Archive for the ‘economics’ Category

Evangelicals Advocate Mercury Reductions to Protect the Unborn

October 19, 2011

by Rusty Pritchard

Creation care opponents have thrown caution to the wind. Emboldened by demagogues like Glenn Beck, they’re not averse to painting as “totalitarians” anyone even slightly concerned about pollution, resource conservation, biodiversity loss, or energy efficiency.

The Washington Times published a piece on May 19, 2011, by creation care critic Cal Beisner purporting to reveal the “hidden dangers” in the National Day of Prayer for Creation Care, which was sponsored by the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN). Among their “dangerous” prayer requests: reducing mercury pollution that passes from pregnant mothers to their unborn babies.

Aside from being a worthy cause in its own right, the campaign seemed to me to be good apologetics as well. Here were evangelical Christians claiming publicly that God’s call to compassion and wise dominion extends to stopping air pollution that affects our most vulnerable citizens, growing the credibility of the pro-life witness by linking it to more than fighting abortion (the frequency of which, we must all admit, remains our greatest current national travesty), and doing so with smart, well-documented research and policy recommendations. I personally know of formerly pro-choice environmentalists who have changed their positions on abortion because of encountering pro-life evangelical environmental advocates.

But the most visible anti-environmentalists never let concerns about the church’s witness in the world overcome their fundamental desire to fight even the suggestion that democratically elected governments might use their regulatory authority to protect the environment. The libertarian ends consistently trump the means, and evangelism tends to be the first casualty, with regard for truth a close second.

In Beisner’s critique, he constructed two straw-man claims that EEN’s materials didn’t make; and even the way he rebuts the fictitious claims reveals a lot about his commitments.

Beisner said EEN claimed “the main source of mercury pollution is dirty air released by coal-burning power plants” and that international sources are more important. Beisner apparently didn’t read the materials he was criticizing, because they didn’t say what he said they did. Apparently the Washington Times can’t afford fact-checkers. EEN gave a quite detailed explanation on the sources of mercury pollution, and the relative contribution of domestic and international sources, which varies from place to place (they even provided a map).

But the reason Beisner invented that red herring is that he sniffed out an attempt to strengthen regulation on emissions from coal-fired power plants. He challenged a fictitious version of EEN’s claims about sourcing, because he didn’t want to draw attention to their well-researched claims about the economic benefits from regulating mercury emissions (which predict $60-140 billion in total health benefits, or a return of $5-13 for every $1 invested in meeting the regulations).

It wouldn’t be surprising, when we look back from the future, if the costs of limiting mercury went down relative to predictions and the benefits went up. That’s been the case with other environmental regulations as well—something even those opposed to regulations at the time now admit. Since we enacted the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, the economy has grown 64 percent while air pollution has gone down 41 percent, a puzzle to those who predict economic collapse in the face of strong environmental regulations.

Beisner goes on to accuse EEN of being a mouthpiece for the environmental lobby, repeating someone else’s suspect talking points about how bad mercury is for fetuses. But he ignored the peer-reviewed scientific literature the EEN documents clearly cite—again, he simply makes stuff up about EEN and its campaign to suit his own rhetorical purposes.

Beisner gives a drastically lower figure for unborn babies afflicted with unsafe levels of mercury in their blood—but he doesn’t say where he got his figures. So it turns out that Beisner committed the vice he (wrongly) accuses EEN of. EEN cited multiple studies that demonstrate not just how many infants are affected by mercury in utero but also to what degree, and (crucially) puts a dollar value on the health benefits of mercury pollution reductions.

I’m sympathetic to the problems of exaggeration and the nuances of weighing costs and benefits. I railed in the past about the irrational fears some parents have about the tiny amounts of mercury in vaccines, when the private and public health benefits from being vaccinated so far outweighs any negligible risk. Atmospheric mercury emissions are a different case—but it’s an empirical question, not an ideological question. Because Beisner is motivated chiefly by a libertarian worldview, he simply assumes that the costs of reducing mercury emissions will outweigh the direct and indirect benefits, when the best evidence shows that the reverse is actually true.

