…or “now I know why this country is infested with libertarians”.
My textbook for my Microeconomics class arrived the other day, and I’ve been leafing through it, reading bits and pieces of it. I have no opinion about the various models presented in there, not being an economist (d’uh), but some of the phrases in it, some of the opinions, and some of the “real-life examples” for economic principles etc. are disturbingly bad. If this is what most college-educated Americans know of economics (and it’s very possible, since the textbook claims to be the most commonly used one), I’m no longer surprised so many of them are libertarians.
Some of it may well be a problem with it being a beginner’s class, and thus full of stuff that’s so simplified, it’s almost wrong. It happens. However, when half the explanations seem to include an invisible “assume a
spherical cow population of cheap, expendable, emotionless robots”, the simplifications actually end up being potentially dangerously wrong.
Can’t get even past the preface explaining the changes since the last edition, before we get to this awesome paragraph (emphasis mine):
This chapter addresses the question of whether the world is becoming overpopulated and rapidly running out of resources. It covers topics such as declining fertility rates, the optimal rate of resource extraction, resource substitution, resource resource sustainability, oil prices, and alternative energy sources. An understanding of the basic economic principles of natural resource economics will be critical to future voters and leaders. This micro treatment of natural resource and energy topics is particularly timely since many students are regularly exposed to alarmist views on these subjects
ooooh, “alarmists”, what a wonderful start. Ok then, let’s go to Chapter 15: Natural Resource and Energy Economics. First, we get a fairly decent (as far as I can tell) assessment of demographic development, with the minor smearing-by-omission of Malthus, whose assessment of the dangers of populations was quite right for a world in which two things didn’t exist: female emancipation and reliable birth control. The book only says that he was wrong. Also, a strange paragraph about how women had to have many children just so at least two could survive to adulthood, and that “parents – initially unaware that such a revolutionary change in death rates has taken place – for a while kept having six or more children”. Something tells me that wasn’t nearly as planned and premeditated as it sounds. Like I said, “assume robots”…
Then we go to resource usage: all these doomsayers were wrong because in fact the supply of resources has been increasing. True enough, so far, since we haven’t run out of anything significant yet. And what will happen when we do run out? Well, population growth will stop and reverse, and resource use has also leveled off (Forgetting to mention that many have leveled off waaaaay above sustainable levels while some don’t HAVE sustainable levels at all, and that some have leveled off ONLY on a per-capita basis was a pure accident, right?), and therefore we can conclude that future technology will prevent demand for resources exhausting their overall supply (wut? that would require the ability to increase efficiency to the point where you can create something out of nothing, or replacing it with an equivalent. just what is equivalent to iron? oil (for fuel AND plastics AND medicine)? potable water?!). Oh, and “even if we were to run out of oil, alternatives would quickly become available”. IF we run out of oil? Also, I’d like to know their definition of “quickly”. New stuff only comes quickly to those with money, and these new resources wouldn’t be cheap, merely relatively cheaper than the now extremely expensive oil. Oh, and we’re not going to run out of energy because of “clean coal” and fuel made from turkey guts. Really. And lastly, overexploitation is caused by “incomplete property rights” (because no one ever over-extracts their own resources and companies ALWAYS carefully plan years and even decades ahead instead of worrying primarily about increasing next quarter profits. Just ask the Enron Guys). This is exemplified by the tiresome example of successful vs. unsuccessful wildlife preservation: State-run programs always have massive problems with poachers. Programs that have the local population as “owners” of the wildlife, i.e. in control of the tourism (they run it, they profit from it, etc.) give the population more incentive to protect the animals and not kill them. This is phrased as a “public property vs private property” thing, when in all the programs I’m familiar with the “property” is communal, at the village-level. If it were in fact private, I suspect it would just cause the same situation as with Medieval European”private hunting reserves”: the owner has incentive to protect the forest and the wildlife, but everyone else doesn’t.
At the end of the chapter, there’s a little essay called “Is Economic Growth Bad for the Environment?”. They argue that it isn’t, because rich countries have higher EPI scores. They even have a nice chart that indeed shows a very strong correlation between EPI scores and GDP per person. Which of course tells us fuck-all about economic growth, and conveniently ignores the fact that most extraction and manufacturing, the source of most resource use and pollution, has been outsourced out of these rich countries into the poor countries. And a certain economist whom I won’t name even suggested exporting waste. Plus, even scoring the highest on EPI doesn’t mean it’s enough, if “highest” still means using too many resources, spewing too much CO2 into the atmosphere, degrading arable land, unsustainable use of water, etc.
To round off the “economics and environment” issue, in another chapter, they have this to say about Climate Change:
Economists also stress that the market mechanism, through its system of prices and profits and losses, will make appropriate adjustments based on new climatic realities. Air-conditioner sales may rise; snow shovel sales may fall. Some agricultural lands probably will be deserted; others farther north will be cultivated. The maple syrup industry in New England may shift to Canada. Nevertheless, the transition costs – the costs associated with making economic adjustments – of global warming will undoubtedly be very high unless some actions are taken to reduce greenouse gases. But industrial economies are built on carbon-based energy sources, so the costs of reducing such gases are also quite high. The relevant question from the economic perspective becomes: Will it be less costly for society to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions or simply to try to mitigate their effects?
First off, what lands further north? The soil-less Canadian Shield? The permafrost currently sinking into the ocean? And this would of course happen at the cost of the forests that are currently covering these areas, but without new forests sprouting up in the abandoned deserts (see Iraq and Egypt for what happens when agricultural lands stop being agricultural).
And secondly, “cheap, expendable, emotionless robots” again. I know this is an economics textbook, not an ethics textbook, but you can’t tell me that there’s even a question about which solution would be better: entire countries are scheduled to become uninhabitable, and I’m having a hard time believing such massive disruptions to settlement patterns(nevermind massive death for a moment; apparently human life, especially brown human life, is cheap) could be cheaper than CO2 emission reduction.
This concludes the environmental part of the rant. Since the post is already pretty long, I’ll stop here, and write the rest tomorrow (I really really will, promise. It’s already partially written anyway).