Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"...under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted."

I want to focus the next few posts on neoliberal economics--how skewed, despicable, and inhumane it is, how major media outlets and major political figures subscribe to it, and what steps need to be taken to bring it crashing down. Today, I will share with you a an old leaked memo, written by Lawrence Summers (ex-Harvard president, ex-chief economist at the World Bank, ex-Secretary of the Treasury, and, so sadly, a man that President Obama appointed to direct his National Economic Council), to his colleagues at the World Bank.
Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Lesser Developed Countries (LDCs)? I can think of three reasons:
(1) The measurement of the costs of health-impairing pollution depends on the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

(2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I've always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low [sic] compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world-welfare-enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.

(3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income-elasticity. The concern over an agent that causes a one-in-a-million change in the odds of prostate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostate cancer than in a country where under-5 mortality is 200  per thousand. Also, much of the concern over industrial atmospheric discharge is about visibility-impairing particulates. These discharges may have very little health impact. Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare-enhancing. While production is mobile the consumption of pretty air is a non-tradable.

The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution is LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every bank proposal for liberalisation.

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