Becker & Posner

Gary Becker and Richard Posner of the University of Chicago have now started a weblog, believe it or not. The format is a little daunting, in that the first thing you see today is a pair of essay-length replies to previous essay-length postings. Also, they were both on today’s Wall Street Journal editorial page, unfortunately available to paid subscribers only. Reading the dead tree edition, I was struck by Posner’s argument that it is irrational to neglect remote but catastrophic possibilities such as tsunamis in previously quiet regions and asteroid strikes anywhere. The amounts spent might well be wasted money, but the consequences of failing to avoid the disaster are insufferable.

What struck me is that he should have given credit to Blaise Pascal, who first advanced this argument as Pascal’s Wager.

14 thoughts on “Becker & Posner”

  1. Your post, and the material you link to at the Becker-Posner (B/P) site, ties into Thomas Barnett’s (

    Could it be we are delivering a “Down Payment” of $350M for the realignment of the Non-Aligned Movement?

    C-SPAN recently ran Thomas Barnett’s excellent seminar delivered to the Army War College. In it he lays out a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the Non-Aligned movement, and a remedy for the intellectual and developmental inertia of “the Gap”, his label for the Muslim Arab world and parts of S.E. Asia, that, taken together, print fewer books than Greece.

    I recall that one aspect of Barnett’s prescription was exactly the sort of giant global welfare operation we see unfolding today. This was one of his cogent suggestions that made me pause. While I worry about the institutionalization of global welfare, like B/P, Barnett maintains that national magnanimity can be a potent, global political force, and that it has a place in any global reformist strategy. The development of an effective world-wide emergency humanitarian-relief force, he suggested, could serve as the counter-punch to our hard-line, preemptive military strategy.

    Will it work? The BBC reports India is refusing all outside aid. Has she rejected our bid to “buy” her? Will Indonesia begin to vote with us in the UN – can we expect their support on Iran’s nukes, and their help in reforming Sudan? Will Indonesia’s President lean on Malaysia’s Mahathir to change his anti-American tune? Will Burma finally cough up its casualty figures and join the rest of the world? Or is it going to be…deja vue…all over again?


  2. Interesting point, Mitch. Perhaps it could be restated in terms of utility theory. Thus the present value of the cost of an unprecedented natural calamity would be the product of its probability (extremely low) and its cost (extremely high). For some sufficiently bad calamity whose cost approached infinity (life on Earth wiped out), the expected cost might be high enough to justify costly countermeasures even if the probability were miniscule.

  3. Jon, Clearly you are referring to Spaceguard.

    By the way, the ‘marsden’ part of the URL refers to Brian Marsden, who is *THE* go-to man for orbital and celestial mechanics calculations in the United States.

  4. There’s a reason we don’t address some of the remote possibilities Posner addresses.Stating that there is a very remote possibility of X happening is in many cases another way of saying we really have no idea of whether X will occur in any actionable timespan. My problem with such analyses is that they seem to be knowledgeable when they are not, simply because the probabilities are expressed numerically or as a part of some formula. But when the parameters of the formula are examined, they are either so broad as to be a) unverifiable or b) true but meaningless. I mean (b) in the sense that they are like saying “sometime in the next 10,000 years there is a 90% probability of an asteroid larger than Y striking the earth.” This may be true, but, umm, so what? Here the trick is, should I spend billions now that will directly and without question rob other high priority projects likes AIDS or bioterror which will cost human lives (or be more likely to cost human lives) in the near future, or wait until technology improves and the cost of doing something effective is lowered?This is an interesting debate beacuse it involves not only the danger of meteor impact but also global warming (even if hypotheses surrounding the latter are accepted). Posner is arguing we should ignore the tangible benefits of practical action now in the hope of a bigger but far more remote payoff. Isn’t that like trying for the progressive payout at a Vegas slot machine?

  5. PM, I agree with you. The simple utility calculation becomes increasingly problematic as one takes into account unreliable data and analysis. It becomes even more difficult when we consider the meta-question of whether we would do better to 1) buy insurance now or 2) invest our insurance money in capital improvements that will increase our productivity and rate of wealth creation, and thus likely make all problems easier to solve in the future (when we’ll have more knowledge AND more wealth). The calculus is indeed much as for global warming. And as with global warming, insurance enthusiasts in this case tend to ignore the meta-question.

  6. Michael,
    Thanks for the redirect. Here I thought I was exploring new ground.

    I’m intriqued by your discussion of calculi and formulae but it’s over my head.

    I’ll hang around and try to learn something.

  7. I think everyone is taking the extreme side of Posners argument. Although I have yet to verify the actual figures for NASA’s current Asteroid search budget (and last time I checked it did seem to be a little higher) Posner is absolutely correct in stating that we simply aren’t spending anywhere near enough in terms of NASA’s overall budget. At a minimum it should be in the double digits percentage wise. No other program that NASA is currently involved with will be more important if a threat of impact ever materializes. And one could say the same of a buoy warning system in the Indian Ocean. Had the respective governments spent a modest sum to administer a buoy system that would have adequately prepared the surrounding areas, the catastrophe might not have been as great. The same for asteroid mitigation. Sure, the odds are slim, but it will only take one, and millions if not our entire civilization could hang in the balance.

