramatically unfold get a lot more coverage than big static facts.  An Elephant in the Room may warrant some coverage, but if he just sits in the corner, media interest soon peters out.  It would be amazing if these disparities in coverage failed to shape the problems the public worries about - and, in turn, the problems attention-seeking politicians vow to solve. 

What can be done to mitigate the media's policy misdirection?  I suggest we start the New Year with what I call the Priority Resolution.  Are you a serious thinker?  Then step back from the media cycle and name the world's Three Biggest Problems.  Instead of trying to score points over the latest exciting story with colorful characters, let us self-consciously change the subject to the Big Picture. 

While this obviously won't lead to consensus anytime soon, the Priority Resolution makes us argue about which issues really matter.  Think your issue is more important than my issue?  Then convince me.  The Copenhagen Consensus is the best such effort I know of, but why shouldn't a thousand Big Pictures compete?

Since I try to be the change I wish to see in the world, I'll start.  What are the Three Biggest Problems? 

At the top of the list, by a wide margin, is Death itself.  Almost every child is horrified to discover that man is mortal.  But most adults not only accept the inevitability of death, but even bizarrely rationalize death as a blessing in disguise.  Why bizarre?  Imagine humans were already immortal.  If an inventor figured out how to make us mortal, who would see this "innovation" as anything other than a catastrophe?

After Death itself, the next most serious problem probably remains Absolute Poverty.  While human happiness depends less on material well-being that you'd think, hunger, homelessness, and short lifespans are awful.  Furthermore, if you buy my long-run Pacifist Syllogism, ending Absolute Poverty is a twofer: Since rich countries fear war, making the whole world rich greatly reduces the risk of any version of World War III. 

What's third?  Here, I'll be a doctrinaire libertarian and decry the Problem of Political Authority.  Governments should leave people alone unless the social benefits of doing otherwise clearly heavily outweigh the costs.  Since no government on Earth comes close to observing this moral truism, grave injustice is common-place - even in the morally self-satisfied First World democracies.

Needless to say, people who agree on priorities can easily disagree about the best way to achieve them.  My prescription for swiftly ending Absolute Poverty, for example, is open borders, globalization, and economic freedom.  Most people who share this priority probably disagree, but that's okay.  Debating the best way to solve the world's second-biggest problem has a huge potential upside.  Debating the headlines does not.

I expect few readers to agree with my top three priorities.  But I hope we can all agree that we spend far too little time discussing that most important issues on Earth.  Fortunately, we can improve - and New Year's Day is a focal time to start.  Who else wants to adopt the Priority Resolution?

COMMENTS (29 to date)
Mark ST writes:

The founder of the Copenhagen Consensus, Bjorn Lomborg, spoke against prioritizing problems (like Death or Absolute Poverty) and suggested we should prioritize *concrete* solutions (like giving micro-nutrients to poor kids in Africa) with the price tag attached to them, and choose the ones with the best bang for the buck.

If we can't name solutions or can name potential solutions but can't put a price tag on that solution, what's the point of making such a Priority Resolution?

Alex Schell writes:

Mark, it seems tough to efficiently discover and develop working solutions if you don't first think about what problem(s) you are trying to solve and why. A cure for Death won't fall from the sky with a cost assessment and ready for implementation, it will have been the product of enormous amounts of research directed at the problem of Death by researchers motivated to tackle this problem.

Thaomas writes:

Reducing the accumulation of CO2 at as low a cost as possible to other kinds of investment and to consumption of goods (a carbon tax seems the lowest cost and the least violation of #3) is my top priority. Embedding this in a shift to consumption taxes seems the best way forward.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bryan Caplan,
Excellent. I basically agree with your three, except that I would put your #3 at #1 and It think your #3 subsumes your #1 and #2.

Thaomas writes:

Dave is right. Come to think of it, #3 implies addressing CO2 accumulation, and a lot of other problems that we are letting go unaddressed.

Kevin Dick writes:

@Thaomas. You must have either a very strange utility function or very strange priors on the distribution of climate catastrophe or very strange priors on the distribution of effectiveness of CO2 control measures.

You're willing to trade off the certain death of the destitute poor today from higher energy costs for possibly saving the lives of the destitute poor in the future from... something. The reasonably well off in both cases will be able to adapt.

All the _severe_ warming impacts come _only_ from model simulations, which your Bayesian updating _should_ say aren't very accurate based on their past performance. The impacts according to physics we definitely understand are either a wash or only somewhat harmful.