Beisner is certainly a devoted advocate. He is faithful to his ideology and political positions and tireless in their defense. There is indeed a strong case to be made for the free market and for capitalism; environmental policies for a flourishing economy would be much better if they reflected the concerns of economic conservatives. That case is not made stronger, however, by a sloppy critique that runs roughshod over facts or by deafness to reasonable counterarguments.

Beisner cites, without apparent sense of the irony, 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (in reference to prophecies, the readers are told to “test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil”). Free market advocacy and creation care advocacy can be done with care, rigor, and honesty. When the lost world is watching the way we argue, it is a necessity.

A natural resource economist, Rusty Pritchard is the cofounder and president of Flourish (FlourishOnline.org), a national Christian ministry that serves Christians as they grow in environmental stewardship, healthy living, and radical discipleship.

Climate economics challenges left and right

April 13, 2010

There are four key questions about the climate system I’d love for God to just answer for us. Unfortunately, he has chosen to let us figure them out. Not exactly on our own, though: we have his gifts of reason, and he does appear to have made an intelligible universe. Ignorance and sin afflict us as we try to apply these gifts, but the situation isn’t hopeless. We’ve figured out tough problems before (what caused the Black Death? how can we determine our longitude at sea? why can’t we put metal in the microwave?). But climate problems we’re still working on…

My questions distill down to these four (and if anyone can find Bible references on these, let me know  😉  ):

  1. Is the climate changing in ways that (do, or will) threaten human flourishing?
  2. If it is, are we causing any (substantial) part of that climate change?
  3. If we are, could we do anything (substantial) about it?
  4. If we could, should we do anything about it? (What would it cost to act? What would it cost to not act?)

As you might expect, a lot of furious debate occurs around Question 4, which is really about economics. (more…)

Emergence, emergents, and libertarianism

March 19, 2010

Over on Scot McKnight’s blog, “Jesus Creed”, Michael Kruse has a guest post on what he claims is a “selective appeal” to emergence theory (a theory about the operation of complex systems). I think he misunderstands emergence theory, or applies it in only a limited way. The post is worth reading, and that’s necessary to understanding my comments. But in a nutshell, he asks why emergent or emerging Christians aren’t economic libertarians. They argue that spontaneous order will still emerge even when the shackles of authority are thrown off. Sounds kinda like theological libertarianism. But it’s not. (more…)

Overpopulation: The environmental problem that isn’t

November 16, 2009

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In an opinion leader and an associated issue briefing, the Economist newsmagazine last week (Oct 29 issue) reported on the worldwide decline in fertility rates, which mollify concerns about how to address the “overpopulation” of the planet. (The “fertility rate” is a technical term from demography–how many children a woman has during her lifetime.) In the undergraduate teaching program in Environmental Studies I helped found in 1999 at Emory University, I would survey incoming freshman on what they thought the world’s most pressing environmental issues were. Nearly always, they expressed grave concerns about “overpopulation”, by which they mostly meant population growth in less developed countries. Never mind that the United States and other first world nations consume far more than their share per capita of the world’s resources–these students were worried about the sheer number of people the planet would be called on to support.

What to do about it? I shudder to think about the despotic and manipulative practices a few of the students advocated. Some were insufficiently repulsed by China’s draconian “one child” policy. So many had already picked up their not-so-latent misanthropy in old-school environmentalism–the evil “lifeboat ethics” of Garrett Hardin and others. Others, more enlightened, figured that easier access to contraception would help reduce birth rates, although the Economist article shows that this is rarely the case. Families the world over have about the number of children they want to have.

Falling fertility is most obviously a result of the demographic transition–first infant mortality declines due to modern medicine, leading to a short-lived population boom. Then other factors make large families less attractive, and enlightened public policy has reduced birth rates as a side effect. When stable financial systems make it possible to save for old age and even participate in pension programs, when education for girls, rising pay and job opportunities for women make employment possible, when industrialization moves people off farms, it is no longer so attractive to have large families for economic survival, as the article details.

So the “problem of overpopulation” is taking care of itself. Public policy should focus more directly on the things that make people better off, rather than trying to control their reproductive decisions. Coercive population control is immoral, and other efforts at regulating population are less effective than helping families lead productive, rewarding, and flourishing lives.

[I’ll be posting a longer essay on this topic in the next few weeks, based on my recent lectures on population and environment.]