    Ignoring the threat doesn’t make it go away.

  8. The meta-question? Jeez Jon, you’re waxing all philosophical on us. So what is the meaning of true justice?

    Seriously, what you and PM are discussing is a forced binary solution set; you’ve reduced the possible choices down to two. It can be useful if you need to force yourself into making a decision: Do we run the test today or not? Do I invest in the stock or not? Do we invade Iraq or not? It forces action.

    Richard Nixon famously said that one of the dangerous traps a leader could fall into was “paralysis by analysis.” How true. We’ve all experienced it.

    Still, it can be deceiving and lead to bad choices. Sometimes the best choice isn’t all or nothing, it’s something in-between. Do I leave my house open or turn it into a steel plated vault? Both are bad choices. One can attain a great deal of security by adding locks to the doors and windows. A great deal of protection is achieved with miniscule cost.

    Let’s look at the Earth destroying asteroid problem. Of all large asteroids, very few have Earth crossing orbits. Fewer still will cross a point in our orbit as the exact moment we’re at that same point. A relatively small investment in radars and staff can track those beasts. I’d also argue a small investment in the technology to land a motor onto an asteroid would be a good investment, since it will allow us to push the rock into a different orbit. A little investment in prevention can save huge costs later.

  9. Points taken. Another way to look at it is in terms of alternative spending: e.g., if we have only enough funds for asteroid detection OR tsunami buoys, how do we spend the money? Cheap alternatives make the decisions easier. Thus it appears, at least to me, that an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system is likely to be built within the next few years. But asteroid protection vs. eradicating malaria (for example) is a more difficult choice, since malaria is currently a major killer and we know enough to stop it, while the asteroid threat is much more uncertain, and we will probably be better equipped to deal with it in the future.

    But even if detection and deflection of dangerous asteroids can be done at moderate cost, relative to a hypothetical perfect system, if asteroids are such a big concern it still makes sense to ask why NASA is spending money on anything OTHER than asteroids.

    Tradeoffs and politics will always be with us.

  10. if asteroids are such a big concern it still makes sense to ask why NASA is spending money on anything OTHER than asteroids.


    Circle gets the square.

    This is the problem Jonathan, people only want to hear feel-good international discovery stories from NASA, not boring scanning-the-sky-for-asteroids stories, so NASA gets funding for scientifically worthless projects like the ISS or the space shuttle.

    The problem isn’t “malaria prevention or asteroid mitigation”- we already have the money for both. NASA needs to be overhauled and the issue needs to get more significant funding.

    What bothers me is that much like the Indian Ocean warning system, it is unlikely that majority of taxpayers or the people who decide NASA’s budget will take the asteroid threat seriously until we have a huge disaster resulting from an impact.

    We have a slow learning curve in this regard.

  11. It’s possible that asteroids won’t be taken seriously until there’s a catastrophe, but it’s also possible that such a dramatic issue will get enough people interested to move the issue politically. It’s an empirical question. There certainly seem to be a lot of people who are concerned about asteroids. I think it’s possible that people will overweight the threat of asteroids and underweight the threat of, e.g., malaria. That’s what people tend to do WRT, e.g., diabetes vs. street crime. People tend to overweight the odds of spectacular bad events and underweight the odds of quiet ones.

    And if we’re going to deal with asteroids, why do we even need NASA? Congress could put the job up for bid, or pay a bounty to the first company or consortium that provided a within-budget solution.

  12. Jonathan,

    First of all, we will be lucky if the next major impact that hits the planet doesn’t destroy civilization or seriously hinder our development. So the point could quite possibly be moot after the fact. Second, NASA is already well involved in the NEO mitigation efforts, and between themselves and JPL they have some incredible resources to work with. It would be foolish to not utilize the available minds and resources we already have within NASA and JPL. The problem isn’t should they do something, the problem is they aren’t doing enough.

    On the 14th of January, the Deep Impact Mission leaves to follow a comet and shoot an impactor at it in hopes of determining its composition. This mission will provide valuable insights in to future missions concerning Asteroids and other potential impactors.

    There are already other projects ongoing to practice our ability to mitigate asteroids- see the following for example-

    The point is, as you stated earlier, “if asteroids are such a big concern” (they aren’t but should be) “it still makes sense to ask why NASA is spending money on anything OTHER than asteroids.” (or asteroid mitigating realted projects).

    The Space shuttle for example, as rewarding aesthetically as it is, is scientifically useless. It is no longer providing any meaningful return on the considerable investment we taxpayers have made in the project. A truly well funded asteroid mitigation project, which would cost but a fraction of the Space Shuttle project, would provide a return far more valuable than how spiders spin webs in zero-gravity.

    We may not ever use the information we gain from a mitigation project in our lifetimes, but I don’t have health insurance because I hope to get sick.

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