Posts Tagged ‘Paradox’

The Paradox of Hot Food

April 17, 2015

I’ve wondered why food abroad (which almost always means somewhere warmer) often is more spicy than the typical, Norwegian cuisine. A part of the explanation is likely that few spices grow north. In David Landes The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, after extensive discussions of European trade and shipping routes across the world from the 1400’s and onwards, with spice as an important commodity, I came across the following anecdote.

The Spice of Life

People of our day may wonder why pepper and other condiments were worth so much to Europeans of long ago. The reason lay in the problem of food preservation in a world of marginal subsistence. Food supply in the form of cereals barely sufficed, and it was not possible to devote large quantities of grain to animals during long winters, excepting of course breeding stock, draft animals, and horses. Hence the traditional autumnal slaughter. To keep this meat around the calendar, through hot and cold, in a world without artificial refrigeration, it was smoked, corned, spiced, and otherwise preserved; when cooked, the meat was heavily seasoned, the better to hide the taste and odor of spoilage. Hence the paradox that the cuisine of warmer countries is typically “hotter” than that of colder lands–there is more to hide.

Condiments brought a further dividend. The people of that day could not know this, but the stronger spices worked to kill or weaken the bacteria and viruses that promoted and fed on decay. […] Spices, then, were not merely a luxury in medieval Europe but also a necessity, as their market value testified.


More on the Population & Greenhouse Gas Cap Paper

April 8, 2009

In a previous post, I discussed a paper by Henning Bohn and Charles Stuart. After some second thoughts, I’ve come to some further conclusions.

First of all, it can be argued that the paradox I discussed in my previous post is simply a result of a paradoxical model. It’s paradoxical that productivity growth rates would stay constant for ever with dramatic shifts in both the population level and the environmental quality (which is presumed in the model where emissions are capped; alternatively substitute environmental quality with production technology).

Second, the model presumes that people not participating in the production fase don’t receive any income and thus cannot exist. In a world with a high productivity of labor, a relatively small work force could sustain a large population; through a tax scheme, for example.

Related post:

Population under a Cap on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

April 2, 2009

I just attended a seminar on the effect a cap on greenhouse gas emissions would have on population dynamics. Here’s the abstract:

Imposition of a cap on greenhouse gas emissions changes the economy’s growth path and causes total emissions to become a fixed common-property resource. Because total emissions equal population times emissions per person, a marginal birth under a cap reduces emissions per person, in turn reducing living standards. The implied negative population externality causes the optimal population to be less than the population that would arise naturally. The population externality is substantial in some simulations.

The paper is written by Henning Bohn and Charles Stuart, both at the Department of Economics, University of California at Santa Barbara; Charles Stuart was the presenter.

One very interesting finding in the paper is that, given that productivity of both labor and emissions may grow,* the population declines in the steady state whenever the growth rate of labor productivity is higher than that of emission productivity. That is, emissions cannot grow, and while labor productivity grows faster than emission productivity, fewer and fewer people are required to participate in the production process. The result may seem absurd or paradoxical: The presumed motivation for capping emission is to save the environment and have a livable climate, but the cap implies a population decline. A declining human population would in the long run mean that humans go extinct. In other words, we have a choice when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions: Keep emitting, destroy the environment, and go extinct fast on a dry, hot, and hostile planet; taking the global eco-system, as we know it, with us. Or, cap emissions, save the environment, and go extinct slowly in a gradually improving and more and more friendly and fertile environment. (For the record, Stuart did not put any emphasis on this aspect of his results.)

We had a short discussion about the apparent paradoxical result, and thinking about the discussion afterward, I came up with an alternative interpretation. The alternative interpretation is that we know we need to cap emissions, but at the same time we need to improve on the productivity growth of emissions to accomodate a seemingly inevitable increase in the population. Personally, I think the second interpretation is more valuable than the first. (The model of Bohn and Stuart imposes an optimal tax to control the population according to the limitation an emission cap introduces. In the model, it wouldn’t be necessary to worry about an increasing population when the cap is enforced, but in the real world, we  know things aren’t quite like that. The point is, even if it did, we still would need to improve the productivity of emissions, and even more so in an imperfect world.)

* The model is quite simple and stylistic and abstracts from a lot of stuff (the harmful effect of emissions, for example): The production function only incorporates labor and emissions; exchange emissions for capital and you got the simplest standard production function. Whether it makes sense to put emissions into the production function like that, I’m not sure.

Skyscrapers Are Green

March 23, 2009

Bringing down carbon emissions requires us to drive less, and Americans particularly so. A couple of economists studied the carbon footprint from living in different areas in the U.S. (see story here):

In almost every metropolitan area, we found the central city residents emitted less carbon than the suburban counterparts. In New York and San Francisco, the average urban family emits more than two tons less carbon annually because it drives less. In Nashville, the city-suburb carbon gap due to driving is more than three tons. After all, density is the defining characteristic of cities. All that closeness means that people need to travel shorter distances, and that shows up clearly in the data.

