Tag Archive for externalities

Capitalism Makes Us Sick


I often enjoy reading Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff’s commentaries. He strikes me as someone who kind of “gets it” about capitalism but who is unable, for whatever reason, to draw the logical conclusions. The final paragraphs of his column entries that point to some serious flaw in capitalist economic arrangements are almost always anticlimactic disappointments.

His latest piece, a brief exposé of how capitalist forces contribute to bad diets and poor health titled “Coronary Capitalism”, serves as a great example of his unsatisfying lessons. The piece starts off digging into an important economic matter. After noting that decreased life expectancy is bad for economic growth, he explains that making people fat and sick is probably a net boon to the economy, all aspects considered. Here’s the nut:

Highly processed corn-based food products, with lots of chemical additives, are well known to be a major driver of weight gain, but, from a conventional growth-accounting perspective, they are great stuff. Big agriculture gets paid for growing the corn (often subsidized by the government), and the food processors get paid for adding tons of chemicals to create a habit-forming – and thus irresistible – product. Along the way, scientists get paid for finding just the right mix of salt, sugar, and chemicals to make the latest instant food maximally addictive; advertisers get paid for peddling it; and, in the end, the health-care industry makes a fortune treating the disease that inevitably results.

Coronary capitalism is fantastic for the stock market, which includes companies in all of these industries. Highly processed food is also good for jobs, including high-end employment in research, advertising, and health care.

So, who could complain? Certainly not politicians, who get re-elected when jobs are plentiful and stock prices are up – and get donations from all of the industries that participate in the production of processed food. Indeed, in the US, politicians who dared to talk about the health, environmental, or sustainability implications of processed food would in many cases find themselves starved of campaign funds.

Okay, all of this rings true. But doesn’t it sound like the problem is pretty deep? Doesn’t the problem even seem inherent to capitalism?

Not for an economist steeped in the religion of markets — “free” or otherwise. For these cats, the market — regulated or not — has to form the basis of any solution to an economic problem… even when the market causes the problem in the first place. Rogoff is so conventional in his mindset, he seems to think market forces are actually an excuse for problems, rather than ever being able to draw the conclusion that markets are the problem. Look at the way he almost gives food pricing a pass:

True, market forces have spurred innovation, which has continually driven down the price of processed food, even as the price of plain old fruits and vegetables has gone up. That is a fair point, but it overlooks the huge market failure here.

[emphasis added]

Let’s explore the first sentence, which is so strangely structured as to imply that lowering food prices through subsidies, monocropping, and over-processing is a positive in any way — like, cheap food = good, so it counts for something. But let’s give Rogoff the benefit of the doubt. I think it’s fair to define “innovation” as developments that make something more economically efficient or profitable but not necessarily “better”. Still, I’d bet most people think of innovation as inherently “good”. It would make sense to take pause here and consider that in capitalism, innovation is something that helps capitalists. It may incidentally help workers, but usually it does not. And it doesn’t necessarily help consumers at all; it might even harm them. So finding cheaper ways to get junk food out to people is an innovation — one that is killing us.

But Rogoff acknowledges the “market failure” — so why am I picking on him for allegedly not recognizing that markets are the failure? Am I just nit-picking? Rogoff goes on:

… [P]roducers have few incentives to internalize the costs of the environmental damage that they cause. Likewise, consumers have little incentive to internalize the health-care costs of their food choices.

As far as I can discern, producers have no incentives to internalize the costs of environmental damage of their economic activity. I would love to see Rogoff’s list of the few incentives he thinks they do have. But where is this division coming from, concerning who has what incentives to internalize “externality” costs? This divide between producer and consumer is very real in our society, but how unimaginitive does an economist have to be — or how logically manipulative — to divvy up who bears what costs of bad economic behavior? Rogoff seems to be suggesting, by implication, that producers should have to internalize environmental costs and consumers should have to internalize health care costs of bad agricultural, food-processing, and dietary practices. Consumers somehow aren’t responsible for the production of their food, and producers aren’t responsible for the consumption of their goods (even though previously he notes that advertising is a significant force in the equation). This is the best analysis a conventionally “progressive” orientation on economics produces: bizarre, irrational surface conclusions drawn about a system that is fundamentally flawed at its core.

So what are Rogoff’s disappointing, vague, intangible suggestions for addressing the latest problem he has rightfully (if not rightly) exposed? Well, you can bet he will suggest reforming the “pathological regulatory-political-economic dynamic that characterizes” the food industry, for starters. It isn’t the market, you see; it’s our failure to regulate that pesky rascal. Indeed, Rogoff insists,

We need to develop new and much better institutions to protect society’s long-run interests.

That’s the only sentence we get on the matter, so we’re left to presume he’s talking about regulating bodies of some sort, to rein in the market, or manipulate it so that it works the way centuries-old magic-imbued dogmas suggest it should… you know, intervene to make markets do what they’re supposed to do precisely as long as we don’t intervene.

