Archive for the 'Opportunity cost' Category

Oct 30 2008

“Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty”

Shop Talk – Buying local, good idea?

I live two lives. In one, I’m an international school teacher who has lived and taught in three countries, travels around the world for work and play and flies 50,000 miles a year to and from the US, Europe and Asia. In my other life, I am a small town guy, who enjoys working in his yard in his mountain cabin tucked back in the woods of remote Northern Idaho, which is not so much a state as a “state of mind”, as the locals like to say.

When I’m in my “other” life as a small town homeowner, i.e. during my long summer breaks, I like to slow things down and reflect on the state of the world around me. I start to notice things about the local economy that seem so minute in the world of international travel that occupies 10 months of my year. I notice that twice a week farmers come to my small town of Sandpoint, Idaho, to sell their produce, bread, honey, arts and crafts, eggs and even meat. I notice that the buffalo, elk and cattle roaming the valley below my mountain cabin can be bought ready to grill and eat from the local butcher shop. I notice the local brewery, Laughing Dog, where I can buy my home town brew. I notice the natural foods market, where my wife and I do all of our shopping, and where many of the items for sale were grown locally or in the greater Pacific Northwest region.

I notice that, if one so wished to do so, one could sustain oneself almost entirely on locally or regionally grown food items. Compared to the lives of so many Americans, whose foods are so heavily processed, often times shipped from around the country or even the world, the choices available to those who chose to “buy local” seem so simple and straightforward, the benefits so obvious.

So the question is, why don’t more people eat locally? According to economist Russell Roberts, the reason we don’t all survive entirely on locally grown food is that, simply stated, the cost of doing so is too high.

In the article below, a Vermont magazine discusses he “buy-local” movement going on in communities across America today with Russ Roberts, whose enthusiasm for buying local is tempered by his economic rationale rooted in the basic economic principles of opportunity cost, specialization, and the gains from trade.

SEVEN DAYS: You’ve said that the buy-local movement has a “superficial appeal.”

RUSSELL ROBERTS: The emotional, nonmonetary appeal of “buy local” is very clear. It’s nice to buy things from people you know, and often that interaction of shopping and trading with people you know enhances the quality of life.

But there’s a cost to it, and when we say, “Let’s buy the local apples rather than the apples from New Zealand,” the cost is hidden, because apples are only a very small part of our economic life. If we tried to replicate that strategy over a wide range of products, the cost would be much more apparent.

SD: Environmentalists like Bill McKibben say the cost of some products doesn’t reflect their true environmental cost –

RR: And I think that’s true, by the way –

SD: But a lot of people would say the idea of “true environmental cost” is diametrically opposed to your idea about true cost.

RR: It’s a good observation. Rather than saying the true cost, it would have been better for me to say the full cost. Right now, if you buy local produce instead of produce that comes from across the country or across the ocean, the cost is pretty clear: It’s a little more expensive, usually. Sometimes the quality is higher, so you say, “Well, I think it’s a bargain after all.” Sometimes it’s not, so you say, “Well, it’s worth it, ’cause it’s local.”

I don’t know if people think through how those costs would add up if you tried to buy more locally than just food . . . I think it’s a question of magnitudes. There’s no doubt that when you make economic decisions based just on price, you’re not getting the full picture, which is the environmental critique. But I think it’s also true that when you purchase one item or category of items, such as food, locally, you don’t think about what the full cost would be if you did that more aggressively across a wider range of products.

SD: You’ve said self-sufficiency is the “road to poverty.” Does that relate to this discussion?

RR: Absolutely. That’s a quote from my first book, The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism . . . I think the word self-sufficiency has an emotionally attractive ring to it: We don’t want to depend on others; we want to be self-sufficient; we certainly want our children at some point to grow up and become self-sufficient, rather than depending on us as parents. So self-sufficiency is generally seen as a goal, but in economic activity and in trade generally, no one really has self-sufficiency as a goal.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does self-sufficiency lead to poverty?
  2. What is the “true environmental cost” of buying certain products, namely cheap, imported food and consumer goods?
  3. What is the opportunity cost of “buying local”, whether it be food or other consumer items?

25 responses so far

Jul 14 2008

The opportunity cost of pristine wilderness is…

Bush, Democrats point fingers over energy crisis – Jul. 12, 2008

…apparently just over $4.00 per gallon of gasoline; at least according to the article above:

With gasoline prices above $4 a gallon, Bush and his Republican allies think Americans are more willing to allow drilling offshore and in an Alaska wildlife refuge that environmentalists have fought successfully for decades to protect.

