We say tradeoffs, but we really mean choices

We're often confronted with new information or new possibilities. This means we often have to make choices between different alternatives. Since our minds like symmetry, we tend to think of choices as tradeoffs. We tend to think that for every good thing we get, there is a cost associated. And while that's often the case, it isn't always the case. Sometimes a new possibility comes along that is just plain better than the old set of circumstances.

At the other end of the spectrum is when all the choices are more or less equivalent. This is the classic tradeoff situation.

And in between choices with no downsides (on the one hand), and tradeoffs (on the other) is a large gray area, where one choice is better than the others, but maybe not by much. So they're still tradeoffs, in a way, but not between equivalent choices.

And of course, it's not always easy to tell which category a particular choice falls into. And even when the benefits and detriments of each choice are clear, most of us have value systems that contain multiple values in uneasy balance. And different people have different sets of values. All of which means choices are often difficult, and reasonable people can disagree.

In the policy world, it's often the case that we have to choose between alternatives that have both winners and losers, spread over time or over space (and by "space" I mean they affect different people). So often a proposed policy favors one group at the expense of another, or favors our present selves at the expense of our future selves (or at the expense of other people in the future).

Libertarians commonly use the TANSTAAFL ["there ain't no such thing as a free lunch] adage to point out that services provided ‘free’ by governments will, in general, have an opportunity cost. ‘Free’ provision of some service must be funded either by higher taxes or by reductions in other areas of public expenditure. The more general point [is] that it’s necessary to look at the full opportunity cost of any good or service, and not just the immediate price….

But there is a contradiction here. Most economists think that improved economic policy could yield better outcomes for everyone, even though they may disagree about which policies would yield this result. Libertarians, who extol the benefits of rolling back the state and giving markets free rein, are no exception to this rule. The same is true of technological advances that allow us to do more with less, for example, by producing goods and services with smaller inputs of labor, energy and capital.

A free lunch is ‘something for nothing’, that is a benefit obtained with no opportunity cost. The TANSTAAFL adage embodies an important truth applicable to many apparent ‘free lunches’, in which the true opportunity cost is carefully hidden.

If TANSTAAFL were literally true, however, humanity could never have risen above a subsistence level of existence. Every technological advance since people first learned how to make flint tools and control fire has provided a potential free lunch, literally and metaphorically, for humanity as a whole. The same is true of improvements in social and economic organization that have allowed larger and larger groups to co-operate in mutually beneficial ways.

TANSTAAFL holds if and only if there are no free lunches left on the table, which in turn will only happen if all options for technological progress have been exhausted and, in addition, the economic system is functioning perfectly.

- TISATAAFL — Crooked Timber

Some examples of tradeoffs

In environmentalism

Chipotle illustrates the folly of renouncing GMOs in the name of herbicide control. According to its new policy, “All corn-based ingredients in Chipotle’s food that formerly may have been genetically modified have been removed or replaced with non-GMO versions, while all soy-derived ingredients that may have been genetically modified were replaced with alternatives, such as rice bran oil and sunflower oil.”

But shifting to sunflower oil is demonstrably counterproductive. As NPR’s Dan Charles points out, “many sunflower varieties, while not genetically modified, also are herbicide-tolerant. They were bred to tolerate a class of herbicides called ALS inhibitors. And since farmers start[ed] relying on those herbicides, many weeds have evolved resistance to them. In fact, many more weeds have become resistant to ALS inhibitors than to glyphosate.”

That’s just one example of how tricky it is to assess the effects of swearing off GMOs. Roundup isn’t the only herbicide, genetic engineering isn’t the only technology that creates herbicide tolerance, and your health (which is no more likely to be affected by a given herbicide in GE food than in non-GE food) is just one of many factors to consider. To judge the environmental wisdom of switching from a GMO to a non-GMO product, you’d have to know which pesticides each product involves and how those pesticides affect species that live where the crops are grown. None of that is on the label.

You’d also have to consider the environmental benefits of agricultural efficiency. By making cropland more productive, with less output lost to weeds and insects, GMOs reduce the amount of land that has to be farmed and the amount of water that’s wasted. Herbicide-tolerant crops even mitigate climate change by reducing the need to till fields, which erodes soil and releases greenhouse gases.

