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Beyond Goodwill and Language: Why Ecopoetics Should Embrace Policy Wonks

21 Mar

(This post is part of conversation with poet and friend Moriah Purdy. The first post can be read over at Here Now, Myriads.)

Moriah has already provided some good working definitions of ecopoetics already, so I don’t have much to add on that front. My primary interest in ecopoetics is how it intersects with policy and political activism. I welcome responses from anyone, though I’m eager to hear the thoughts of my co-blogging conversationalist.

The oft posed questions surrounding poetry and practice run something like, “Does poetry do anything? Can ecopoetics help change environmental policy for the better?” These are often rhetorical questions or placeholders for future debates that don’t materialize.  I want to try to begin addressing them, and so I’ll offer what I see as the major limitation of ecopoetics (however defined): It doesn’t help us think about the environmental problems currently facing us.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if we’re focusing on ecopoetics as a poems themselves; poetry doesn’t pretended to offer the kinds arguments and evidence that essays or policy papers do, so it would be unfair to criticize ecopoets for not doing something they’ve never pretended to do. But much of the discussion surrounding ecopoetics seems to offer up questions without attempts to work through problems or offer potential solutions. An excerpt from Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice highlights my concern:

Consider another subject, which is beginning, at long last, to receive the attention it deserves, that is, the neglect and deterioration of the natural environment. It is, as is increasingly clear, a hugely serious problem and one that is closely linked with the negative effects of human behaviour, but the problem does not arise from any desire of people today to hurt those yet to be born, or even to be deliberately callous about the future generations’ interests. And yet, through lack of reasoned engagement and action, we do still fail to take adequate care of the environment around us and the sustainability of the requirements of good life. To prevent catastrophes caused by human negligence or callous obduracy, we need critical scrutiny, not just goodwill towards others.

Critical scrutiny is the key here, even though I think many ecopoets would argue that they are offering a kind of “critical scrutiny”—for example, by examining the ways we use language to talk about the environment. But I think that (much) of the critical scrutiny offered by ecopoetics is severely limited and often fails to address some of the most pressing concerns. This Tamiko Beyer post about the BP oil spill at the Kenyon Review blog is one such example¹:

I understand that to mean that the act of thinking through an ecopetics forces us to ask questions about the role and function of art/writing/etc. as we approach a critical ecological/environmental breaking point. The problems – as in the oil spill – are so huge and seemingly impossible to tackle – what use, then, poetry?

It’s a question that’s been asked before in many different contexts, but for me, it makes intuitive sense that an ecopoetics is a reasonable, appropriate, even vital response to ecological disaster. As one panelist pointed out (Iijima? Durand?) all poetry in some respect is ecopoetic: our language and language production cannot help but be influenced by and indicate the ecology that we exist in.

Given that, I want to think that we can start to reconsider our relationship with our ecology/environment by putting pressure on the language that is a manifestation of that relationship.

Though the problem is seemingly impossible to tackle, we already have a host of critical tools we can use to think about the problem: What are the environmental costs? What sort of regulation is missing? How have government regulators failed (or overreached)? What sort of legal remedies are effective/available? What kind of political action could communities muster to prevent future disasters?. It’s not that language is unimportant, it’s that the numerous disciplines that ecopoetics claims to include have spent some time thinking about these issues and these disciplines would be a great edition to the vocabulary of ecopoetics.  See, for example, Ryan Advent discussing the tension between environmentalists and the economic models which politicians and policy makers rely on to craft climate change legislation (or, as is the case with the US Congress, not make policy).