Taking the Measure of the Real Economy

September 11, 2009

A healthy economy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for human flourishing. C.S. Lewis would call it a “second thing” rather than a “first thing”. A healthy economy should serve higher goals of justice, peace, compassion, and rest. In the same manner that Wendell Berry asked “What Are People For?” we should always ask, “what is the economy for?”

In a previous article I contrasted the whirlwind of activity chasing financial returns with the more mundane health of the real economy (and suggested that using money to chase more money is the pursuit of “no thing”). You can’t eat financial instuments, nor can you live in them, wear them, or cook with them. Like money itself, they are a social fiction only distantly related to any kind of real wealth. Their only real value is to trade them for real goods and services. (more…)

Was “Cash for Clunkers” worth it?

September 2, 2009

Cash for clunkers is over. Was it a good economic investment? A good environmental one?

The federal government stimulus strategy of paying “cash for clunkers” ended last Monday as the program ran out of money, and many dealers ended their promotions early so they could begin the onerous task of filling in the paperwork necessary to get their money back. Was the program a success? Well, part of the goal of a stimulus package is to inject money into the economy that will be spent and not saved. In that sense, the cash for clunkers program was a resounding success. [That’s why tax cuts are a poor choice for stimulus (people tended to save them, evidence now shows) and government spending is a good choice (though most of the stimulus spending has yet to come). ] (more…)

How many roads must a man walk down?

August 3, 2009

How many roads must a man walk down without sidewalks, crosswalks, adequate lighting, or bike lanes, before he realizes that his quality of life depends on the built environment? How we build our cities, and especially how we build our streets, determines an awful lot about how we live together.

One area where smartly-built cities can help is in climate change. A climate-friendly transportation policy is like a three legged stool, and all three legs are necessary for it to function. This year the US finally raised fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, but that’s just part one of a solution. Part 2 is reducing the pollution coming from the fuel we do burn. Hybrid cars help, since they recapture some of the energy it took to get the car moving, by letting the brake system charge up a battery. Biofuels help, since for some kinds of biomass-based fuels, the growth of plant feedstocks uses up more carbon that is released when the fuel is combusted–although we should note well that one kind, corn-based ethanol, may not be much improvement at all over fossil-fuels. And as we’ve noted often in this space, growing food for our cars competes with growing food for people, to the detriment of hungry folks worldwide. (more…)

Stimulus Funding for Public Transportation Takes the Concept of Paradox to a New Level

June 22, 2009
News stories out this week about the paradox (or irony–I always get confused) of stimulus funding for public transportation infrastructure projects, while local government budget shortfalls or short-sightedness is simultaneously leading to fare increases, service cuts, and job losses <http://t4america.org/transitcuts/>. Many local governments have obstinately refused to raise public support for operating costs of public transportation, even when such on-going funding is shown to be in the public interest. The way the stimulus money for public transportation is restricted <http://www.propublica.org/ion/stimulus/item/for-ailing-transit-systems-stimulus-windfall-is-a-mixed-blessing-621#11168>, it cannot be used for operating costs, even though that would help prevent job losses during the recession.

It’s doubly paradoxical (or ironic) because the recession has made demand for public transportation skyrocket <http://www.apta.com/media/releases/090615_ridership.cfm>. More and more of us are turning to public transportation in the recession and to avoid high gas prices. Yet as demand rises, nearly 9 out of 10 public transportation systems facing revenue shortfalls are cutting service, according the the American PUblic Transportation Association <http://www.apta.com/media/releases/090612_constraints.cfm>.  You can see a depressing and information map of this nationwide trend in the article “The United States of Transit Cuts” <http://t4america.org/transitcuts/> from the campaign Transportation for America <http://t4america.org>.

Transportation for America is probably the best place to get a crash course on transportation policy. The Campaign has a comprehensive set of policy papers <http://t4america.org/policy-papers/> on transportation policy and how it relates to other issues such as public health, economic development, small towns, climate, and social justice. Use the link to go straight to the “Transportation and Social Equity” PDF policy brief <http://t4america.org/policybriefs/t4_policybrief_equity.pdf>.