In an extended account of the study, Gleaser (the author) highlights some of the paradoxes in true environmentalism:

[…] if you want to be good to the environment, stay away from it. Move to high-rise apartments surrounded by plenty of concrete. Americans who settle in leafy, low-density suburbs will leave a significantly deeper carbon footprint, it turns out, than Americans who live cheek by jowl in urban towers. And a second paradox follows from the first. When environmentalists resist new construction in their dense but environmentally friendly cities, they inadvertently ensure that it will take place somewhere else—somewhere with higher carbon emissions. Much local environmentalism, in short, is bad for the environment.

It’s hardly surprising that living in cities requires less driving and less heating. It also seem plausible that constructing new houses, with all the wires and pipes that needs to be connected, should be easier and greener in densly populated areas than in the suburbs and in the country-side.

In the article, Gleaser claims that it is paradoxical that staying away from the environment is good for it. Can someone please explain to me the paradox in that? If a piece of environment is to be kept in a pristine or anything close to a natural state, of couse you have to stay away from it.

Hat-tip: Freakonomics

A Smilansky paradox: Beneficial Retirement

November 23, 2008

This is my second post on Saul Smilansky’s ’10 Moral Paradoxes.’ My first post addressed the paradox of Fortunate Misfortune. Now, I would like to address the second paradox Smilansky discusses in his book; the paradox of Beneficial Retirement.

 Smilansky claims that a large share of those in a particular job/position should consider retirement because of the likeliness of someone better than them replacing them; a better replacement would be beneficial. Particularly, this applies to typical ‘offical’ jobs (e.g., doctors, researchers) that often are less exposed to competition than many jobs in the private sector (at least once you are in the job). I don’t like this idea. This implicitly demands that everyone (because the argument really applies to everyone) put everyone else above themselves, and I think that is to demand (and hope) for too much from people. And, the situation does not exactly support a stable society, where half the workforce (at any given time, the way I read Smilansky) gave up their job and went searching for other jobs or did not contribute at all. It hardly sounds like a beneficial situation. I guess that since Smilansky writes books on philosophy (instead of applying vacant jobs), he considers himself at least in the top half among philosophers. I am alarmed; me, an amateur philosopher, easily finds holes and problems in much of his thinking. On p. 28, Smilansky claims that the difficulty can be seen when he claims that a doctor cannot ‘sensibly and consistently’ make the following statements:
1. I am a doctor because I want people to be healthier; and
2. I will continue to work as a doctor.
(Smilansky presents the statements for three different examples, but that does not make any difference and is unecessary, I think.) Well, I conjure that many doctors are not doctors because they want people to be healthier, but rather because of a range of reasons, possibly, but not necessarily including wanting people to be healthier. Also, I disargee with Smilansky’s claim that the replacement is probably better than those employed for half the workforce. (Half is very much; where do all those people come from; is there enough buss drivers in Norway to replace half of them currently employed with those unemployed?) Of course, half is just a number and could have been whatever, the point is that it is relatively large. This particular issue requires some refinement, and I am surprised that Smilansky does not discuss this. The betterness of a replacement employee depends on the time scale the skills are measured; I am certain that seniority and experience is very important in many jobs, and when a replacement has gained that seniority and experience he might turn out to be better than the first employee. Ironically, he would never get the chance, because all these recently retired competitors with a lot of experience is knocking on the door and the newcommer is morally required to give up his job, according to Smilansky. Secondly, the benefit of the better replacement has a large time lag compared to the inital retirement of the previous emploee; the benefit is less worth when we have to wait for it.

Following my arguements above, I think there are two big problems with the paradox of Beneficial Retirment. First, it would not be beneficial if people were to consider retirement all the time. Second, it doubt the benefits to be reaped. Paradoxically, Smilansky may be aware of these problems, because he imposes a set of ‘underlying conditions’ for the paradox which avoids the problems I raise (p. 24). I find no reason to excuse Smilansky, however, for imposing unrealistic conditions. The conditions turns the paradox into a hypothetical paradox which may find its best use as entertainment.

Fortunate Misfortune, a philosophical paradox?

November 18, 2008

Saul Smilansky's 10 Moral ParadoxesI’m reading Saul Smilansky’s ’10 Moral Paradoxes’. It is a very small book, and according to Smilansky it addresses a neglected field in ethics (p. 2). I enjoy philosophy (or at least I think I do; I’m afraid I’m don’t really know what philosophy is; what I’m familiar with is mainly philosophy of science), and I find paradoxes entertaining, so ’10 Moral Paradoxes’ caught my attention at some point.