But even this cop-out directive comes with a familiar warning.

Of course, the balance between consumer sovereignty and paternalism is always delicate. But we could certainly begin to strike a healthier balance than the one we have by giving the public far better information across a range of platforms, so that people could begin to make more informed consumption choices and political decisions.

And that’s it. It’s all he offers. I don’t know Rogoff so I won’t presume to know what goes on in his mind, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the constraints of a neoclassical economics education, a current gig at Harvard, and a couple of stints at the IMF, have limited Rogoff’s imagination so that he can’t fathom there might be another way to manage production, consumption, and allocation in a modern society. Standard forms of centrally planning are too “paternal” to consider; I’d agree with that. And I’d even suggest that having a thoroughly undemocratic government like the United States republic intervene to coerce policy in a major sector of the economy would be rashly paternalistic, with mixed and confusing impact.

So what does that leave us with? Oh, if only there was a way to plan production, consumption, and allocation in a democratic manner, averting the paternalism problem altogether. Information for consumers is indeed a good start. But short of people actually organizing in their dual capacities as consumers and producers, let’s not pretend we can change much just by making smarter purchases. The idea of using the blunt instrument that is “voting with our dollars” to affect the agricultural and manufacturing policies of the handful of conglomerates that dominate our food supply is just plain ridiculous. Change will require collective action to tear down existing institutions and replace them with a foundation of alternatives.


Naomi Klein Takes on Climate Change, Capitalism

Naomi Klein

Author and journalist Naomi Klein has done it again. She has written a sensible, perhaps seminal, and truly accessible treatise on what climate change and resource scarcity really mean for the coming decades. I do not fully agree with her conclusions, mainly because she shies away from condemning all markets to the dustbin of history (where she rightly notes the “free market” belongs). But I don’t want to gripe with the piece until after you’ve read it; I think it’s that important. Naomi has clearly spent the last several months much as I have, studying the implications of climate science and resource limits on the future of our economies, but I bow readily to her presentation.

So please, take the time to read “Capitalism vs. the Climate” in The Nation magazine right now.

Pretty impressive, right? Okay, now on to my misgivings, first reiterating that I am overwhelmingly fond of Naomi’s take. I’m just going to address my main concern, then briefly praise Naomi for a daring step in the right direction on another matter.

I am in favor of economic planning. And while Naomi didn’t provide a real framework for how she’d like to see it happen, she did note that participatory engagement in local-level planning would be on her preferred agenda.

In the cities and towns that have taken this responsibility seriously, the process has opened rare spaces for participatory democracy, with neighbors packing consultation meetings at city halls to share ideas about how to reorganize their communities to lower emissions and build in resilience for tough times ahead.

There’s nothing wrong with the above statement; it lays out the basics of what needs to happen society-wide, worldwide, and is already happening in places that overuse resources today (North America, Europe, etc), and places that will suffer the earliest and the most severely from climate change (Asia, Africa, etc).

Local-level planning will definitely be inadequate. It’s clear that Naomi fully understands this, as she advocates for big steps such as agricultural planning and reining in corporations, which no community could ever really do on its own.

But she doesn’t state that over-arching planning (at state, regional, national, and international levels) will have to address differences in capacity, privilege, and other factors that will make it harder or less necessary for some localities to “transition” the way others will have to. That is, communities privileged in terms of geography or wealth will benefit from the marginal advantages of slower and less-thorough transition periods. To the extent planning is based around markets, discrepancies of these kinds will be stark. I wouldn’t actually expect this to be covered in a short piece like Naomi’s, but it’s an implication that deserves to be noted.

Far worse, Naomi’s framework seems to accept that existing governments somehow have the capacity to engage in sensible planning. It’s not clear to me that any polity can responsibly engage in economic planning. Politics is truly a different sphere, dealing with matters of morality and justice; it starts to fail even just with regard to managing production and consumption of public goods. Intervening in the private sector is not the forte of institutions designed and overseen by politicians, especially as they are in turn funded by the industries they’re charged with regulating.

Naomi spends a lot of time in her article noting that market fundamentalists are right about the implications of climate science on the manifestations of their political economic ideology. It is a threat (hence their denial of the science). But so-called libertarians are also at least partly right about government’s inadequacy when it comes to intervening in economies; polities, politicians, and political bureaucrats make ham-fisted planners, at best. When society truly accepts climate change as a catastrophic reality, those arguing that Earth’s collection of profoundly inept governments and literally ridiculous bodies like the United Nations or the World Trade Organization can address matters by meddling with market economies will sound like clowns. Indeed, that’s how it sounds to me today.

Libertarians remain wrong about how profoundly awful markets are. If the contest were only between unregulated markets and regulated markets, the latter should win, but we should also all resign ourselves to a planet ablaze with suffering. Fortunately, those aren’t our only two options, and the alternatives are not limited to central planning, either.

