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Are We Destroying the Earth? – Article by Sanford Ikeda

Are We Destroying the Earth? – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
October 3, 2012

People often complain that mankind is destroying the earth: that insatiable consumption and relentless production have laid waste to irreplaceable swaths of our planet, and that these activities have to stop or someday it will all be gone.

Which raises the question: What does it means to “destroy” something?

When you burn a log, the log is destroyed but heat, light, smoke, and ashes remain.  It’s in that sense that physics tells us that matter is neither created nor destroyed.  Similarly, cutting down a forest destroys the forest but in its place are houses and furniture and suburbs.

The real question is: Is it worth it?

Value Can Be Both Created and Destroyed

What people usually mean when they say mankind is destroying the earth is that human action causes a change they don’t like.  It sounds odd to say that my wife, by eating a piece of toast for breakfast, is “destroying” the toast.  But if I wanted that toast for myself, I might well regard her action as destructive.  Same action, but the interpretation depends on purpose and context.

When a missile obliterates a building and kills the people in it, it may serve a political purpose even though the friends and family of those killed and the owners of the building are harmed.  The perpetrator’s gain is the victim’s loss.  In the political realm, one person’s gain is necessarily another person’s loss.  You rob Peter to pay Paul; you kill Jack to appease Jill.  It’s a “zero-sum game.”

In the economic realm, however, a thing is destroyed to the extent that it loses its usefulness to somebody for doing something.  Someone may want to bulldoze my lovely home just for fun.  If she pays me enough I may let her do it and be glad she did.  When not physically coerced, a trade won’t happen unless each side expects to gain.  If it does happen, and if the people who traded are right, then all do in fact gain.  Each is better off than before. The trade has created something–value.  If they are wrong they destroy value and suffer a loss, which gives them an incentive to avoid making mistakes.

Profits and Losses Help to Minimize the Destruction of Value

In free markets gains manifest themselves in profit, either monetary or psychic.  (In the short run, of course, you can sustain a monetary loss if you think there’s a worthwhile nonmonetary aspect to the trade that will preserve the profit.)  Now, the free market is not perfect, despite what some economics professors say about the benefits of so-called “perfect competition.”  People don’t have complete or perfect knowledge and so they make mistakes.  They trade when they shouldn’t, or they don’t trade when they should.  Fortunately, profits and losses serve as feedback to guide their decisions.

There’s another source of market imperfection.  People may be capable of making good decisions but they don’t trade, or trade too much, because the property rights to the things they would like to trade aren’t well-defined or aren’t effectively enforced.  In such cases their actions or inactions create costs they don’t bear or benefits they don’t receive.  The result is that their decisions end up destroying value.

If I free-ride off the oceans, if for example I don’t pay for dumping garbage into it, then the oceans will become more polluted than they should be.  If there is a cleaner, more efficient source of energy than fossil fuels, but no one can profitably use it because the national government prevents anyone from doing so (for example by prohibitions or excessive taxation), then again the value that would have been created will never appear.

Aesthetics or Economics?

Our esthetic sense of beauty is part of what makes us human.  If we wish to protect a lake or a valley from development because we think it beautiful, how do we do that?

To some extent it’s possible to do what the Nature Conservancy does, and purchase the land that we want to protect.  But that’s not always possible, especially when the land is controlled not by private persons but by the national government, which makes special deals with crony capitalists in so-called public-private developments.  In any case, even the free market is not perfect.  Economic development and material well-being mean that some beautiful landscapes and irreplaceable resources will be changed in ways not everyone will approve.

Remember, though, that economics teaches us that an action is always taken by someone for something.  There are no disembodied costs, benefits, and values.  In a world of scarcity, John believes saving rain forests is more important than saving the whales.  Mary believes the opposite.  If we are to get past disagreements on esthetics–essentially differences of opinion–that can turn into violent conflict, we need to find some way to settle our differences peacefully, some way to transform them into value-creating interactions.

Imperfect though it may be, the free market has so far been the most effective method we know of for doing that.

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Ice and Economics – Article by David J. Hebert

Ice and Economics – Article by David J. Hebert

The New Renaissance Hat
David J. Hebert
July 21, 2012

What can ice teach us about economics? We’ll see, but let’s begin with some fundamentals.

Prices, property rights, and profit (and loss) lead to information, incentives, and innovation. This simple statement contains nearly every lesson necessary for a free and prosperous society. But what do these words mean?

