Archive for the 'Environment' Category

Jan 11 2012

The Tragedy of the Commons as a Market Failure

Over the last few weeks in our IB Economics class, we have been studying cases in which markets fail to achieve an efficient, socially optimal level of production and consumption when the private buyers and sellers are left to interact in a free market. Markets fail in many ways; sometimes they produce too much of a good, and sometimes too little is produced. There are some things society would benefit from having more of, while other things society would be better off with less than what is produced by the free market.

When the free market fails to achieve a socially optimal level of output, at which the costs and benefits not just of the individual consumers and producers are accounted for, but all social, environmental and health costs and benefits are weighed as well, the government may be able to improve on the free market outcome by intervening in some way. For example, certain goods deemed beneficial for society are simply under-provided by private firms: Education, infrastructure, public transportation, security, health care… these are all markets in which government often intervenes to increase the provision of the good to society. In other cases, government intervenes to decrease the amount of a good consumed: Cigarettes, alcohol, reckless driving, polluting factories, violence on TV, child pornography, dangerous drugs… in each of these cases governments tend to use taxes, regulation or legislation to reduce the amount of the harmful good available on the market.

Besides the merit (beneficial) goods and the demerit (harmful) goods described above, markets may fail in other ways as well. One notable form of market failure arises due to a phenomenon first articulated by American ecologist Garrett Hardin, who warned of the Tragedy of the Commons. In his 1968 essay, Hardin explained that when there exist common resources, for which there is no private owner, the incentive among rational users of that resources is to exploit it to the fullest potential in order to maximize their own self gain before the resource is depleted. The tragedy of the commons, therefore, is that common resources will inevitably be depleted due to humans’ self-interested behavior, leaving us with shortages in key resources essential to human survival.

Each of the videos below illustrates a different example of the tragedy of the commons. Watch the videos and think about how each applies Hardin’s concept.

Example 1: Thousands of fishermen empty lake in minutes:

Example 2 – Dr. Suess’s The Lorax

Example 3 – Tuna fishing

In each of the videos above, there is a common resource (fish and trees) over which no ownership has previously been established. The resource users (the Malian fishermen, the Once-ler and his family and the tuna boat), all have a strong incentive to maximize their own short term gain by extracting and exploiting the resource as quickly as possible.

  • In the Mali fishing hole, the outcome is observable: within minutes the resource is depleted and there are no more fish for for future fisherman to enjoy.
  • In The Lorax the result of the Once-ler’s exploitation of the forest is foretold in the beginning of the story when the young boy comes upon the desolate outskirts of his town.
  • The tragedy of the commons acts as a warning to the tuna fishing industry, in which there are still tuna surviving in the world’s oceans, but at the rates industrial fishing boats such as the Albatun Tres exploit the resource, it will not be around much longer.
In each instance above, a market failure occurs. Due to the lack of private ownership over valuable resources, self-interested individuals stand to gain by exploiting them to the fullest extent possible while they still exist. The unfortunate outcome is that over time the resources are exploited unsustainably until they are ultimately depleted. As in the case of merit and demerit goods, the market failure of common resources provides an opportunity for government to intervene to achieve a more socially optimal allocation of resources. In the interview below, Garrett Hardin suggests that there are only two possible solutions to the tragedy of the commons. Watch the video and then respond to the discussion questions that follow.

Garret Hardin – the Tragedy of the Commons

Discussion Questions:

  1. Hardin refers to Karl Marx’s adage “from each according to his abilities, to each according to this needs.” What does Hardin have against this socialist idea?
  2. How does Hardin’s example of a “common pasture” illustrate the tragedy of the commons? How is a common pasture similar to the three examples in the videos above?
  3. According to Hardin, what are the only two solutions to the common pasture problem? Which of these solutions do you think would be most socially desirable?
  4. Explain Hardin’s claim that “the unmanaged commons cannot possibly work once the population gets above a certain size”. Of the world’s common resources today, what are some examples of common resources that remain unmanaged?
  5. Whose responsibility should it be to decide how common resources should be dealt with?
  6. Do you agree with Hardin’s claim that “the world cannot possibly live at the American standard of living at its present population size”? Which of his predictions do you think is most likely to occur: Will the American (and Western European) standard of living have to go down or will the number of people in the world have to be reduced? Or is there a third possibility? Discuss.