My feeling is that many ecopoets would nod along with some of these criticisms, admitting that, of course short term policy is indeed important, but that ecopoetics is playing a long game that is interested in changing the ways we think about the environment, breaking us out of status quo thinking and critical approaches (like economic models) which are too limited (or even damaging). I’m skeptical that many of these ecopoetic alternatives consider the full scope of the problem (global climate change is history’s greatest collective action problem–which problematic language game stands in the way of turning China, the US, and India into green nations?).  Which is why I’m interested to hear how others think ecopoetics can (or even shouldn’t) take into account some of the policy concerns of environmentalists and public debate.

fn.1: I don’t mean to suggest that Beyer is wholly unaware of other approaches to the oil spill besides language analysis; she says in the post that she hopes to revisit ecopoetic concerns in another post which, unfortunately, she didn’t write (only so many things you can address as a guest blogger). Perhaps she has since addressed similar concerns elsewhere.

Saving Globalization from the Poets

18 Jun

Jeremy Schmall has a post over at HTML Giant that argues that poetry’s larger cultural irrelevance makes it a useful site of resistance against globalization.  Schmall’s description of globalization (and capitalism in general) however, is mostly caricature bolstered by some hand-waving and talk about the power of imagination.  The central mistake is, I think, an attempt to define “true culture” against market exchanges:

The crucial point here is understanding the difference between a consumer market and true culture. A consumer market is based on what kinds of people buy what kinds of things, i.e. how to make money by selling what to whom. True culture is the spread of what is critical to people, beyond the control of corporate manipulation, and without regard to profitability; culture is precisely how humanity itselfunderstands humanity itself. Capitalism seeks to manipulate this process by producing its own manufactured meaning; if it can control the endpoints, it can control the means to achieving those endpoints, e.g. if you want to be a “hip enlightened nerd,” here’s your type of shoe, TV show, soft drink, and automobile.

As a categorical tool for thinking about these different relationships, the cultural/market (Geminschaft and Gesellschaft) are, in the abstract, useful.  But Schmall defines “true culture” as that which is “critical to people,” and then cites poetry’s continued existence in the face of overwhelming forces that poetry must be critical to people while neglecting all of the other things we consider “critical” that are part of market exchanges.  As someone who values and writes poetry, I’ll readily agree that poetry (in whatever form) had be deemed important, across cultures and historical epochs. But what about the most critical resources and goods like food, clothing, and shelter? We consider these part of cultures (and often leave their distribution to the market, with some controls and exceptions).  There are many creative, cultural products and traditions that are part of market exchanges and the result of market forces (think of something as simple as French toast or stews in cooking; both use leftover or day old ingredients as a creative response to limited resources).

Moreover, Schmall’s description of capitalism oversimplifies things to the point of distortion:

A consensus has emerged that our current place of existence—severe economic crisis and pervasive paranoia—can be blamed on poor management, that with a few tweaks—tighter regulations, less leveraging, more honest accounting—the catastrophe unfolding before us could’ve been avoided; but what has really been revealed is a crisis of our collective imaginations. It’s been revealed that we were incapable of imagining a world without a receding economic horizon that must be sped toward at an increasingly rapid pace, despite the fact that the faster we sprint—the longer we work with increasing productivity—the faster it recedes; that we failed to imagine our lives without consumer electronics, name brands, oversized homes, green lawns, shopping malls, and automobiles; that we failed to imagine for ourselves a world we could truly thrive in.

How has increasing productivity lead to “a receding economic horizon”?  I’d argue (or agree, as the case may be) that increasing income (the result of increasing productivity) shouldn’t be the only measure of welfare and flourishing in a society, but the list of consumerist evils (name brands, shopping malls, oversized homes) is simple hand-waving.  How do any of these things prevent us of from thriving (the argument that we don’t pay the true costs of these–the negative externalities–is a valid one, but one that has a market/government solution, but Schmall rejects these in favor of improving our “collective imaginations”)?