Moreover, even if you assume for the sake of argument those models are correct, the measures these models imply we'd have to take to have any significant effect on the outcome are incredibly Draconian assuming currently deployable technologies.

It's hard to see why you think there's any leverage here. If you truly believe in CO2 armageddon, better to focus on figuring out how to make the world much richer, much faster. That solves a lot of problems.

Mark ST writes:

Yes, R&D on longevity also counts as a potential solution (and definitely has a price tag attached to it) but it also has its complications.

Saying "death is a big priority" doesn't really help solve anything. Saying "Invest $X in $(Some Longevity Project)" is another matter because now we can have meaningful discussion.

Swami writes:

I totally agree with the distortionary effects of news. We all know why they do it, but it still seems to me that an enterprising news agency that actually gave a damn and wanted to help create a better world could differentiate itself by adding a section on the larger scale state of the world which consciously got out of the weeds and instead portrayed longer range trends for the forest.

I think that the political bias of news probably contributes, as politics wants to exaggerate problems for partisans aims.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Kevin Dick,
Excellent comment.

Chris Wegener writes:

@Kevin Dick

All the _severe_ warming impacts come _only_ from model simulations, which your Bayesian updating _should_ say aren't very accurate based on their past performance.

Plot of temperature change over time

The model we are currently using is the Planet Earth. We are going to discover the consequences of ignoring global climate change. Without strenuous effort the catastrophe is upon us.

You may believe yourself immune but your children and grand children are not. It is meaningless to all other endeavors to ignore CO2 and Methane emmisions.

Chris Wegener writes:

@Bryan Caplan

Governments should leave people alone unless the social benefits of doing otherwise clearly heavily outweigh the costs.

I understand the emotional argument for this conclusion. What I fail to see any meaningful evidence that a libertarian state would look like the United States or Western Europe instead of Ethiopia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Martin Epstein writes:

@Chris Wegener

I'm not sure your idea of a libertarian state is what Bryan described. Are there no additional services you can think of that the government of Ethiopia could provide their people with benefits clearly exceeding costs?

Chris Wegener writes:

@Martin Epstein
I am sure that there are many services the government of Ethiopia could provide.

The question arises why do those services not appear? Further the question is why would the services the US government provides continue if the laws require them are removed?

Those with power and capital are quite happy to provide for their own safety and well being without feeling the need to provide for the common weal.

There are many examples of countries, Haiti, Mexico, Brazil where the wealthy are resistant to the need to provide for all the people. And I suspect we are about to experience the same flowering of Liberty here when the Republican congress eliminates health care, regulations and taxes it feels are unnecessary for the prosperity of the wealth in this country.

Believing that benefits will spontaneously appear will not necessarily be true. And I have not seen anyone show any evidence that those benefits will appear.

averageradical writes:

Great post. I just quit my lucrative software engineering job last Friday
to try to make a similar list and then switch careers to try to effect
change. If anyone's interested in seeing what I have so far (very rough),
here's the publicly available spreadsheet:

It includes some metrics on global deaths/year, cost per DALY saved, cost
per year life saved, etc. I plan to spend a few months researching
additional metrics, missing items, etc., and then perhaps switching careers
or starting a company.

If anyone has any additional resources or thoughts, please let me know!
I've skimmed the Copenhagen Consensus before, but I'll look into it more

Based on this post, it gave me the idea to add columns for particular
humans' prioritized opinions, so I've started by adding Bryan Caplan (there
are rows for Death, Poverty, and Government). Maybe at some point I'll
create some sort of formula that calculates a relative ranking across the
columns for each row.

Thomas Sewell writes:


Wealthy people can afford lots more "services" than poorer people are able to, no matter how they decide to pay for them, via government, private market, whatever. The wealth to pay for it all isn't _actually_ created out of nowhere, despite some politicians may wish us to believe.

If the government stopped providing moderate quality free shoes to everyone in the United States, people wouldn't go shoeless, instead there'd be lots of different types of shoe stores all over the place. (Substitute in whatever public/private good you want to talk about in place of shoes there...)

The reason Ethiopia, Haiti, Mexico and Brazil don't have as much "services", nor as good of grocery stores, nor as good of lots of things available to their people is that they aren't as wealthy as the United States.

So then the obvious question is why is the United States so much wealthier than most of the rest of the world? Fortunately, we have a concrete example in the histories of various countries, most especially the United States, of how that process works.

You may consider that when most of that wealth was built, the United States was much more libertarian economically than during the recent low growth time period.