Nearly half the people surveyed by the Pew Research Center in late June said they now consider energy exploration and drilling more important than conservation, compared with a little over a third who felt that way only five months ago. The sharpest shift in attitude came among political liberals.

The travesty of Americans’ attitude in favor of drilling and against conservation is the shortsightedness of it. Regardless of how many millions of acres of wilderness the government opens to drilling, gas and energy prices will only continue to rise over the long-run as emerging market economies like China’s will continually drive demand for energy higher and higher as growth rates remain above 8%.

America, in the mean time, with the largest per capita levels of energy consumption in the world (and some of the lowest gas prices), turns its back on conservation just when it is needed most. The cost to the environment, society and the bounteous wildlife that inhabit the vast tracts of land and sea that Congress is considering opening to exploitation by energy companies will create a permanent scar in one of the most valuable (and simultaneously undervalued) resources, its wilderness.

As my summer vacation approaches its end and I begin to think about another year of teaching Economics in international schools, I find myself reflecting on what’s most important in the world: to me, to my home country, to my fellow Americans, to the kids I teach and the students I will teach 10, 20, 30 years from now. I spend my summers in one of the most beautiful parts of this great country, the Pacific Northwest, whereMy wife Liz, overlooking the Selkirk mountains of Northern Idaho despite over a century of logging, mining, hunting and trapping, beautiful wilderness still remains. Only 2% of America’s original forests remain standing today. Countless species of predator and prey have been wiped out. There are around 300 wolves running wild here in Idaho, and thousands of citizens here are campaigning for a hunting season that will threaten to wipe out that great species once again. Clearcuts dot the landscape, proposed mines threaten watersheds and the wild Bull trout, an endangered species in the lakes and streams of Northern Idaho. Bears are put to death when the stumble into our yards, yet we turn more and more of their habitat into housing tracts every year.

Conservation is on my mind, and the news from Washington saddens me today, as I read that Americans concern themselves less and less with what I consider this country’s greatest resource, its wilderness, when times get the slightest bit difficult economically. As I prepare for another year of teaching Economics, this year at a new school in a new country, one where conservation is of the utmost importance, I will think about ways to incorporate more of an environmental economics perspective into this blog and my own teaching. As I prepare to leave my home in the mountains of Northern Idaho once again, I will cherish what little wilderness remains in this beautiful country, and try to make as little impact as I can on an individual level towards the continued destruction and exploitation of nature that characterizes the path that Americans seem to be choosing in this time of economic hardship.

One response so far

Apr 24 2008

Dominican Republic struggles to find its “comparative advantage” as it faces new competition from Asia

FT.com / World / Americas – US economy threatens Dominican Republic

Trade based on comparative advantage… the theory originally articulated by Adam Smith, later fine-tuned by David Ricardo, the theory that suggests that if each nation specializes its economic activity on the products for which it faces the lowest opportunity cost, then trades with its neighbors, total world output and efficiency can be maximized: today this theory represents the philosophical underpinning of all free trade agreements signed between and among the nations of the world.

Through trade, countries can exchange their extra output with other nations for the goods specialized in by others, enabling all nations to enjoy a level of consumption beyond what they’d be able to achieve if they tried to produce all goods domestically.

For many developing countries, with their abundance of either land or labor, comparative advantages tend to lie in either agricultural goods or low-skilled manufactured goods. Since global prices for food are highly unstable and dependency on healthy harvests, good weather, and stable rainfall are all highly risky endeavors for a poor country, developing nations prefer to foster the growth of manufacturing sectors in their path towards economic development.

Strategies for economic growth available to developing nations include export-oriented and inward-oriented growth. A country like the Dominican Republic, the largest economy in the Caribbean, has pursued a predominantly export-oriented growth strategy, promoting through “free zones” the growth of a textile industry aimed at producing goods for consumers in developed countries, primarily the US.

To the Domincans, producing textiles for export to America has successfully given the people of this poor nation a grip on a rung of the ladder towards economic development. The import of capital has taken previously unproductive workers out of agriculture and put them into an industry where productivity, thus income, has risen, leading to improvements in living standards. Export-led growth, however, runs some serious risks of its own, as is being realized by the people of the Dominican Republic today.

It had been clear for some time that Luis Caraballo’s textile factory, in one of the Dominican Republic’s largest “free zones”, was struggling.

