Sunday, August 13, 2017

"Rational" Optimism?

I just finished this long, rather convoluted meditation on “rational optimism”.  Must we admit the world is getting better, getting better all the time?

Really, there are two types of multidimensionality that need to be considered.  The first is that “better” is, if it’s anything, vector valued.  Many aspects of life go into its calculation, as well as the distribution of outcomes across places and peoples.  Typically some things will be getting better and others worse, so either we abandon blanket judgments or we propose weights.  Instead the discussion on both sides is a combination of hard (or hard-ish) numbers for particular indicators, like life expectancy and poverty, and vague aggregations like “most” or “in general”.

Second, the financial notions of alpha and beta are highly relevant to this discussion.  What matters is both the mean outcome of interest and the risk attached to it.  In a sense, the modern world has purchased yield (realized material benefits) at the cost of greater tail risk (catastrophic climate change, nuclear war).  This should be obvious, but the point is that reward cannot be evaluated apart from risk.

I’m not passing judgment on the bottom line (if there even is one), just saying that, if optimism/pessimism is a matter worth speculating on, we might as well do it in a disciplined way.

3 comments: said...

Many people do well in their lives by many different measures, even as I think nobody escapes all bad things. But if one is in such a situation and foresees it for good reasons, I think we can say that they were "rationally optimistic."

Peter T said...

Two somewhat unrelated remarks:

1. Just read Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary, in which he makes the point that optimism is very much part of the left brain's way of looking at things, tied in with its penchant for formalism and rationalism.

2. Over what timeframe are we optimistic? Christian martyrs famously went to death cheerfully, assured that any bad thing now was outweighed by an eternity of bliss. Aristocrats and gentry sweated on behalf of their lineages, not themselves, so should their grandson's projected prosperity count against their current outlook?

Or: One million aborigines lived in Australia for c 50,000 years. After some initial disruption, they settled on a life that could have been maintained for another 50,000 without degradation. 25 million newcomers have been here 200 years, and it is very doubtful that they can sustain anything near their present standard for even another 50, what with topsoil loss, species loss, water loss, invasive species and climate change (to which Australians contribute substantially). So do we measure 50/100 billion person-years at a modest level against against 2.5 billion at a higher level? Or what?

I don't think optimism needs reasons - it's an attitude.

Bruce Wilder said...

Then, there's the whole lying with statistics thing, which economists do assiduously. The World Bank assures us that hundreds of millions somewhere are being pulled across the $1/day line, but events like the Arab Spring, triggered as neoliberal policy drags the masses in the other direction (toward despair and near-starvation) do not show up in their average trend. Do we suppose that the cholera in Yemen shows up in the statistics?

There is something suspiciously abstract about this optimism which refuses to reconcile with concrete events.