Prices convey information about relative scarcities and communicate to us the relative value of competing uses of a resource. They also economize on the acquisition of knowledge. When we see the price of a resource rise, market actors understand the need to use less of the resource. What they don’t know, however, is whether this rise is due to a disaster that destroyed some of the stock of that resource (an inward supply shift) or if a new, more valuable use for that resource has been discovered (an outward demand shift). These facts are irrelevant for a person who is currently using the resource, but from a societal level, her using less is necessary. If there is a disaster, we would want people to use less of it so that everyone else can still use some. If there is a new, more valuable use discovered, we would want the original users to use less so that more could be allocated towards this new use.

The Right to Exclude

Property rights refers not only to the right to use a resource, but also to the right to exclude others from its use. In this sense property rights provide the incentive to allocate the use of a resource efficiently across time, for example, to conserve it for later. With firmly established and enforced property rights, not only does the owner not have to worry about someone else taking his things but he also doesn’t have to rush out to gather the resources as quickly as he can. A situation where there are no property rights is susceptible to what is called the “tragedy of the commons,” where the resource gets depleted too quickly and never has a chance to replenish.

Profit (and loss) leads to innovation. Earning a profit is akin to being rewarded for doing something good. Suffering a loss is the opposite, a punishment for doing something wrong. In this case, the deed being done is the attempt to allocate scarce resources to where their will earn their highest return. People who successfully do this are rewarded with monetary gain, which we call “profit.” People who fail to do this experience what we call “loss.” In doing so, economic actors learn what works and what does not. Reducing the profitability of an activity through taxes or legislation or sheltering people from losses, therefore, acts to retard this learning process and stifles innovation.

This lesson is exemplified in early nineteenth-century Boston with the rise of the American natural ice trade. In 1806 Frederic Tudor sailed a ship full of ice from Boston to the Bahamas. Two years earlier Tudor had begun experimenting with insulation with the goal of bringing ice to the Bahamas.  When he was ready to set sail, he found that the ship captains refused to carry his cargo for fear of damaging their vessels. So he bought his own brig, the Favorite, and set sail February 10, 1806. He arrived in Martinique with a large quantity of ice still intact and began selling. The Bahamians loved the ice, which they had never seen before. Yet that first year Tudor lost a substantial sum of money, although he proved that ice could be shipped to the Bahamas. Now the objective became doing it at a profit.  Convinced his idea would be wildly successful, he continued his attempts to drive down costs and increase demand.

Higher Return

Meanwhile, as the price of the ice on the ponds rose, the people of Boston gained the information that the ice would bring a higher return in the Bahamas, thus they used less themselves and sold the ice to the Bahamians. In 1840 the ponds in the Boston area were explicitly divided, giving each person on the lake the right to exclude everyone else from harvesting any ice that wasn’t theirs. This allowed Tudor, for example, to invest in his ice and let it freeze longer so that it could better survive the long journey from Boston to India, which entailed crossing the equator twice and sailing around the tip of Africa. As Tudor earned profit from his venture, more people were attracted to the ice.

To continue to earn a profit, therefore, he had to find a way to outcompete everyone else. In 1825 Tudor enlisted the help of Nathaniel Wyeth, one of his suppliers. Tudor noticed that Wyeth’s ice was always significantly cheaper than everyone else’s and was cut in neater blocks which packed more easily. Wyeth had converted some old farm plows into ice-cutting plows and had fastened horseshoes with spikes to allow horses to pull these modified plows across the ice. By scoring the ice in such a fashion, Wyeth could break uniform sized blocks much quicker than his competitors, who were using hand saws that produced very rough and uneven edges.

These wouldn’t be the only contributions of Wyeth, as he went on to invent many other cost saving techniques. For example, Wyeth developed a conveyor-belt system that would haul the ice from the pond into the waiting icehouse.  He also invented bigger plows that could cut more blocks at once and poles that were used to guide the floating ice blocks onto the conveyor belt;  refined the above-ground icehouse, which allowed ice to be stored anywhere in the world for months on end without any external source of refrigeration.

New Insulation

Tudor and Wyeth also experimented with new means of insulating the ice from the heat, discovering that sawdust was not only a fantastic insulator but was also cheaply available from the sawmills around Boston. They also taught their customers new ways to use the ice, including making ice cream and storing the ice in iceboxes to preserve foods longer.

In short the three Ps lead to the three Is: Prices, property rights, and profit (and loss) lead to information, incentives, and innovation.  With these firmly in place, a free and prosperous society will follow.

David Hebert is a Ph.D. Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.