28
Oct
11

Problems we know about and don’t intend to fix

Robin Hanson has a neat post up about — do I even need to finish that sentence?  Of course it’s something to do with signaling and inefficiency:

By way of a for-instance, if you step on one of the moving sidewalks in Minneapolis airport, you’ll notice white strobes at the end of each segment of moving sidewalk, accompanied by a recording of a woman admonishing, in a decidedly not Midwestern accent: “Coe-shun.  You ah nee-ring the end ove a moo-ving woe-kway.”  Hanson points out that rather than fix the problem (some people trip up on the transition, injure themselves, and sue the airport), these warnings demonstrate

common knowledge that we are well aware of problems we don’t intend to fix. We all know these warnings are excessive, bothersome, and counterproductive. But we also know that they are a reaction to lawsuits where jurors give big awards to show their concern and loyalty for accident victims, and hostility and defiance toward big organizations. When we repeatedly see thousands of others notice and ignore this problem, we learn that we have decided to let that symbolic support continue, accepting the useless-bothersome-warnings costs it imposes.

[…]

So the more that informed folks see cases like excess airport warnings, where everyone seems pretty clearly aware that we’d rather accept high costs and bother to let symbolic signals continue, the more they should reasonably conclude that this holds for our other big problems as well. Why try to work to end a wasteful war on terror, for example, if most everyone seems ok with wasting vast sums to continue to signal our support for terror victims?

Austin Frakt identifies another problem we know about and don’t intend to fix, and presents a difficult-to-rebut rejoinder to Hanson’s last question:

Is this a scary graph, or what?

However, as Dr. Frakt notes, there’s no reason to be worried that this very scenario will play out, for the simple reason that we can’t get there from here:

It is relatively uncontroversial that the scenario depicted above will not happen. It will either not happen in a catastrophic way: soon after the debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 90%, as expected in 2021, the US will face growing interest rates that will constrain borrowing. We will be forced to slash program spending. Or, the above scenario will not happen in a kinder, gentler way: we will begin to get health spending and deficit spending under control, as well as increase tax revenue. Those will allow us to step back from the cliff.

At some point, reality will intervene, and we won’t be able to continue ignoring this problem.  This is much the same thing as stating that if one jumps out of a building, at some point they will hit the ground.  It’s not the fall that gets you, it’s the sudden stop at the end.

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