9 responses so far

Oct 28 2011

How China’s demand for coal may help make America greener, or not…

The Global Coal Trade’s Complex Calculation : NPR

Sometimes when I read the news, I wonder what it would be like to NOT understand basic economics, and then I realize how much of what goes on around us can be explained by two simple concepts: demand and supply. The NPR story below talks about how the construction of two proposed coal exporting facilities on America’s west coast could, indirectly, lead to a greener future for America. Listen to the story then read on for more analysis:

China, already the world’s largest coal consumer, continues to build new coal burning electricity plants at an alarming rate. Its appetite for the “black gold” has driven the world price up to $100 per ton, as it has demanded increasing quantities from its own coal producers, but also those in other coal rich areas like Australia and the United States.

However, because of America’s lack of coal transporting and shipping infrastructure, US coal producers have been unable to sell their abundant coal to the Chinese, who are willing to pay 500% the equilibrium price in the US. The US market has remained isolated from the world market, not due to any explicit, government-imposed barriers to trade, rather due to fact that they simply can’t get their coal to the Chinese energy producers who demand it most.

Graphically, this situation can be illustrated as follows:

If the export facilities on the West coast of the US are not constructed, it will remain difficult for US coal producers to sell their output to China at the high price of $100, and the domestic quantity (Q2) will continue to be produced and sold for $20 per ton. But with the new port facilities, US energy producers will now have to compete with Chinese energy producers for American coal, and the US price will be driven up to the world price, since demand now includes thousands of Chinese coal-fired power plants. As the price rises from $20 to $100, the domestic quantity demanded in the US will fall to Q1, as domestic energy producers seek alternative sources of energy, switching instead gas, solar, or wind power.

The irony is that through increasing the ease with which American coal producers can sell their product to China, the US may reduce its own consumption of coal and its emissions of greenhouse gasses. Overall coal production in the US will rise with increased trade, but overall consumption within the US will fall.

Now, this may sound great if you’re the kind of person who thinks only locally. Air pollution will be reduced in the US, health will be improved, our electricity production will be greener and more sustainable. But globally, by making its coal available to China, the US market will contribute to the continued dependence on carbon-intensive energy production, and delay any progress among Chinese energy producers towards a transisttion to greener fuel sources.

The podcast also points out the fact that if the US did undertake the construction of the new coal-exporting facilities, it could be that the current high price of coal will have led to the entrence of several other large coal prodcuing countries into the world market, reducing China’s demand for US coal, reducing the price at which American producers can sell to China and thereby off-setting any domestic environmental benefit that may have resulted from the large decrease in quantity demanded among US producers at the current price of $100 per ton.

The whole conversation about the coal industry is somewhat depressing when the environmental costs of the industry are considered. Another NPR show, Planet Money, ran a story this week about the “gross external damages” caused by the production of coal-powered electricity.

They cited a study which found that the damages caused by coal to human health and the environment outweight the benefits enjoyed by society from the generation of cheap electricity by around $10 billion in the United States alone. This means that if the US shut down every coal-powered energy plant in the country immediately, total welfare in the US would increase by $10 billion. There’s no doubt that energy prices would rise, but the gains in human and environmental health would outweight the added costs of electricity generation by $10 billion. If a similar analysis were undertakein in China, I would guess the potential welfare gain of transitioning to alternative energies would be far greater for the Chinese people.

Here’s the chart from Planet Money’s blog showing the net welfare loss of coal-generated electricity and other economic activities in the United States.

*GED = Gross external damages from pollution

Notice that although generating electricity by burning coal adds nearly $25 billion of value to America’s economy, its negative environmental externalities create nearly $35 billion in damage to the US economy. The net effect of using coal to make electricity, therefore, is around -$10 billion. America would be better off without coal-generated electricity, if we include environmental and health factors in our measure of well-being. Unfortunately, the negative environmental and health costs of coal-electricity generation are currently externalized by the industry, indicating that this industry may be experiencing a market failure.

Discussion questions:

  1. How would the construction of two coal-exporting facilities on America’s West coast ultimately lead to a cleaner environment in the United States? Do you think this prediction is realistic?
  2. Who stands to gain the most if the coal-exporting facilities are constructed? Who would suffer? In your opinion, should the facilities be constructed? Why or why not?
  3. Interpret the colorful diagram above. What do the green bars represent? What do the yellow and red bars represent? According to the graphic, which type of activity is most harmful to American society? How do you know?
  4. True, false, or uncertain. Explain your reasoning. “The burning of coal to make electricity should be completely banned in China, since China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter.”