Finally, consider also that “true culture” can be restrictive in ways that inhibit flourishing and reduce welfare (whether material or something more abstract).  There are many cultures that have cultural practices, dress codes, mores, and roles that aren’t the result of the market, but tightly inscribe what women should do and wear, or what jobs a certain ethnic or religious sub-group may hold.  These are real restrictions on flourishing (women can’t earn a living not provided by a man, can’t be educated and improve their own understanding) that have nothing to do with the market.  Contrary to what many of globalization’s critics argue (or assume about their work of economists and other proponenets of markets) there isn’t a single market policy or process of liberalization that a country must persue (see Dani Rodrik”s work).  But what Schmall is describing is a caricacture of capitalism, a caricarture with little explanatory power.

The Perils of the Low Information Voter

29 Sep

The bailout plan fails in the House. And hey, the Dow closes in -700 territory. So that’s exciting.  

On the political side, I can understand the behavior of representatives who claim to be receiving calls 100:1 against the bailout. They’re worried about protecting their seats and watching as their vote is painted as a taxpayer giveaway to billionares. But this is the one of the real-word consequences of the the “low information” voter.  The bailout is a complex and confusing morass that requires a lot of technical knowledge.  So we’re asking the voter–who hears “bailout” and “fatcat” thrown around like CNBC is covering a national game of Monopoly with the Fed playing the roll of Mr. Moneybags, complete with Depression-era monocle–to smile and put their faith in unelected technocrats. 

This is, in part, a trust and information problem. If more voters understood the problem, they might be inclined to support the bill. (I’ll also note that some of this blame could be shared by Congress and the Bush administration for not selling this better). If some voters had more information, they’d know enough to understand…that they don’t know enough. 

Instead, they call and complain to their local representative, allowing the House GOP to cry partisanship. Best comment comes from a friend in investment banking:

LOL. No! They’re [the Republicans] protecting the little guy by insisting on tax incentives for speculative investment. Wheeeeeeee! We’re all doomed!

What Obama’s Economic Argument Should Look Like: The Great Risk Shift

23 Sep

One of the things that seems to be missing from the Obama campaign’s economic rhetoric is a coherent narrative under which he can group his policy proposals .  Citing deregulation, the influence of lobbyists (with strong ties to the Republican party and John McCain’s campaign), and tax cuts for oil companies is a scatter-shot of political sins and policy failures.  But as Ezra Klein observed recently when critiquing an Obama ad, these things don’t really go together in the minds of voters:

But the substance of the ad, the solutions, are a string of disconnected, and fairly unconvincing, sentences. “Reform our tax system to give a $1,000 tax break to the middle class, instead of showering more on oil companies and corporations that outsource our jobs.” This would be fine if McCain were publicly advocating the “Oil Companies and Outsourcers Tax Cut of 2008,” but as he won’t admit to favoring these things, it just sounds like Obama is another politician promising Good Stuff, and no one really believes in Good Stuff. 

Jacob Hacker’s idea of “The Great Risk Shift” would be one, I think powerful, way of thinking about the current crisis and forming a positive argument.  It also has two major political messaging benefits:

  1. Like Bill Clinton’s 1992 message, it tells the voters what the Republicans are doing wrong (they’re shifting the burden of financial risk from other players in the system–who can and should assume their own risk–and shifting it to the middle and lower classes).  It’s the worst features of both Big Government and free-market fervor: regulatory capture, corporate patronage, and bailouts for those at the top combined with little to no oversight to keep markets running smoothly (even if you favor a “night watchmen” for regulatory oversight, it’d be best if that watchman wasn’t asleep on the job). 
  2. It offers a flexible range of policy responses.  The campaign doesn’t have to adopt all of Hacker’s proposals to make the case against McCain’s plans.  You could offer a more populist, John Edwards inspired package under the narrative of restoring safeguards for the American worker as easily as you could a more limited, “iPod government” initiative.

The message of the late 80s and early 90s was that “trickle-down economics” had failed to actually trickle down.  The message for the remaining days of this campaign should be that average voters deserve a governemnt that makes all players in the system assume their fair share of risk.

Sentences That Worry Me

15 Sep

Perhaps if I had more experience with financial markets, I wouldn’t be as concerned, but as it stands this sort of thing doesn’t sound good:

$$$ With Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns gone, everyone is asking whether Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs will survive as independent investment banks.

