Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Survivorship and the Precautionary Principle

Hindsight and Confirmation biases aid each other dearly.

Surely by now you've chuckled into your sleeve at some of the preposterous historical claims about how the Internet would be a flash in the pan, or about how we'd all be living in geodesic domes, eating reconstituted foods, traveling by jet-car, and sending our kids to summer camp on the moon. Prediction is hard, especially about the future.

Note well however, what the Precautionary Principle attempts to do. It slings on the back of mulish regulators the saddlebags of not just ordinary prediction, but anticipation of Calliopic non-ergodic entangled threats, dolloping kaibosh after kaibosh atop the delicate sundae of human invention.

Shannon Chamberlain: Railroads: stopping deaths from turning into famines since 1775...

Lynne Kiesling: [nit picky economic historian] since 1815 [/nit picky economic historian]. Shannon, I may plagiarize you on that in my classes! 1815 is the approximate date when Stephenson's Rocket became commercially available, after Watt's low-pressure steam engine patents expired, which had thwarted the development of high-pressure steam engines since 1776.

Samuel L Wilson: Shouldn't it be 1827, when the B&O first started running?

Why do I adore this exchange? Shannon's claim is that the initial development of commercially viable steam powered travel was the significant evolution of rail. Lynne made the point that the bottleneck in the development of the technology was patent squatting. My approach is to refrain from counting chickens until they're hatched. Each of these claims has some merit, albeit from different approaches. I'd give credit on an exam for any of these, contingent on an appropriate defense of the claim.

"Inevitablity" is immutably ex post. It wasn't "inevitable" in 1602 that the following year Japan would ditch foreign trade, fold its arms, and lionize the warrior class till Commodore Perry crested the horizon, the ruddy light of the rising sun backlighting his sails. Similarly, James Watt's external condenser (this word still gives me the heebie-jeebies two decades after having worked in an engine room for my Naval stint) is a necessary development for intercity rail transportation, but it's not sufficient. Like Professor Kiesling notes, the regulatory environment influences which technologies flourish and which can end up throttled on the workshop floor.

And as I point out, there may be good reason ex ante to indulge patience. Can we count 2009 as quando ex for cryptocurrency? Or will 2014 and the rise of dogecoin matter? Regular circulation sometime in the future? Could the PP have killed rail in 1815? What can the PP kill today?

How much less euvoluntary will the world be if innovation is stifled from overactive applications of the precautionary principle?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?