One response so far

Feb 07 2011

Internalizing externalities: Zurich’s expensive garbage

This post is about how Switzerland has successfully employed an innovative system of incentives to encourage its citizens to reduce the amount of garbage they create. Just three weeks in this amazing country and I can already see why it earned the highest score in last year’s Environmental Performance Index.

In the AP and IB Economics units on market failure, we study the concept of negative externalities, which exist when the behavior of one individual or firm creates spillover costs to be faced by other individuals or society as a whole. A simple example is a factory that dumps waste in a river. Clearly, disposing of its waste in such a manner poses little or no cost on the factory owners, but significant costs on downstream users of the river’s water. A community that wishes to use the river for drinking water must now install expensive filtration and purifying systems just to make the water usable. The factory has kept its own costs down by externalizing the cost of filtration by passing it on to downstream users.

Spillover costs exist on micro levels as well. While it is easy to see how a large factory creates negative externalities, it is often harder to imagine how we as individuals create spillover costs for our neighbors and society in our everyday actions. The stark truth, however, is that an individual’s behavior, multiplied by millions upon millions of individuals making up a citizenry, can have as great if not greater negative impacts on the environment and society as the negligent behavior of one firm.

Here in Switzerland, the behavior of each individual citizen is subject to unusually strict scrutiny. No, Big Brother is not watching, as you may be thinking, (however, I have heard stories of snoopy neighbors alerting the police upon witnessing the most minor of infractions by a fellow citizen), rather, one finds it in his best economic interest to strictly monitor his own behavior down to the finest detail. Allow me to explain what I mean.

Let’s take garbage for example. The definition of garbage in Switzerland is very different from that in the United States. Where I’m from, garbage is anything that you can’t use anymore. You throw it “away”, put it on the curb and it disappears.

A garbage bag in the US is usually a 40 gallon (160 litre) plastic bag that could fit an entire family inside, and the typical American family probably produces two to three bags worth of “garbage” each week, which conveniently disappears in the wee hours of the morning to be taken “somewhere”, which most Americans don’t know or care to know where that is. How much does it cost an American household to dispose of this voluminous quantity of garbage? Well, the bags cost around 18 cents each, and monthly removal services vary depending on the community, but are typically a flat rate for almost any amount of garbage.

In the United States, it is very easy for individuals to pass the true cost of their garbage disposal onto society as a whole. It doesn’t matter all that much whether you put one tiny plastic bag on the curb or a half dozen 40 gallon bags on the curb, you are going to generally pay the same amount for collection regardless. The result of such a system is that the typical household has no incentive to reduce the amount of garbage that it produces. Logically, Americans are inclined to over-consume and produce copious amounts of garbage in the absence of any significant system of incentives in place to encourage waste reduction.

So, what’s different about Switzerland? It’s all about incentives. Let me explain. Here, you don’t pay a flat rate for garbage removal. In fact, you don’t HAVE to pay anything for garbage removal! Oh wow, you say, it’s FREE? In fact, quite the opposite is true. You don’t have to pay anything for garbage removal as long as you don’t create any garbage. In other words, you only pay for what you throw away.

Unlike in the US, here a typical garbage bag here is a 35 litre plastic sack, only slightly larger than a plastic grocery bag. Each village requires its citizens to buy official garbage bags for that community, and each individual bag costs anywhere from $1.50 – $2.50. A role of ten 35 litre bags can cost around $25.

When we consider that anything a household wishes to throw away must be put in an official village garbage bag which itself must be purchased for $2.25, and we know that a typical 40 gallon (160 litre) garbage bag in the US costs just $0.18, we can easily calculate and compare the costs of garbage disposal to both US and Swiss households.

  • In Switzerland: 100 litres of garbage costs $6.40 to dispose of
  • In the US: 100 litres of garbage costs a little over $0.11 to dispose of
  • In other words, garbage removal costs Swiss households around 57 times as much per litre as it does Americans, when we consider the price of garbage bags alone.

Clearly, Swiss households are given a significant incentive NOT to create garbage. So what DO the Swiss do with lots of their waste? Recycle it, of course! See, here in Switzerland all recycling is free. The villages even offer free curb side pick-ups for all recyclable materials.

A simple system of incentives (and dis-incentives) is the secret to Switzerland’s environmental success. Other systems are in place to encourage citizens to use public transport, tread lightly while hiking in the outdoors, conserve energy and water at home, and behave in other environmentally friendly ways, but I’ll save my discussion of those items for another time, once I figure out how to reduce, re-use and recycle all my own “garbage” here in Zurich!