And these from Felix Salmon:

If you’re looking for silver linings, it’s clearly the investment banks which are most worried right now, not the big commercial banks in Europe or even in the US (Wells Fargo). When Wall Street’s alpha males stop competing and start cooperating like this, you know you’re living in historic times.

Hopefully not too historic.

Two Quick Takes on Canadian Politics

28 Aug

Well, not Canadian politics exactly, but the politics and views of Canadians.  From time to time, I like to click through the Canadian political blogosphere.  It’s an interesting contrast to the terms of debate in America–both the literal terms (the Conservative party is more moderate than the Republican right; the Liberal party is further left of center ) and which issues are a priority north of the border.  And then sometimes there’s a bit of dissonance:

If I am being branded a social neo-liberal, then I suggest the right do their homework a little more. I am a small “c” conservative, and I utterly reject social progressivism, except perhaps in the case of hereditary rights. I do not believe in progressive taxation, nor social security for employment, nor government control of free markets. I do not agree with surrendering 33% of my income toward social progressivism. As a classical liberal I believe in the free market, with restrictions only on collusive interests and foreign manipulation of domestic controls.

That’s right, free markets for everyone except in the case of”foreign manipulation,” because markets stop at the imaginary line we call borders.  And domestic controls, which might be things like safety standards or, well, I’m not sure what–sounds like nasty market regulation stuff to me.  And “bah” to foreigners and this “multiculturalism” drivel.  I mean, is labor really subject to market forces? Free markets for me but not for thee.

This isn’t really classical liberalism; this is favor for some open markets at the expense of others (as a corrective, see: all the work of Will Wilkinson).

Then there’s Jason Cherniak asking “What’s Obama scared of?“:

My concern is that the supposedly charismatic man of change seems, ultimately, scared of competition. When he ran against Hillary Clinton, he successfully destroyed her campaign by arguing that she would somehow be cheating if she were to follow the rules and try to win the votes of what we call “ex-officio delegates”. Now, when it came time to pick the number 2, he went with bland and boring. It is as if Mr. Obama wants absolutely nobody to ever forget that he is the star and whomever else might be around him is all but meaningless.

Bland and boring?  Evan Bayh is closer to Mr. Vanilla.  Kathleen Sebelius, despite her impressive perch as a Democratic executive in Republican leaning state, isn’t exactly a rousing figure.  Joe Biden, on the other hand, has that uniquely Washington problem of occasionally stating exactly what he’s thinking.  Biden is a pretty strong and well-established figure in the Democratic party–and yet Obama chose him to be his running mate (a man who also, as the McCain campaign has reminded us, said that Sen. Obama wasn’t ready to lead).  Hardly the behavior of a primadonna.

Allow Me

12 Jun

In order to alleviate any suggestion of concern trolling on Matt Zeitlin’s part, I’m going to take a shot at why this Naomi Klein piece on Obama’s economic advisers is such a mess. Klein’s continued obsession with Milton Friedman as a symbol of everything that is wrong with anything approaching a market solution causes her to not only flatten distinction between economists, but also miss a growing consensus among liberal economists that more has to be done to ensure social welfare and address inequality. First here’s what Klein has to say about Jason Furman:

Furman, a leading disciple of Rubin, was chosen to head the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, the think tank Rubin helped found to argue for reforming, rather than abandoning, the free-trade agenda.

In contrast to the Furman/Rubin position, Klein approvingly cites two economists:

The news is not all bad. Furman claims he will be drawing on the expertise of two Keynesian economists: Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute and James Galbraith, son of Friedman’s nemesis John Kenneth Galbraith.