The more you learn about herbicide resistance, the more you come to understand how complicated the truth about GMOs is. First you discover that they aren’t evil. Then you learn that they aren’t perfectly innocent. Then you realize that nothing is perfectly innocent. Pesticide vs. pesticide, technology vs. technology, risk vs. risk—it’s all relative. The best you can do is measure each practice against the alternatives. The least you can do is look past a three-letter label.

- Are GMOs safe? Yes. The case against them is full of fraud, lies, and errors.

Monarch butterfly populations have declined significantly in recent years and many people have pointed the finger at two culprits, GMO corn and the herbicide glyphosate, otherwise known as Roundup. The former association is simply specious, but the latter is not. There is a correlation between glyphosate use and butterfly decline. But it’s not that glyphosate is killing the butterfly. It is an herbicide that targets plants, not insects. Rather, glyphosate is killing milkweed, a weed in which monarchs lay their eggs. While the decline of monarch butterflies is an unintended consequence of glyphosate use, the elimination of milkweed is not. It is one of the weeds that the herbicide is supposed to get rid of.

The trade-off here is straightforward and zero sum. You can either have more milkweed in cornfields or higher yields, but you can’t have both. If you choose more milkweed, then you are choosing lower yields, and, all else being equal, that means putting more land under cultivation to achieve the same level of agricultural output. With that comes attendant losses of habitat and biodiversity elsewhere.


Low-productivity food systems have devastating impacts on the environment. As much as three-quarters of all deforestation globally occurred prior to the Industrial Revolution, almost entirely due to two related uses, clearing land for agriculture and using wood for energy. Indeed, many places that we now think of as vast wilderness were once farmed. Even the Amazon basin, long thought to have been a primeval Eden turns out to have been the site of extensive agriculture prior to the decimation of the pre-Columbian population due to conquest and disease. Today, forests have come back in New England and many other parts of the world not due to disease, privation, or genocide but rather because agricultural productivity has risen so dramatically that many marginal agricultural lands have been abandoned.

Meanwhile, everywhere that people depend upon bushmeat for protein, forests and other habitat continue to be defaunated. Moreover, low-intensity pasturing of livestock represents the largest single human land use, larger even than cropland. When leading public intellectuals and chefs like Michael Pollan and Alice Waters decry feedlot meat and rhapsodize about the culinary and environmental benefits of grass-fed beef, what they are really proposing is a vast expansion of human impacts on the land.

Even with much lower levels of per-capita beef consumption, there is no way that American beef consumption, much less global consumption, could be met with pastured beef without dedicating much more land to pasture. Even accounting for the immense amount of grain needed to feed cattle, feedlot beef is more land efficient than grass-fed.

In short, were such a thing even possible, attempting to feed a world of seven-going-on-nine billion people with a pre industrial food system would almost certainly result in a massive expansion of human impacts through accelerated conversion of forests, grasslands, and other habitat to cropland and pasture.

It is perhaps no surprise that these kinds of errors would take hold in a society in which so few of us actually work in the agricultural sector. The archetypal farm in the public imagination is roughly the farm that existed around the turn of the last century, when most people in the United States left farming.

At that time, roughly half of the U.S. population worked in agriculture. A century earlier, that number was closer to 90 percent. Without modern agriculture you cannot have modern life. There are literally no examples where societies have achieved modern living standards –– universal education, healthcare, electrification, and so on –– without moving most of the population off the land and out of agriculture. Without modern agriculture, most of us could not live in cities, go to college, or have professional careers.

- The sustainability case for "industrial agriculture" | Genetic Literacy Project

In technology and design

Here's an interesting observation on design from Colin Chapman, the racing car designer who founded Lotus. He said that the ideal racing car would fall apart just after crossing the finish line in first place.

His point was that if you make a car more robust than necessary, you make it heavier than necessary, and sacrifice performance.

Something similar applied to military aircraft:

Designing for longevity would mean sacrificing performance.
A sacrifice of performance would make the aircraft more vulnerable to enemy action.
Being lost to enemy action would mean that the theoretical benefits of longevity would never be achieved anyway.

The Lancaster, Britain's foremost, fantastic, war-winning bomber, was designed with an anticipated lifetime of 40 missions.

- Jeremy Lowe's answer to Why are there so few WW2 aircraft existing or still airworthy? - Quora

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