What is needed is a direct-democratically planned economy managed by the population writ large as workers and consumers with more indicative data at their fingertips than simply market prices. It should be essentially autonomous of government, and it should allow for the systematic pricing of externalities, including those affecting ecology, public health, labor, and oppressed communities.

You can imagine then how massive this problem is in my view. First, the kind of transformation needed has to happen at all levels, as Naomi acknowledges. Second, it does not make a wit of sense to leave markets intact, as there is no way to responsibly plan (or do anything that concerns the environment) with markets at work. Third, the planning process cannot sensibly be carried out by government institutions; a separate technocracy is required free of the perverse interests of government, and more sensibly structured to facilitate the kind of ideal, consumer- and worker-influenced economic forces I think many people (very wrongly) romanticize the free market as being able to foster.

As a final note, kudos to Naomi Klein for being willing to grapple with the unnecessarily touchy issues of resource depletion, peak oil, and the cult of economic growth. Many conventionally trained progressive economists (which does not include the likes of Naomi or me) seem not to grasp the very real threat of these impending crises. In my experience, even some of the most radical economists exhibit a rather bizarre faith in capitalism’s ability to innovate its way through nearly any crisis, not to mention an almost mystic belief that the earth’s resources are essentially infinite. As I’ve noted before, there’s not overwhelming sense in concluding peak oil is going to collapse our economy in a precipitous fashion, but denying it will have a severe impact is indicative of a blind spot I simply cannot fathom. Mainstreaming acceptance that these factors will have a tremendous influence on any future economy is a terrific contribution.


Linkage: Peak Oil, Symbolic Wealth, Class War, Externalities


I’ve been very busy lately and thus haven’t been able to post even links to all the terrific stuff I’ve been reading. I’m trying to use Twitter and Google+ a little more to share links to stories, but as usual the temptation to comment somewhat substantively is very hard to resist. I hope you find some of these interesting!

Getting Sober on Peak Oil

I think a lot of folks on both sides of the the debate over the concept of peak oil are drunk with ideologism. So I really appreciate, and essentially agree with, James Hamilton’s sober take.

‘Symbolic Wealth’

I’m not a fan of the style of Charles Hugh Smith’s blog; I think his peculiar presentation — in design and rhetoric — undermines his credibility. But I can’t help agreeing with him a significant portion of the time. Here he exposes the fallacy of wealth and equity as it corresponds to the real world. Nothing groundbreaking, but if you’re new to economic philosophy, this is something a lot of PhD economists can’t seem to grasp… yetI bet you’ll get it intuitively.

No War Like Class War

Richard D. Wolff drops knowledge on the history of class conflict and consciousness in America. It ain’t what’s being presented in recent debates.

Republicans claim, in Orwellian fashion, that Obama’s millionaire tax is ‘class war’. The reality is that the super-rich won the war.

Pollute for America?

Karl Smith over at Modeled Behavior makes a case that we need to suck it up and get polluting if we hope to escape our economic woes to the extent they’re driven by low cheap-energy supply. I read a lot of economists from across the spectrum, and I appreciate those who acknowledge climate change and resource limits as scientific truths, even if they conclude we shouldn’t worry so much in the short term.

Now in the long run something has to be done, if for no other reason than fossil fuels are not forever. In the short run there are many who are concerned about pollution, both C02 and the groundwater pollution from new fracking techniques.

I do not argue that these aren’t serious concerns. I do not dispute the science of global warming or the clear evidence of burning water, from natural gas contamination.

However, there are things worse the pollution and we have them. We should take steps to mitigate the harm but our first duty should be to relieve suffering now where we can and lay the foundation for recovery in the immediate future.

I disagree completely, but it’s interesting. Karl incidentally does not show his math (seems to avoid it, in fact) in terms of demonstrating why he thinks opening protected reserves can affect the market.

Food Inc. Strikes Back

Agribusiness giants are fighting back against the Michael Pollans and Food, Incs of the new food movement. Food advocate Anna Lappé expplains why we definitely do not want the new U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance influencing food policy debate in America. (And why you can count on them doing just that.)


The Genius of the Market


It's pretty amazing that our society has reached a point where [the effort necessary to manufacture a plastic spoon] is considered easier than just washing a spoon when we're done with it.

Not to mention the externalities (air pollution, ground water pollution, ocean pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.).

Or, consider the opportunity costs. What could we be making instead? Perhaps a product that does not have a superior substitute that is already in abundance if not massive surplus (you know, metal silverware).

Or, what would be the net leisure impact of not making disposable plasticware and freeing up all those work hours and resources? I know, you say you don’t work in the disposable utensils industry, so how would there be a net gain for you? And if you did work at a plastic spoon factory, you wouldn’t want the kind of leisure time associated with being laid off. And what about waste reduction — don’t I care about sanitation workers losing their jobs if we dispose of less shit?

And therein lies a key problem with capitalism: instead of socializing the opportunities of decreased consumption, it turns them into liabilities and institutionalizes excess and waste.

Graphic by Max Temkin. Print available here. Via Geoffrey Grabowsky Google+.