So let’s turn it over to James Galbraith:

In a Washington Post essay published late last year, on the eve of the Democrats’ ascension to the majority, Senators Byron Dorgan and Sherrod Brown articulated a trade policy that typifies the consensus view of the party’s labor-liberal wing. They criticize “free trade,” call for strong labor and environmental standards in future trade agreements, and argue for aggressive policies to open foreign markets to American goods. Their critique reflects a genuine anger, and the concerns their piece embodies deserve to be met. Their program is populist, nationalist, muscular, and in tune with the mood of the Democratic base.

But it is not reality-based. As policy, it would not achieve the senators’ basic objective — namely, more jobs at higher wages in the United States. As politics, the danger is not that it will fail but that it might succeed. And then, progressives in power will repeat the pattern that conservatives set in 1981, pushing a program based on high expectations and illusions that ends in confusion, reversals, defeats, and an eventual lapse into incoherence and disrepute.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Klein’s anti-trade rhetoric. But what does the Rubin/Summers (and Furman, by implication) wing of economic centrists (part of Klein’s nasty Friedmanite cabal) think about the current economic situation? Here’s Larry Summers:

The domestic component of a strategy to promote healthy globalisation must rely on strengthening efforts to reduce inequality and insecurity. The international component must focus on the interests of working people in all countries, in addition to the current emphasis on the priorities of global ­corporations. [...]

While labour standards arguments have at times been invoked as a cover for protectionism, and this must be avoided, it is entirely appropriate that US policymakers seek to ensure that greater global integration does not become an excuse for eroding labour rights.

Let’s be clear: the “Wall Street” and “Main Street” sides of economic policy (represented by Robert Rubin and Robert Reich during the Clinton years, respectively) are closer now than ever before.  Naomi Klein’s picture of the global economy is a caricature, and one that fellow critics of the Washington Consensus reject.  Anti-market screeds might be a winner for populist-minded voters, anxious about their financial security and the turn in the American economy, but it won’t make for good economic policy.  There are people out there who are gripped with by a Friedmanesque “free-market-in-all-things” ideology, but economists like Furman and Goolsebee aren’t among them.  The truly problematic ideology is Klein’s own.

Liberals and the Free Market

3 Jun

Will Wilkinson wrote a much linked to piece the other day that argues a real “liberaltarianism” wouldn’t look too different than the writings of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan, which are not too far afield from the political commitments of “welfare liberals” (my term).  He concludes by saying:

So that’s where I’m at. An old-fashioned market liberal who thinks Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan get it right, and who thinks Rawlsian welfare liberals should be able to recognize themselves in these thinkers.

For the most part, I think this is true, especially since both libertarians and liberals have reached a kind of intellectual rapprochement; liberals have come to accept Hayek’s insights about decentralization (as Matt Zeitlin pointed out) and libertarians like Wilkinson recognize that not every welfare state will descend into totalitarianism, based on the observation that many European countries with large welfare states didn’t actually descend into totalitarianism.

But I think part of what keeps me in the “liberal” column economically (besides particular moral and political commitments) is something this response Larry Summers gave in an interview:

[...]there are two kinds of offsetting errors that in a way lead me to be dismissive of people’s analysis.  One is the motive analysis that assumes that whatever the market produces will be for the best, that denies, if you like, that the phenomenon of a wasteful bank run where a healthy institution is felled by lack of confidence and that somebody needs to do something to coordinate to produce a better outcome.  The kind of analysis that denies that as a possibility and simply believes as an ideological matter that if you interfere in the market it will be worse.  I don’t find those types of analyses helpful.  I suppose the other type of analysis that I don’t find to be helpful are ones that commit the opposite error.  Something bad happened.  Therefore, the government should have a plan to stop it, and if only we had a better government the problem would not have taken place.

I believe markets can and do fail or that they produce outcomes that we’d rather not have (as Tyler Cowen has pointed out, its sometimes sad when we have markets in everything).  But they’re more efficient and often more neutral than any sort of directed institution or order that we could develop, which would come with its own host of attendant problems. But when it comes to policy, I have no a priori feelings about a market or government answer.