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Zurich’s system of garbage collection “internalize” the “externality” associated with household consumption?
  2. Incentives matter. This is a basic economic concept that can be used to fix many of the environmental, social, economic and health problems faced in society. Identify one way your parents have used incentives to try to get you to do something or NOT do something they think you should or shouldn’t do.
  3. Discourage what society want less of, encourage what society wants more of.  Identify and discuss one example of a market in which a government (local or national) uses incentives to discourage certain behaviors, and one example of a market in which incentives are used to encourage certain behaviors.

45 responses so far

Mar 13 2009

Robert Reich on Obama’s “cap and trade” plan for the environment

Robert Reich’s Blog: Is Obamanomics Conservative or Revolutionary?

Former Secretary of Labor and Berkely Economist thinks Obama’s federal government budget is conservative and responsible. He also likes Obama’s plan for tackling environmental problems, which uses the “cap and trade” system of using a market to internalize the environmental costs of firms’ production which in the past have been externalized due to lack of effective regulation.

What about the environment? Isn’t cap and trade a huge deal? Not at all. Instead of heavy-handed regulation it’s a market solution to the problem of global warming. Government merely sets an overall cap on the amount of carbon dioxide to be allowed into the atmosphere, which drops annually, and then requires firms to bid for permits to pollute within that overall cap. Firms can buy and sell permits to each other; they can innovate to reduce pollution even further. Such a system will generate enough revenues to give 95 percent of Americans a yearly refundable tax credit of $400, and also finance research and development of renewable energy and a modernized electricity grid.

There’s much more to this excellent post by economist Robert Reich, and I recommend anyone interested in economics give it a read.

Below is an illustration of the effect that a “cap and trade” program will have on the cost of firms to pollute, showing that over time the amount of permissible pollution can be tightened thereby increasing the incentive for firms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

5 responses so far

Feb 24 2009

Market Failure and the role of government in the economy ~ an introduction to Environmental Economics

Economics is the field of study that attempts to address the basic problem faced by society relating to the environment and natural resources: the problem of scarcity in a world of infinite wants. Many, if not all, of our planet’s environmental woes are attributable to an economic phenomenon known as market failure. A market failure results whenever too much (or in some cases too little) of a good or service is produced and consumed by the economy.

What does this have to do with the environment? The connection lies in the reality that everything we produce and consume (and I mean everything!) originates from the earth. Nothing can be made by the sweat of man alone; in fact, three resources are required to produce any good or service: labor, capital (i.e. tools), and land. Sometimes weE-waste think of the resource of land as gifts of nature. However, in a world where environmental threats like those mentioned above are staring us in the face, it is becoming more and more obvious that the natural resources we’ve exploited for so long may not, in fact, have been gifts from Mother Nature at all, and their overuse may impose significant and unaccounted for costs on society AND the environment.

But let’s be honest, consuming is fun! Nothing is more gratifying than scoring a fantastic deal at your favorite boutique, walking out of a fast food joint with a plastic bag full of tasty treats for super cheap, and getting your hands on the latest high tech gizmos as soon as they’re launched (and dumping that old technology out so you’re not the lame one with the three pound cell phone!) However, the true cost of our obsessive consumption habit is not always represented by the price we pay for our fast food, our blue jeans, and our iPads.

In reality, the prices we pay for our goods and services are far lower than they should be; and the quantity of these things we consume is far higher than it should be. How do we know this? Look around. The very environmental issues with which environmental groups are most concerned can be traced back to the consumer behavior we enjoy partaking in so much. We’re conditioned to buying what we want, when we want it, and for a price that places little burden on our pocket books.

What we don’t realize, however, is that nature is bearing the burden of our high levels of consumption. In its attempt to absorb the pollutants that are emitted in the manufacture of our products, the waste that’s created from the disposal of our products, and the destruction that’s left behind from the extraction of the natural resources that go into our products, Mother Nature is more than ever choking on the waste created by our economic behavior. The costs born by nature are not accounted for in the production costs faced by firms, nor in the prices paid by consumers. These costs are externalized, or passed on for others to worry about.

The problem is, these days the bill has come due, and the environment is calling in its debts. Humans must now face up to the failures of its markets, and internalize the costs that for so long have been passed on to the environment and society, which suffers from the effects of environmental degradation.