Finally, last December, he closed the factory gates for the last time: cut-throat competition from China and Vietnam, a weakening US dollar and unsustainable costs had become too much.

Once a hot destination for American companies looking for a cheap place to “off-shore” production of labor intensive textiles, the Dominican Republic today faces new competition, and is finding its comparative advantage slip slowly away from textiles…

The Dominican Republic depends heavily on the US, which is the destination of more than 85 per cent of exports. But textile exports – these days accounting for less than a third of total exports – fell by 32 per cent over 2007.

Although other countries in the Caribbean are also suffering from Asian competition – with Chinese textile exports to the US tripling between 2000 and 2005, while Vietnam’s multiplied almost 117 times – the Dominican Republic has been worst hit.

Here’s the thing: a nation’s comparative advantage may shift over time (from land to labor to capital intensive goods) as the structure of the global economy evolves. Once an economy like the Dominican Republic’s has undergone a period of structural adjustment, away from agriculture and towards industry, the flow of low wage workers from farm to factory begins to slow to a trickle, leading to rising wages and increased competition from countries with more abundant supplies of cheap labor.

The challenge for policy makers is to manage the structural changes as they come, minimizing the deleterious impact such global shifts of productive resources has on the citizens of a country like the D.R. Clearly, it is in the country’s interest to prepare its citizens for a “new economy”, one in which skilled labor will play a larger role. The problem is, this requires a solid education system, which the D.R., it turns out, does not yet have:

There is widespread acceptance of the need to develop a better-educated workforce, but so far education spending has been inadequate.

“The government simply doesn’t have enough resources,” said Mr Montás. About 40 per cent of its budget goes on debt obligations and another 15 per cent is dished out through subsidies. Just 1.5 per cent goes towards education.

It also turns out that this is a balance of payments story:

Mr Montás calculated that for every percentage point the US economy contracted, the Dominican Republic’s GDP would shrink by 0.4 per cent.

Not only will exporters be hit, but also the huge tourism sector and remittance flows…

One possible result of the decline in exports and flows of remittances from the US will be a depreciation of the D.R. peso, as demand for pesos by Americans falls. A weaker peso might make the country’s exports attractive once again, assuming the exchange rate is allowed to adjust on foreign exchange markets. A weaker peso should help slow the decline in the D.R.’s exports to the US, at least until new competition emerges, perhaps elsewhere in Asia, maybe even from Africa or other Latin American countries.

In all likelihood, given the increased competition from Asian textile manufacturers, continued economic growth in the Dominican Republic will depend on the country’s ability to educate and train its workforce to adapt to a more capital, technology and information-based economy, which, if successful, will eventually lead to rising incomes and higher standards of living for the people of the this rising Caribbean nation.

Comparative advantages evolve with the emergence of new competition among developing and developed countries. The negative impacts this evolution has on a particular economy can be managed if wise policy actions are taken to assure a country’s workforce is educated and trained to participate in tomorrow’s economy, rather than yesterday’s or today’s.

30 responses so far

Oct 06 2007

Habitat for Humanity, Philippines: a Reflection

Shanghai American School Habitat for Humanity – Lucena City, Philippines. October 2007

This afternoon my wife and I returned to Shanghai after an amazing week in the Philippinese where we led 16 students on a Habitat for Humanity house building project on the island of Luzon (see map here). While this experience is still fresh in my mind, I wanted to share a few comments about how my thinking about Habitat for Humanity evolved over the last eight days.A warm welcome on our first day

A week ago right now, the 18 of us from SAS were bouncing scarily southward along Luzon’s main north-south highway, which is only a highway in the western sense for about 30 km outside of Manila, beyond which it turns to a two-lane, pot-holed, multi-use thoroughfare shared by buses, three-wheeled motorcycle taxis, lorries, a handful of personal automobiles and thousands of jeepneys. Three hours of nerve and bone rattling travel brought us to our lovely guest house near the southern Luzon city of Lucena, where we would spend five days building a house in a community on the outskirts of the city. Continue Reading »

4 responses so far

Sep 11 2007

The opportunity cost of sex

From the Undercover Economist:

FT.com / Weekend columnists / Tim Harford – Dear Economist

Is there a relationship between a student’s decision of whether to have sex and his/her performance in school? Tim Harford finds there just might be.

There is little doubt that virgins achieve better grades. Yet is this because sex kills brain cells, or because kids who are already bored at school look harder for ways to amuse themselves?

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24 responses so far

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