Economic Security vs. Growth

21 May

Mark Thoma has smart things to say about the assumed tradeoff between a more dynamic economy and a more secure one:

After the Great Depression, and also after World War II, we had significant changes in the level of economic security (and there were more changes in the 1960s with the Great Society programs), but we didn’t seem to sacrifice anything in terms of economic growth, at least not as measured against other countries in the world. Now that security has eroded over the last several decades, it’s hard to see how returning to previous levels will somehow destroy our flexibility and competitiveness, and it’s not at all clear that modest steps beyond previous levels of security would have any significant impact either, particularly steps like universal health care (which could help businesses as well as their employees). So maybe the contradiction isn’t so vexing after all.

I’ve always wondered why greater economic security couldn’t, to some extent, reinforce economic growth by cutting down on the resources firms used to manage risk (like struggle with labor unions who want to keep their benefits).  One would think lowering the risk burden would lead to a more efficient allocation of capital.

The Classroom as IR Theory

19 Feb

I’ve been asked to think about who my students are for my pedagogy of teaching literature. Which of these crude IR theory/economic/comparative politics analogies about general education classrooms (at the college level) seems more apt:

  1. The neoclassical model: Students are all rational actors (but not perfectly rational) that maximize their utility, which is expressed via grades. They respond to incentives (such as quizzes) which will improve their grades, but won’t read as closely (or sometimes at all) if there is nothing at stake. Grades–and not the information or experiences imparted in the classroom–are the measure of utility.
  2. The Malamud-Goti experience: Students are the citizens of a post-authoritarian regime: in this case secondary (and likely public) education. They have been socialized to accept the teacher as the arbiter of What is Right and wait to be filled with knowledge. Given more freedom, they will default to rote learning–living an educational life of “oppression,” they will choose a “banking” approach to learning.
  3. The realist theory: The default condition of the classroom is anarchy. Students are self-interested and respond to grades rather than an ideology of educational enrichment. (You can substitute other IR theories here at will).

This isn’t only about college classrooms–it’s also about making tortured and entertaining connections between totally disparate disciplines. Comments welcome (including ones about classroom experience in general or high school pedagogy.)

Addendum: I freely admit these are cynical takes on the classroom experience, but that is part of the difficulty of a general education class; students with no real interest (at least not as part of their major) are asked to take classes that are unconnected to their discipline.  Of course, a college or university offers these classes as part of a “complete education” (however they conceive that) and many of the skills that make one a successful student in one area of study overlap with another.  But at bottom you’re teaching future engineers and MBAs how to read Robert Frost poem.

I Am Not as Easily Worried as Greg Mankiw

13 Feb

Greg Mankiw worries that Barack Obama may side with the populists of the Democratic party rather than the centrists, thanks to a statement like this:

It’s a game where trade deals like NAFTA ship jobs overseas and force parents to compete with their teenagers to work for minimum wage at Wal-Mart. That’s what happens when the American worker doesn’t have a voice at the negotiating table, when leaders change their positions on trade with the politics of the moment, and that’s why we need a President who will listen to Main Street – not just Wall Street; a President who will stand with workers not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard.

The first part of this statement is populist bluster, so I can see why this raised Mankiw’s neoclassical hackles. The second part of the statement is the more important part because it explicitly states what the first part implies: “Some of you have been shut out (or feel left out) from economic prosperity but I will not forget you. You will have a voice in my administration.” That is as fine, if essentially bland and boilerplate political statement. And when we consider other signals, like his economic policy team, Obama is still safely in the centrist category.

So what’s with the NAFTA bashing? There are primaries in Texas and Ohio that Clinton is favored to win, with primary voters that respond to the populist message and whose demographic makeup work against him and for Clinton. Obama needs to join his primary momentum with appeals to Clinton’s likely supporters if he wants to lock up a victory. Thus, the political logic of populist rhetoric.

