Shandrew (shandrew) wrote,

recent good reads

1. The ethics of climate change, by John Broome, from Scientific American. This isn't a scientific article, but a very well-written essay on why choosing a discount rate when analyzing a multi-generational issue is not only an economic question, but an ethical one. Here's an excerpt (hopefully not a spoiler?):
The discount rate also depends on an ethical factor. How should benefits to those future, richer people be valued in comparison to our own? If prioritarianism is right, the value attached to future people’s benefits should be less than the value of our benefits, because future people will be better off than we are. If utilitarianism is right, future people’s benefits should be valued equally with ours. Prioritarianism therefore makes for a relatively high discount rate; utilitarianism makes for a lower one.

The debate between prioritarians and utilitarians takes a curious, even poignant turn in this context. Most debates about inequality take place among the relatively rich, when they consider what sacrifices they should make for the relatively poor. But when we think about future people, we are considering what sacrifices we, the relatively poor, should make for the later relatively rich. Usually prioritarianism demands more of the developed countries than utilitarianism does. In this case, it demands less.

I agree with the overall premise of the article. However, there is one major omission. The discount rate only indicates whether the investment is worth making or not, versus doing the status quo. However, if there are any long-term massive investments with greater returns, then those are more favorable and should be done first, regardless of discount rate.

2. Feynman's work at Thinking Machines
To find out how well this would work in practice, Feynman had to write a computer program for QCD [Quantum chromodynamics, a theory of the internal workings of atomic particles such as protons]. Since the only computer language Richard was really familiar with was Basic, he made up a parallel version of Basic in which he wrote the program and then simulated it by hand to estimate how fast it would run on the Connection Machine.

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