Unfortunately, then people like you come along and suggest (as in your post above) government waste in health care, regulations and taxes are somehow a source of wealth in the country rather than a drag on the wealth of the country. That's a big part of what reduces the wealth and "services" a country's citizens enjoy. This is also periodically known as "bad luck" (See Heinlein), such as Venezuela is currently experiencing.

Chris Wegener writes:

@Thomas Sewell

The United States became wealthy, by the exploitation of the natural resources that was expropriated from the indigenous peoples that were killed or removed. It also profited from the slave trade which provided free labor that has never been repaid.

The national production of the war material during the second world war that was financed by debt as well as the lack of destruction of our factories, farm land and natural resources lead to a massive explosion of productivity. The taxes from that expansion were used to build a world class infrastructure which we have been ignoring for thirty years.

Much of the current wealth arises from the rents that capitalist extract through their control of the political process as well as the wealth redistribution that has occurred from the poor and middle class to the rich.

The libertarian periods of US History are primarily the Gilded age which was one depression after another and then the Roaring Twenties which lead to the great depression. In the thirties people lived with the reality of a libertarian economy which only ended with the industrial expansion of the second World War. We had a recent taste of the benefits of deregulation by the Great Recession, which only drag on as long as it did because of the refusal of the Republican Party to work with our first black President as well as their refusal to use fiscal policies to improve the economy.

To suggest that we return to these periods of our history is a willful ignorance.

The countries I mentioned earlier, Haiti, Mexico and Brazil have a wealthy upper class that refuse to address the serious short comings of their governance.

I have never suggested government waste in health care, regulations or taxes. In fact I am suggesting the opposite. They are a necessary component of a successful economy.

I am suggesting a return to the post war period when the income scales of white Americans was compressed and the difference between rich and poor was much narrower. (While also including minorities who have been systematically been deprived of benefits that white Americans have received.

Kevin Dick writes:

@David R Henderson.

Thanks! A compliment from you means a lot.

Lately, I've been trying out this, "Do you want poor people to die today or tomorrow?" framing with my progressive friends.

My read is that many have an almost unshakeable belief in the absolute moral superiority of their climate change position. They're hearts are in the right place. They just don't get the tradeoffs and unseen-vs-seen subtleties. Starting with the moral reality of harms to the poor from climate change mitigation policies seems to occasionally generate productive discussion.

Sergey Kurdakov writes:

what changed world?
these are major reasons: steam engine, trains, vehicles, computers, internet etc.

The same way Richard Baldwin now argues that 'virtual telepresence' will solve most of the problems of open borders ( one can work from home being in another place ), will then bring more benefits from globalization to every corner of the world ( though temporary created backslashes like those which is base of Trump popularity ).

But - will more economists ask for policies to promote telepresence - and I think the answer is no. And while telepresence, good real time computer translation ( and that is technologically possible - there are programs which do understand speech, google translate is quite good for some languages now and automatic reading programs also start to be much better ) are those elephants in a room - they will be ignored until they really stand up.

There are other technological elephants - like electric cars will end totalitarian regimes in Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, so world politics will not be distorted by those regimes actions and world will move to 'open world' more smoothly.

and if economists do not speak on those elephants, politicians do not peek them and try to use, and the whole process moves a little bit more slow, than it could move.

so priorities are good, just here working priorities are not derived from basic ones.

Anonymous writes:

In defense of death: it isn't obvious to me that one person living for a thousand years is better than ten people living for a hundred years each.

Peter H writes:

I don't think framing "death" as a big problem is correct or useful. It is simply too broad.

First, death is almost always either the conclusion of a natural process of entropy of the human body, or of violent destruction of the human body.

The latter is something that is generally well within human control to prevent, and barring freak accidents, there exist the means to prevent nearly all violent deaths within human grasp. Implementation of course is quite tough, but controlling human action is a fundamentally human project.

Death through the entropic processes of cancer, decay, and infection are a much tougher nut and have an entirely different set of causes and potential salves. I say salve because death by entropy of the human body is truly inevitable, and can be delayed, but not stopped entirely.

I don't think it's helpful to lump these (almost entirely separate) problems together, as it leads one to try to "solve" a problem that is not in fact one problem.

Thomas Sewell writes:

If exploitation of natural resources makes a country wealthy, how do you explain Venezuela and all the other poor, yet resource-rich countries?