I think one of the biggest political issues an Obama administration will have to deal with is criticism from the left that he is insufficiently progressive or too economically conservative. What happened to the revolutionary leader who was going to sweep into Washington and eliminate corporate power and legislate away poverty? But he hasn’t promised those things and he isn’t the revolutionary leader some on the left are looking for (at least, not in the ways they want him to be).  For my part, Obama’s more centrist tendencies and wide appeal are why I’m a supporter.

Obama appears to be a canny pragmatist with strong political gifts, a man who can build coalitions through deft political maneuvering and while bringing the polity along with leadership and inspirational rhetoric. None of these things are negative; they are all part of politics, and this NAFTA comment seems a part of this.

Is Your Refrigerator Running? Then Welcome to Globalization

18 Nov

In light of the recent Oxford Word of the Year (locavore: those who eat only locally grown food), check out the link between refrigerator ownership and the rise of globalized supermarkets from Professor Sitaraman:

My argument was that increase in bulk shopping or weekly shopping is associated with globalization as well as increase in appliance sales in developing countries. For instance with the growth in appliance sales, particularly refrigerator ownership in developing nations, small farmer markets selling locally grown produce has been declining.


Annals of Bad Economic Contrarianism

30 Oct

The Economist sidesteps the supply-side debate:

THE RECENT jihad against supply-side fiscal thinking is, as far as I can tell, largely an attempt to distract people from the rather impressive distortionary effects of tax increases. Whether or not tax cuts “pay for themselves” in the short run, it remains that tax increases don’t raise as much revenue as one might hope, and, yes, may be completely self-defeating in the middle to long run. The main point of supply-side thinking is already part of conventional professional wisdom, so it really is quixotic to rail against it.

Beginning your argument with “whether or not tax cuts pay for themselves in the short run” ignores the costs of lost revenues altogether and does nothing more than avoid the debate.  Increasing deficits can lead to rising interest rates and lower capital investment (which is bad for economic growth).  Even assuming a given tax increases is a disincentive for economic growth, it still stacks up better than a revenue draining tax cut that also discourages economic growth.  At least such a tax increase (inefficient as it might be) would be revenue neutral at worst.  Additionally, calling attacks on the Laffer curve “quixotic” misses the entire reason for publicizing the power supply-siders have on the Republican party: to combat the conventional wisdom.

Asking how a tax-cut will affect government revenue isn’t an attempt to distract–its a negative argument .  One can believe the Laffer curve is more economic prestidigitation than tax policy without buying into an uncritical positive argument about the efficiency of tax increases.

Why Oh Why Can’t We Have More Economically Literate English Majors?

16 Oct

I find myself scratching my head at this Kenyon Review blog post about the online presence of literary journals and the value of literary commodities. It starts out with a discussion on the end of Times Select:

Now let me say, I’ve never taken an economics class, but I get the principle here. As the New York Times recently found in the failure of their online subscription service, people will pay for a hard copy of a newspaper, but not its online equivalent. This partly reflects our sense of the internet as a free space, not only in the sense of the free-flow of ideas, but a place where everything is free. But it also reflects the fact that we live in a commodity culture: we value the object — the book — more than its contents.

The demise of the Times paywall is the wrong analogy. The problem wasn’t that people would pay for an actual paper in lieu of an online copy, but that future advertising revenue was likely to outstrip online subscriptions. The New York Times, and now the Financial Times (with the WSJ likely to follow) went full-access (mostly) because, as Felix Salmon noted, they were losing potential pageviews from Google because their content was behind a subscriber firewall. Attention is the big value on the internet (and in “old media,” if you can attract advertisers), thus, less attention meant less revenue. Everything isn’t “free,” it’s just that it’s being paid for in a different way: advertisers instead of subscribers.

Lobanov-Rostovsky is right when he suggests we often “value the object–the book–more than its content.” Books are a type of “symbolic good,” (PDF) which we as consumers buy because of the way it makes us feel about ourselves or as a way to signal to other people that we are educated and cultured. This is less true of writers and literature lovers, who are looking for the content inside the pages, but the basic observation that people will buy books less for what they contain then for their “cultural aura” is correct.