Related items:
The Economist analyzes the new transportation bill and American politics <http://www.economist.com/world/unitedstates/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13871995>.

A new study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine shows that the single biggest factor influencing physical activity around the world is…sidewalks <http://newscenter.sdsu.edu/sdsu_newscenter/news.aspx?s=71384>.

The Love of No Thing

May 10, 2009

C.S. Lewis warned us to be alert to the law of “first and second things” in an essay of the same name. We must continually ask ourselves “What is the first thing?” to avoid seeking a derivative good by mistake.

The law seems paradoxical, but is quite commonly observed in operation: “Every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good,” wrote Lewis, “involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made.” He gave a couple of instructive examples: “The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication.”

In the current economic and financial crisis, it’s tempting to ask whether the law applies. It doesn’t–because our mistake, our misplaced concreteness, was much worse than valuing and pursuing a secondary good over a primary good. In the pursuit of mere money, and the mistaken belief that money earns the right to make more money, we have not been pursuing a first or a second thing. We have been pursuing no thing.

Money isn’t real, every first-year economics student learns. Money is a social construction, a medium of exchange standing in for real goods and real services. (The difference between goods and services? Goods are things that hurt if you drop them on your foot). But the freshman lesson is soon forgotten, and money is reified. We start to believe that it is a real thing worth pursuing and that moving it around is real work (forgetting the first-year physics lesson that real work involves moving real goods).

Much of this year’s financial crisis involves fictitious activity mistaken for reality, even when the books aren’t being cooked. Commentator Kevin Phillips has described in several recent books the whirlwind of unproductive activities generated in the final days of empires as the rise of the FIRE sector of the economy–Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate. Historically, Phillips argues, when the FIRE sector comes to dominate economic activity, when a nation “lets itself luxuriate in finance at the expense of harvesting, manufacturing, or transporting things,” it’s a sign of the end of an empire, as was true for the Romans, the Dutch, and the British before the Americans.

Phillips, along with other populists, decries the loss of manufacturing jobs, and that’s where he’s on strongest ground. A strong nation has an economy that grows things, makes things, and moves them around, and it uses energy to do it. They can use that energy to build an empire, and that empire will collapse once the real work is outsourced. [The Roman Empire was based on food energy, the Dutch on water, the British on coal, and the American on oil, in Phillips’ history lesson.]

Some futurists believe that a shift to a “service economy” will usher in an era of “dematerialization”–a time when natural resources are no longer necessary. I’d recommend they try to feed their families on Google for a week, as an instructive experiment. We can’t eat the 98% of GDP that is not agriculture. A pure service economy is a fiction, but it’s one you might begin to believe if your mental world is whirling rapidly around the FIRE sector. Real estate trading is a necessary activity, but economically speaking it is strictly unproductive. Real estate transactions are mere transfers of wealth.

Escalating land prices may make an individual owner feel wealthy, but it’s a fallacy of composition to believe they represent growth in real wealth for the economy as a whole, because those individual wealth gains are only ever realized if someone else is willing to cough up some dough. Real wealth is created by putting useful buildings on land, or by contributing to soil fertility. Merely holding the keys to a parcel while its price goes up is economically unproductive speculation.

Similarly, from an economic perspective, finance and insurance are–technically–unproductive activities. They are necessary to move wealth around, make mutually-beneficial trades possible, grease the wheels of commerce, and allow us to feel more secure by contracting to cover each others’ losses, but they don’t increase any real wealth .

Allowing the FIRE sector to dominate our economy is as corrupt as any Bernie Madoff pyramid scheme.
The love of money is the root of all evil because it is illusory–it’s not even the love of second things. The love of money, we should be clear, is the love of no thing.

Real economic wealth is now, and always has been, material. It may sound unspiritual to praise the material world, but a good, redemptive attention to the material world is a partial antidote our diseased infatuation with finance. Because the material world is a real thing, rather than no thing. And because it is made by God, it is a good thing–a second thing, a thing that can be corrupted, laid to waste, and misused like any second thing, but a good thing nonetheless.

Taking the material world seriously is a solution not just to environmental problems, but to economic problems as well. More on that in the next column!

A version of this article was first published in the May/June 2009 edition of PRISM magazine. PDF available.