The reality that we’ve used too many natural resources to produce too much stuff for too long is evidenced by simple examination of the natural world around us. Or, in the case of China, the complete lack of a natural world around us. From the pollution filled skies, to the waste clogged waterways, to the traffic jammed highways, China is a case study in market failure. The world, now used to the cheap imports China is so good at pumping out, does not consider the impact that the manufacture and consumption of such a massive variety of cheap products is having on China’s, and these days the world’s, environment.

In the following audio clips, you’ll hear three short stories about how the over-exploitation of resources is causing harm to human welfare and the environment. Each of these stories contains a market failure, usually in the form of a negative externality, or the production and consumption of certain goods creating spillover costs on somebody or something not involved in its production or consumption. See if you can identified who’s being harmed, and who’s at fault:

Story #1: “Where does all that E-waste go?” from Public Radio International’s “The World: Technology” podcast

Story #2: “Trash Island” from WBEZ Chicago’s “This American Life”

Story #3: “Nauru – the island in the middle of nowhere” from WBEZ Chicago’s “This American Life”

After listening to these stories, reflect for a moment on the true cost of the environmental and human tragedies of which they told. What role does our consumer culture play in these tragedies? What could have been done to prevent the conditions in those E-waste markets in Africa and China, the islands of garbage floating in our deep oceans, and the complete destruction of an island paradise 1,100 miles from the nearest land? Is there anyone to blame? Should we blame our politicians, our leaders? The answer to these questions is: there’s no easy answer, unless we want to get really personal here and point to humans’ own flawed nature: the fact that we are motivated primarily by greed and self-interest.

If that’s true, then perhaps hope for the environment can only be found in the responsible hands of benevolent governments, who once and for all take steps to mitigate the destructive impacts of our endless patterns of production and consumption. In fact, it is often government which is needed to intervene and correct market failures like those in the stories.

Three tools have emerged for governments wishing to correct such negative externalities. These involve three fundamentally different approaches, some more effective than others. One involves direct government control. This is when governments intervene in a market in which negative externalities exist and try to make producers clean up their acts. They threaten producers with penalties and fines, and monitor industries to try and force firms to manufacture their products in a clean, efficient way. (this is like what the Europeans are doing to minimize their e-waste).

The next option also involves a large roll for the government: corrective taxes. Businesses that produce goods that end up polluting the environment (either through their production or consumption) can be taxed based on the amount of pollution they create. If creating more pollution means paying more taxes, the companies will find ways to produce in a more environmentally responsible manner, in order to keep their costs low and to maximize their profits.

The third method for externality reduction is also the most recently adopted. A market for pollution permits is set up, where a government actually gives all the companies in a polluting industry permits that allow them to pollute a certain amount. WHAT? The government’s allowing firms to pollute? Well, yes. The fact is, they’re going to do it anyway, they HAVE to in order to produce anything! The benefit of this system is that the government will only give each firm so many permits, and they’re not allowed to pollute beyond what their permits allow, UNLESS they go and buy more permits from producers that don’t need all theirs. This way, firms have an incentive to pollute less, because any permits they don’t use they can sell to other producers and make profits on those sales! Dirty firms have to buy more and more permits, clean firms get to sell those they don’t need… can you see where this is going? ALL FIRMS want to become clean firms in this scenario!

Nauru - a paradise lost

The three methods introduced above are being used to different degrees by different countries in various industries to try and mitigate the negative effects of some types of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, not nearly enough is yet being done, especially by some of the worlds largest economies (and thus, polluters), namely the United States, China, and India.

If our world is to avoid a fate like that of the tiny island of Nauru, where every last resource was exploited to the point where the island could no longer sustain life, then more must be done to reduce the spillover costs that accompany the production and consumption of so many of our precious goods.

I tell my econ students a story about how one day hundreds of years ago some smart guy decided to start calling products (you know, the stuff we consume), GOODS. From that day on humans would always associate consumption with something GOOD. Today, in an era where the goodness of consumption is offset by the evil of environmental destruction, more than a strong government hand is needed. Conservation and appreciation for the gifts of nature, not insofar as they can be exploited by industry, but left intact for the appreciation and welfare of society, both today’s generation and that of our grandchildren, must be fostered and encouraged among global citizens young and old.

Hopefully, this article and the stories you heard here will help you understand a little more about the economics of the environment, and help you become more educated about what can and should be done to correct the market failures that have led to the dire challenges faced by our world today.

A great website on environmental economics written by two economists WAY smarter than Mr. Welker can be found here:

10 responses so far

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