But then Lobanov-Rostovsky makes an argument I’ve read before, but still doesn’t make any sense:

Still, I find this concept surprising when we apply it to literature. I’ve always assumed that one thing we can all agree on is that a literary text can’t be reduced to a commodity. I’m thinking here of Lewis Hyde’s view of literature as a kind of gift economy, in which the intellectual and spiritual labor that goes into the making of a literary text far exceeds anything that the poet or novelist can expect to receive in return, except in the pleasure of reading other literary texts. In a sense, the value of a literary text far exceeds its cost, but only to those who already share a common set of cultural values.

I have no idea why a literary text can’t be reduced to a commodity. Perhaps one would argue it shouldn’t be, but that is a separate argument. A quick look inside the local Barnes and Nobles, Borders–even a college bookstore or small press–suggests that a text can definitely be a commodity. Books are discrete, excludable goods that you have to pay for and can carry around. And although no one can “own” ideas, creative works–while not physical commodities–are protected under intellectual property rights. We can’t quantify the “spiritual labor” that goes into a work, so we can’t compensate someone for that; we can only measure opportunity cost in the form of forgone productive labor. But that is irrelevant, because we can’t quantify the spiritual labor for anyone–doctors, lawyers, teachers, or poets.

I think this conceptual breakdown occurs because Lobanov-Rostovsky, like many others in the literary community, sees market value imputed by something like the “labor theory of value.” But as Brad DeLong put it, “[n]obody who ventured into the labor theory of value has ever emerged.” This is where the occasional economics class might help to clarify things–or at least make for more economically sensible blog posts.

Kyoto Sucks, But Malaria is Worse

10 Oct

By Alicia Feuillet

I don’t take issue with 99% of what Bjorn  Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus says about the economic realities of fighting global warming using the Kyoto Protocol (i.e. it sucks).  Although I am usually averse to anything that looks remotely like Bentham’s hedonic calculus when dealing with people lives, he does make several well made points.  However, for such an “innovative” thinking, I was disappointed by his thoughts on how to combat the 3 % up tick in new malaria infections (15 million people in just the first year) over the next century:

On the other hand, we could spend $3 billion annually — 2 percent of the protocol’s cost — on mosquito nets and medication and cut malaria incidence almost in half within a decade. Malaria death rates are rising in sub-Saharan Africa, but this has nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with poverty: Poor and corrupt governments find it hard to implement and fund the spraying and the provision of mosquito nets that would help eradicate the disease. Yet for every dollar we spend saving one person through policies like the Kyoto Protocol, we could save 36,000 through direct intervention.

Malaria is an incredibly devastating disease.  40% of the world’s population (2.5 billion people) lives in malaria endemic areas, it significantly lowers the quality of life (snarky economists read productivity), 1 million die each year including 1 child every 30 seconds.  Although vector control through the use of heavy insecticides is highly effective, it will not eradicate malaria. 

The problem that Bjorn conveniently ignores is that the overwhelming majority of malaria infections are concentrated in areas which are unable to pay for vector treatments, let alone R&D development of malaria treatments/vaccines.  Meaning, there is little to no incentive for major pharmaceutical companies to invest R&D dollars into “marginal diseases” when they can just tweak their Lipitor patent and make billions of dollars each year.  Government labs and places like the WHO do work on drug/vaccine development, but 95% of new drug treatments come from private pharmaceutical companies.  Unfortunately, any amount of pressure place on private firms will lead to marginal efforts and discovery, but if companies are “made aware” of the economic incentives for developing drugs then we just might be able to eradicate the burden of malaria altogether.  Yes, those vicious corporate executives at Merck will make lots of money from drug sales, but as a humanitarian I will certainly take advantage of their greed if it means that 500 million people every year can be spared from malaria.  Ah, the power of the free market.


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