I have many problems with this book (more than I remember actually; I have to start to keep notes) and I want to discuss some of them here on my blog. Before I get to ‘Fortunate Misfortune’, however, I should make (somewhat) clear what Smilansky thinks of as a paradox. There’s two extreme and oposite ideas of a paradox; a paradox is a logical contradiction, or merely something unexpected or ironic. Smilansky deliberatly places himself somewhere inbetween these extremes, and does not require a strict logical contradiction but still wants to be ‘quite rigorous’ in what he considers a paradox (p. 3). The way I see things, what he discusses is often merely hypothetical paradoxes, and I ask: Is a hypothetical paradox a paradox, and, more important, is it interesting? I could give you an example of what I mean, but I won’t; I trust you are able to conjure a hypothetical paradox yourself. Is it interesting?

So, the first chapter in ’10 Moral Paradoxes’ concerns Fortunate Misfortune (capitalized to be safe). Smilansky claims that sometimes, misfortune can be fortunate and that such fortunate misfortune is paradoxical. Well, I do not disagree to the paradoxical figure of speech (fortunate misfortune), but I do only agree to it in the ironic sense of paradox; if one should be more strict in what one regards as a paradox, Fortunate Misfortune is not a paradox.

Let me be more specific. To illustrate what he means by Fortunate Misfortune, Smilansky provides examples (p. 12) (I observe that philosophers more than anyone argues through examples and I find it highly dissatisfying; I touched upon my dissatisfaction with examples as ‘definitions’ earlier). His main example is that of Abigail who were born with breathing difficulty and a muscle disease that made it hard for her to use her legs. Her doctor told her to swim alot. Later, her breathing and legs became normal, but she continued to swim and became a world champion swimmer. The point is that Abigail had misfortune early in life, but in the end it turned out to be a fortune for her because it introduced her to swimming. (Smilansky provides deails to ensure that she would probably not swim much if she was normal as a child.) First of all, for there to be a paradox, the misfortune has to be the deterministic cause of her later fortune. Such determinism is impossible in practice (to become a world champion swimmer you need the right genes; with those genes she might have become sucessfull in some other sport or something else for that matter; only getting those genes is fortunate as beeing conceived is a lottery; fortunate circumstances made it possible for her to start swimming at an early age, and I can go on listing necessary fortunes in her life for her to become a world champion swimmer) and Smilansky’s Fortunate Misfortune paradox is at best hypothetical, and not a very interesting one. Second, Smilansky points out that he only considers cases where the misfortune has been severe or serious to qualify for his sense of paradox (p. 13). The later fortune has to be equally ‘severe’ as it is supposed to compensate Abigail for her sufferings in her childhood. Can later fortune compensate one for earlier misfortune? (A technical argument here is discounting, and makes the paradox dependent on whether Abigail is forward or backward looking (I just realized that I don’t really know how to treat backward looking discounting!), or whether it is an independent philosopher who observes and assesses the paradox. Abilgail, by the way, is most probably backward looking as anything else would remove the example so far away from reality that it might not be interesting anymore; the Fortunate Misfortune paradox looses interest value as it removes itself from reality in my eyes. And then I haven’t mentioned risk aversion.) And is seriousness truly necessary? I think it would be much less problematic to conjure examples of small misfortunes that were compensated by later fortunes that is conditional on the first misoftunes. The causal issue would also be much easy to establish with smaller events. I am disappointed that Smilansky does not realize this. Another problem is that we cannot observe Abigail’s alternative lives; maybe her illness was only a mild case of what was most probable given whatever conditions that lead to her illness; maybe she could have had an even better life had she never been ill (she could have been an even better swimmer; or been good at something more rewarding altogehther).

I think what Smilansky struggles with in chapter 1 of his ’10 Moral Paradoxes’ is merely a hypothetical paradox. I also wonders what he (and others) put into the words ‘fortune’ and ‘misfortune’. In a lottery where each draw is independent of each other, one can only talk about fortune and misfortune per draw; later fortunes are not dependent on neiter earlier fortunes nor misfortunes. In life, however, things are more complicated. Things depend on each other in ways we don’t understand, and on things we don’t realize matter at all. ‘Fortune’ or ‘misfortune’ then has to apply to a specific set of events. It is misfortunate to become sick. It is fortunate to have a great talent. But when one combines events, like ‘become sick, start training, get well, be stronger than before’, one may call that chain fortunate since one ends up stronger than before (here I go, arguing in examples myself, jeez), and still consider it unfortunate to become sick. I don’t see a paradox here; the fortune and misfortune applies to different sets of events; they operate on different scales.

Even though (or maybe because) I have several problems with ’10 Moral Paradoxes’, I still find it an interesting and rewarding read. Particularly, I enjoy its brevity. If there’s one thing many academics (myself included (ok, semi-academic), see above for example; not exactly brief) need to pay more attention to, it is the art of brevity. Many of the paradoxes under scrutiny spur ideas and new thoughts, and I plan to discuss some of these later. So stay tuned for more Smilansky!