Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

At e3ne.org, I have posted some reflections on my last discussion with the Ethics & Economics Challenge students, on the topic of private property rights. The work of Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson on how property rights support high levels of development plays a prominent role. Here’s a scatter plot from their famous 2001 paper:

property rights and development

Source: Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson (2001)

Economies with greater protection from expropriation have higher per capita incomes. There are plausible reasons to think the relationship is causal. As I note in the post,

If I have a stock of lumber in a warehouse in Oregon, and I hear that a hurricane in New Jersey is causing prices to spike there, I have an incentive to ship lumber there only if I can enjoy the profits of doing so. If the government taxes my profits at 100%, I have no incentive to ship the lumber where it’s needed most. Even if the tax is only 70% or 60%, it reduces my incentives enough that I’m not going to incur a lot of time, effort, and cost to ship the lumber. Similarly, if the government owns the lumber, or no one does, then no one earns the profit from shipping the lumber where it’s needed, and so no one wants to ship the lumber where it’s needed.

Still, private property rights are not sufficient for development:

If private property rights are so great for the economy, why didn’t the economy grow tremendously during the age of classic feudalism, when aristocrats held absolute property rights in their land, and serfs had to work on their estates for low pay? It should be clear that just as prices without property rights do little good, so do property rights without real markets. When a small group of people own vast quantities of land and use their ownership of land to oppress everyone else, you won’t get economic progress. We need private property rights, but they need to be dispersed enough to prevent the biggest property owners from converting their wealth into effectively absolute political power.

For that reason, I’m willing to consider comprehensive redistribution of land in former conquistador states, where owners of the great latifundias work the land inefficiently with hired laborers and convert their market power in the rental market into political power.

The other benefit of private property rights I talked about with the students was environmental. Private property rights can solve the “tragedy of the commons,” whereby people tend to overuse and deplete open-access resources. In that vein, I shared with them this very interesting article on different property regimes in the Maine lobster fishery. Where (communal) property rights are strictly defined and enforced, lobster are not overfished: lobster caught are larger and more mature, and lobstermen earn higher wages.

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Historic Milestone?

The press has been a buzz about the climate agreement between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping. The agreement commits the US to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025 (2005 baseline), well ahead of current projections. China has committed to stop growth in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 at the latest, largely by increasing its reliance on renewables and nuclear energy.

Secretary of State John Kerry (New York Times) describes the agreement as an historic milestone that “can inject momentum into the global climate negotiations” and “sends an important signal that we must get this agreement done, that we can get it done, and that we will get it done.”

Stephen Stromberg (Washington Post) seems almost as excited as the Secretary of State, noting that “Obama’s accumulating accomplishments on climate change might define his legacy.”

This [agreement] sweeps away years of anxiety about whether China and the United States — responsible together for nearly half of global greenhouse gas output — would ever cooperate on climate, rather than each perpetually waiting for the other to act. It will always be tough to get many nations to move together, and keep moving together, in the same direction. But two dominant — and historically reluctant — players now are.

Perhaps, but there is much room for skepticism. The agreement is simply that—a nonbinding agreement between two leaders who will not be around long enough to ensure implementation. (more…)

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Ezra Klein is a global warming pessimist. In his own words, “we’re fucked.”projected climate change

While he gives several different reasons for this belief, the crux of it seems to be U.S. political institutions and parties (the Republicans). Yet he also concedes that other governments are not serious about climate change either.

Indeed, no government has taken serious steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to prevent a greater-than-two-degree warming by 2100. The U.S., Canada, and Australia all either failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol or dropped out. The EU, meanwhile, has not seen any significantly different fall in emissions from the U.S. since its regulatory structure came into effect. The biggest emitter, China, shows no interest whatever in any emissions cuts at all.

So why blame U.S. institutions or politicians specifically? Politicians worldwide are taking a wait-and-see approach to global greenhouse gas emissions.

I can think of two explanations for their nonchalance: 1) no government does a decent job of addressing this kind of problem; 2) the politicians know something about the problem that Ezra Klein doesn’t.

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We all agree that it’s wrong to put cats in microwaves. Animals’ welfare matters to us. (I don’t think Damon Linker has it right when he says our moral concern for animals is simply a natural “expansion of the sphere of human concern and empathy.” My concern for my fellow human beings dictates precisely nothing about how I should treat a cat. If I think I ought to treat a cat well, that conclusion must be based on some concern for the animal’s well-being. At the same time, I agree with Linker that animals do not have moral rights, because they lack the ability to understand moral claims themselves. There is a middle position between animal rights and no-intrinsic-value-for-animals: animals have intrinsic value in virtue of their ability to suffer and to form basic social ties.)

How much should animal welfare matter? If it’s wrong for me to microwave a cat because it gives me a thrill (let’s assume), is it OK for me to eat a pig because I like its taste? But eating a pig is not the same as killing a pig. Still, eating a pig delegates the killing to others, and is that wrong? I have posed essentially this question before, without coming to a particular answer. Since then, I have come across good reasons to believe that it is impossible not to delegate some amount of animal killing to others, but that still doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and forget about the issue.

