Wednesday 11 November 2009

Slippery slopes: theory and practice

Glen Whitman continues blogging on paternalism and slippery slopes, this time focusing on hyperbolic discounting. Money quote
Quasi-hyperbolic discounting makes it deceptively simple to choose the “correct” rate of discount, since there appear to be only two options. If real people actually engage in hyperbolic discounting, this implies a gradient or continuum of discount rates over time. If we assume, notwithstanding our earlier objections, that the immediate discount rate is impulsive or ill-considered, which of the longer-term rates is normatively preferable? There is nothing in the logic of new paternalism or behavioral economics that can provide an answer. We are faced with a continuum of normative possibilities. These arguments impel us to the conclusion that among the discount rates revealed in choice or planning behavior, none has a clear claim to normative superiority. Thus, the new paternalist is in a conceptual fog because his underlying standard of evaluation is unspecified. The notion of “excessive impatience” is both theoretically and empirically vague, and that means we have a gradient of possibilities. There is no clear line to resist the gradual creep of higher savings requirements, higher fat taxes, and the like.
In the set of posts so far, Whitman has nicely laid out some of the theory on slippery slopes. Chris Snowdon at Velvet Glove, Iron Fist provides the empirical counterpart, highlighting the shifting positions of the anti-tobacco folks over time. The post is beautiful, do read the whole thing. It opens with Stanton Glantz's assertion that slippery slope arguments are fallacious, then looks at the shifting goals of Action on Smoking and Health over the last forty years.
Back in 1968, ASH ostensibly existed as a pressure group to resist cigarette advertising on television to protect children. When the Los Angeles Times interviewed him in that year, he was insistent that he was anti-smoking, not anti-smoker, as their reporter explained:
"Banzhaf doesn't smoke but he denies his crusade is based on an antipathy for smokers and smoking. "You can smoke," he said. "That's all right. I just don't want children brainwashed into it."
Fast forward to 2009 and Banzhaf has a very different attitude. He now describes ASH as "a national organization leading the fight to protect nonsmokers from thirdhand smoke." ('Thirdhand smoke' being an ill-defined chimera based on a telephone survey which has no credibilty amongst serious scientists). For several years, he has been a leading voice in the campaign for smokers to be discriminated against in custody battles. Not only has he called for the children of divorced couples to be given to the nonsmoking parent, but he now believes that the smoking parent should be compelled by law to "change clothing and use a mouthwash before the child visits." Last year, he appeared on television to explain why it was "legal and profitable" for companies to "fire smokers and employ only nonsmokers."

It is safe to say that Banzhaf would have never been taken seriously had he proposed even one of these policies in the 1970s. Instead he has taken baby steps to win a long series of small victories, all the while calling for compromise and reasonable accommodation. This article documents a few examples of how he has achieved this.
Note that much of the above quote, at the original source, comes with nice links to the relevant sources.

Snowdon then gives the nice set of quotes over time from Banzhaf (all my paraphrasings unless in quotes)
  • 1977: Banning smoking on the streets would cause problems, but having laws mandating separate smoking sections, with the restrictions not too onerous, that should be reasonable.

  • 1979: "We have no objection whatsoever if you ...want to go into smokeasies and smoke all day long. We just object that you do it around us."

  • 1986: Anti-smoking organisations don't want to ban smoking, we just want separate sections for non-smokers.

  • 1993: "A non-smoking section? There ain't no such thing. Tobacco smoke drifts, it is recirculated."

  • 2006: "The ultimate goal is to have a smoke-free society...we will not be tolerating it on public places, streets, outdoors, or anywhere else."

Lots more great stuff at the original post, showing the slippery slopes on smoking in bars, planes, smoking and non-smoking sections... do read the whole thing.

Alcohol's already part way down the slope. The New Zealand Law Commission has an open ear for suggestions of reasonable accommodations between the prohibitionists and the status quo; when the whole thing is revisited again in ten years' time, the status-quo's goalposts will again have shifted, and we'll find a new midpoint between tomorrow's status quo and complete prohibition. The asymptotic result is pretty obvious. Next up is fatty foods.

Wouldn't it be nice if the folks on the chopping block would pull together against paternalism, full stop, rather than seeing the piecemeal regulatory changes as ways of getting temporary advantage against competitors.

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