If slavery was so profitable and built so much wealth, why was the economy of the non-Slave north in the United States so much wealthier than that of the slave holding south? (Hint: It's because slavery itself doesn't build wealth over time.)

In your history of the United States, you missed an entire century or so. Here's a handy chart for government spending from 1792 to 2016. You may be able to notice when the government in the United States became significantly larger.

I suggest you begin by learning some history which doesn't come solely from recent left-wing publications with a propaganda agenda.

Roger Sweeny writes:

If immortal people reached the age of 100 unable to walk or feed themselves, in pain, with much of their mind gone, then the innovation of death might be a damn good thing.

Chris Wegener writes:

@Thomas Sewell
I can't find a way to turn that chart into constant dollars. But if you look at the bump that is spending during World War 2 you will realize that the current national debt is still lower then the debt during the war in constant dollars. So the chart you point to is misleading at best.

Venezuela is a perfect example of a country that is resource dependent and the value of the resource collapses while the country continues to spend as though the income were constant. Venezuela is an example of what I was talking about, a country whose oligarchy failed to help build a diversified economy while plundering the one resource it had. This lead to an over throw of the established order without at the same time oil prices collapsed. This is not a model I am suggesting it is as bad as Ethiopia.

The south during the time of slavery was another example of an oligarchy refusing to provide for the larger population. There were few slave owners but they profited handsomely and refused to share that wealth.

Black Americans both slaves and free where systematically excluded from economic activity until fairly recently in both the north and south. Both by Jim Crow Laws and exclusions in the north like red lining and other racist practices that prevented them from profiting from government housing programs that underpins much of middle Americas wealth.

I suggest you begin by learning some history which doesn't come solely from recent right-wing publications and TV with a propaganda agenda.

Chris Wegener writes:

@David Henderson
Before worrying about death I think it would be far better to focus on the elimination of dementia.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Kevin Dick,
You’re welcome.
@Chris Wegener,
Before worrying about death I think it would be far better to focus on the elimination of dementia.
I agree. My gut tells me that research on one will help on the other. But I don’t know that.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Here's spending per capita in 2009 dollars, which is a little better than only using 2009 constant dollars. You'll see spikes primarily in war time, but there is a definite inflection change for the overall pattern.

You may not have noticed I was writing about spending, not debt, but a look at the debt chart in 2009 dollars per capita shows a similar pattern.

Also, glad to see you recognizing natural resource exploitation and slavery can't by themselves have caused the United States to become wealthy over the first 200 years or so.

For the record, I've read Piketty's "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" as well as "The Economics of Inequality" and Zinn's "A People's History of the United States", among others, and wasn't impressed, mostly due to inaccuracy from having a one-sided bias and intent to twist facts to fit their narratives. If you don't have something to compare them to, you may not notice that as much, but it's obvious if you do.

Which US history books have you read which were written more than say 30-40 years ago (to exclude current biases)? Ever read anything covering the early United States, but NOT from a left-wing progressive perspective? Anything at all?

MikeP writes:

Reducing the accumulation of CO2 at as low a cost as possible to other kinds of investment and to consumption of goods (a carbon tax seems the lowest cost and the least violation of #3) is my top priority.

Talk about a post-scarcity, first-world top priority.

People cooking over open fires in open huts with malarial mosquitoes probably have a some priorities in their top three that would conflict with yours.

Chris writes:

- Distribution of humans in self sustaining colonies in space and other planets.
- Developing and deploying means of detection and mitigation of species obliterating threats from space
- Research and mitigation efforts to prevent another Ice Age.

These seem to me to be the most important long term goals for ensuring the survival and thriving of the human species.

Weir writes:

1. The end of death.

2. The resurrection of everybody who already died in the past.

3. An infinite number of incontinence pads, and what to do with them all. New islands in the Pacific? A second moon? Plus the effect on house prices, and traffic.

Everybody aged between 18 and 64 will be commuting in from Nevada each day to work as home-care professionals in San Francisco and Seattle, because 800-year-old trillionaires don't like high density housing, or means-testing on their entitlements. Of course these Struldbrugs own all the real estate everywhere on earth, and on Mars, and that's all they ever do from one day to the next: Collect rent, collect social security, soil themselves. As well as staring at, but not watching, TV. Hence my revised, expanded list of priorities:

1. Incontinence.

2. Dementia.

3. The permanent nightmare that is the colon.

4. The way the skin gets so thin and weak that every bump leaves you bleeding or bruised.

5. All the cancers.

And only at this point, not even in the top five, I'd solve death.


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