Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A response to Larry Summers from The Economist

Below is the response of The Economist magazine to Larry Summers's memo to his colleagues at the World Bank, which I posted yesterday. I will write my thoughts in response to both Larry Summers's memo and The Economist's response to the memo in my next post.
If Mr. Summers is wrong, why is he wrong? Many greens would say his premise is false. They appear to believe that the only acceptable amount of pollution is zero--or which looks more sensible, but almost as daft--that all pollution above some arbitrarily low threshold must be stopped. This cannot be right. Controlling pollution is expensive (and many third world countries can ill afford the expense), and the benefits (especially when levels of pollution are already low) may be small. Greens and eco-sceptics may disagree about these costs and benefits, and thus about where the proper balance should lie. But the notion that such a balance should in principle be struck--and that, as a result, the "right" level of pollution is greater than zero and varies according to circumstances--ought to be uncontroversial. Without that idea, intelligent discussion of environmental policy is impossible.

But then Mr. Summers makes a further, crucial assumption. He supposes that the value of a life, or of years of life-expectancy, can be measured by an objective observer in terms of incomes per head--in other words, that an Englishman's life is worth more than the lives of a hundred Indians. This is naive utilitarianism reduced to an absurdity. It is so outlandish that even a distinguished economist should see that it provides no basis for World Bank policy.

Suppose then, that the Bank of and the other multilateral institutions regard the life of an African peasant as equal in value to the life of a broker on Wall Street--as they self-evidently should. What remains of Mr. Summer's arguments? The answer still is: more than most environmentalists care to admit.

The greatest cause of misery in the third world is poverty. This must guide the priorities of poor-country governments and aid donors alike. If clean growth means slower growth, as it sometimes will, its human cost will be lives blighted by a poverty that would otherwise have been mitigated. That is why it would be wrong for the World Bank or anybody else to insist upon rich-country standards of environmental protection in developing countries. Often, policies that favour growth (such as setting world-market prices for energy and other resources) will lead to a cleaner environment, too; such policies should be vigourously promoted. But when a trade-off between cleaner air and less poverty has to be faced, most poor countries will rightly want to tolerate more pollution than rich countries do in return for more growth.

So the migration of industries, including "dirty" industries, to the third world is indeed desirable. Not because life there is cheap; if anything, for the opposite reason. Those who insist on "clean growth everywhere" must either deny that there is ever a trade-off between growth and pollution control--or else argue that imposing rich-country standards for clean air worldwide matters more than helping millions of people in the third world to escape their poverty.

Environmental policy is immensely complicated. The debate over Mr. Summers's memo is ignoring many issues altogether: global, as opposed to local, pollution; the links between trade policy and the environment; the opportunities to promote growth and a cleaner environment at the same time; and so on. In working through all this, economic method--the weighing of costs and benefits--is indispensable. Mr Summers's morally careless arguments, intended seriously or otherwise, must not be allowed to discredit it.

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