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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Building a Flexible Democracy


Today Katherine Arbuthnott and I were having our Thursday morning breakfast together at Tangerine at the bracing hour of 7:30.  (We've done this four Thursday mornings in a row, so I suspect that constitutes a tradition in the twenty-first century.)  But Tangerine has deadly scones and great jazz, and Katherine and I have conversations that range from children and grandchildren to saving the world from itself, so stealing time early on Thursday is definitely worth it.  We were laughing about women who buy the latest anti-wrinkle cream or the lotion that makes your skin luminous.  We weren't laughing at them, you understand.  We were laughing at this example of what economists call "sunk costs."  You've done it:  invested in something you can tell isn't working and then invested in even more in it, just in case you're not using enough cream or drinking enough water with echinacea or giving that deadbeat lover enough of a chance.  You've invested more in a losing strategy just to prove you're not a complete fool.  Here's how Katherine describes it in a paper she's working on:

"The term 'sunk cost' refers to previous investments that are irretrievable, but have no influence on future outcomes.  Thus, consideration of such past costs for future investments violates the principles of rational decision-making.  This is a reasoning error because we cannot change the past (e.g., recover spent resources), but we can make better or worse decisions about future strategies, independent of our past decisions or mistakes."

After we got through laughing about the useless cream and the even more useless lover, we considered what this theory tells us about how we're responding to climate change.  Because building a Keystone XL Pipeline or a Northern Gateway Project  is sunk cost with a vengeance.  Yes, fossil fuels have made possible the culture and technology that heats and lights our homes and keeps us in contact with farflung friends and even organizes uprisings against dictators.  But first, we know that supply is limited.  Second, we know that we're overheating the planet and destroying habitats and plant and animal species.  So why aren't our leaders (sorry:  you've heard me harp on this before) changing directions and putting money behind solar or geothermal sources of energy?

It turns out there are reasons why we pursue losing policies, reasons that public opinion--yours--might do something about.  First, leaders are severely criticized for changing their minds.  We don't see this as a rational shift brought about by better and newer data.  It's waffling.  But surely at a time when change is occurring so fast that few of us can keep up (how many of you have updated your Facebook home page and embraced the new format?), changing your mind might be a virtue.  If we praise these changes, say about the decision not to spend billions on fighter jets, we might make it easier for leaders to reconsider their policies and their choices.

Second, even when we're given good information about choices, we almost always see the information about the choice we've been inclined to make as better than information that contradicts our past decisions.  So we need to build into our decision-making committees and our governments room for the devil's advocate who can call us on that bias.  We might have called that advocate "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition" (as an American, I love that phrase), except that they seem to be understandably in disarray right now.  But maybe we can inject the virtues of the devil's advocates in our conversations over the next three years or so and help Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition see the honour in and importance of that role.  We all need a reality check:  that's why I've got wise people like Bill and Veronica and Katherine in my life.  It's perfectly honourable to embrace people who tell you occasionally that...you get my drift.  So let's make it honourable and functional in politics and in other groups that undertake important decisions.

I came home from breakfast to my other task for the day:  to write the introduction to my chapter on Mrs Dalloway.  That accomplished,  I took myself off for a glorious walk on the creek bank.  I joined the world of dog people, including one young man who wanted to tell me about his 9-week-old Brittany Spaniel who nibbled my fingers, and whippet who put her sleek, elegant head into my outstretched hands.  Am I a dog person in a cat person's body or a cat person in a dog person's body?  I noticed that at the Robinson Street Bridge willow leaves fell after the ice formed and now the ice around them is melting more quickly, so it looks like the creek is full of tiny, flashing 3-D fish. I overheard snippets of conversations about someone's instability and the tea towels that were in the box along with....  I know, I know, having this walk on the 15th of March is gloriously abnormal.  But the warm weather isn't a nice side-effect of climate change; it's caused by a shift in the polar jet stream.  The lack of snow and the grass fires are a worrisome result of the kinds of fluctuations in precipitation patterns we can expect.

So, besides your own secret story of sunk costs, you've got a story about what happens when we get out of our houses and our cars and are living in the world, on the earth and in the mud and breeze again.  That experience is worth saving.  So let's get busy and talk about ways we and our leaders can honourably change our minds and embrace our inner devil's advocate.

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