It’s impossible not to delegate some amount of animal killing to others because even vegetable farming involves some amount of animal killing. Eating grains means delegating the killing of rodents to granary operators. Packaged, washed greens available at the supermarket are grown with a surprising degree of animal killing (and ecological destruction). One philosopher has even argued that harm minimization principles suggest it is better to eat large mammals than lots of plants. If we should try to reduce the amount of animal suffering our eating practices cause, what follows?

While it’s difficult to come to any settled view of the matter, given the empirical controversies about precisely what does minimize harm, I believe I have found one area of clear ethical guidance, at least for North Americans. It is, as it were, a “moral free lunch.” If we are to be omnivorous, we should try, as much as possible, to (more…)

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Whether one looks to the domestic or the international arena, it appears that little is working these days. Three issues I have been following:

1. The Affordable Care Act (formerly known as Obamacare): The difficulties in the ACA roll out persist and the circular firing squad continues to take aim at the guilty parties. Megan McArdle  adds a new dimension with her piece on “the illusion of omnicompetence” and Healthcare.gov. A fine quote:

The technocratic idea is that you put a bunch of smart, competent people in government — folks who really want the thing to work — and they’ll make it happen. But “smart, competent people” are not a generic quantity; they’re incredibly domain-specific. Most academics couldn’t run a lemonade stand. Most successful entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to muster the monomaniacal devotion needed to get a Ph.D. Neither group produces many folks who can consistently generate readable, engaging writing on a deadline. And none of us would be able to win a campaign for Congress. Yet in my experience, the majority of people in these domains think that they could do everyone else’s job better, if they weren’t so busy with whatever it is they’re doing so well. It’s the illusion of omnicompetence, and in the case of HealthCare.gov, it seems to have been nearly fatal.

There are some useful lessons here on the limits of technocracy and planning more generally.

2. Our exit from Afghanistan: As the proud father of a Marine, I have particular interest in this story. I find it interesting that President Karzai is making more demands before accepting a long-term security arrangement. Absent an agreement, the US exits Afghanistan in 2014 with predictable results (you will likely get the same result regardless of when you exit). I am at a loss to understand (1) what makes Karzi believe he has a strong bargaining position, and (2) why we are not exiting Afghanistan immediately (other than the obvious: no president wants another “evacuation of Saigon” as part of his legacy).

3. Climate Change: If the negotiations over Afghanistan sound complicated, they pale in comparison to the attempts to find a path forward on climate change post-Kyoto. The 19th Conference of the Parties meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw generated little. As Alex Brown notes:

United Nations climate talks ended Saturday with a last-ditch agreement to set a timetable in the future to make goals that will hopefully one day comprise part of a future pact on climate change.

I can’t imagine that the 20th Conference of the Parties (next December in Peru) will resolve things.  Given the diversity of interests, the distribution of costs and benefits, the lack of powerful institutions, and the complexity of the underlying science, perhaps the best we can hope for is cooperation in adapting to a changing environment.

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There’s been a huge Facebook discussion over my post on why genetically modified foods are not a big deal. As usual, the discussion revolves around whether we should take one or two studies here or there that show possible health problems as conclusive, or instead rely on the vast majority of studies that show no evidence of a problem. I want to know whether anti-GMO activists are willing to put their money where their mouths are, so I’m devising a bet! Here’s a draft of the terms of the bet I would like to propose.

If by 2028, there is a body of literature (>5 peer-reviewed papers, using randomized trials on human beings) on the link between consumption of any GMO food and any non-rare disease (affecting more than 1 in 1,000 individuals worldwide or in the U.S.) showing an average (across all papers on the topic) positive correlation equal to or greater than a lifetime odds ratio of 1.5 per standard deviation of the independent variable (i.e., an increase in lifetime relative risk of disease of 50% or more due to a one-standard-deviation increase in consumption of the GMO), then I will pay $1000 to the other bettor; otherwise, the other bettor will pay me $1000.

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In its September 6 issue, Scientific American published an editorial supporting genetically modified foods and opposing GMO labeling:

Instead of providing people with useful information, mandatory GMO labels would only intensify the misconception that so-called Frankenfoods endanger people’s health [see “The Truth about Genetically Modified Food”]. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization and the exceptionally vigilant European Union agree that GMOs are just as safe as other foods. Compared with conventional breeding techniques—which swap giant chunks of DNA between one plant and another—genetic engineering is far more precise and, in most cases, is less likely to produce an unexpected result.

This last point is critical. In the absence of targeted genetic engineering, the way food scientists develop new strains of fruits and vegetables is to zap seeds with radiation in order to mutate their DNA, plant them, and see what comes out. I have not heard one peep out of anti-GMO activists about this method of random genetic recombination, even though it’s this latter method, if anything, that could cause unexpected consequences for human health. That fact, more than anything else, tells me that anti-GMO activists are driven by ignorance of science and irrational fear of technology.

HT: Jacob Levy on Twitter

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