Friday, November 30, 2007


When resources become scarce in market economies with relevant price systems, prices increase. This price increase which reflects the increase in scarcity leads to land, capital, labor, and natural resources being used in different proportions. The higher price motivates users to reduce consumption or increase the use of substitutes. It motivates producers to increase the supply of resources if possible, or to invest in technology that better utilizes resources or leads to substitutes. The result of higher prices, substitution, and technological change is that scarce resources are used more efficiently or less intensely. It is then possible for economic growth to continue in the face of diminishing or degrading of natural resources.

Drastic changes in regulations or tax policy that stifle this process could leave us without the technological means to deal with future scarcity. This is something to be considered when dealing with climate change policy.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Environmental Economics

I've just recently wrapped up a series of posts related to public choice economics. Public choice is useful because the analytical framework it provides is necessary for understanding agricultural and natural resource issues in the context of government decision making.

The next series of posts will focus on theory related to environmental economics. They will focus on how we deal with scarcity of natural resources, pollution, etc.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


This past Thanksgiving, Michael Maniates wrote a dismal piece in the Washington Post stating that “We need to be looking at fundamental change in our energy, transportation and agricultural systems rather than technological tweaking on the margins.” He was referring to ecological disaster that may ensue if we fail to take drastic actions today.

In the last 50 years, agricultural productivity has doubled. The average corn yield in 1960 was near 55 bushels per acre, today it is nearly 160 bushels per acre. We get about 185lbs more from every harvested cow than we did forty years ago. Technology is not only making us more productive, but also more ‘green,' addressing many of the concerns Mr. Maniates may have about ecological disaster.

1.04 million fewer pounds of insecticide are applied each year as a result of biotech Bt cotton alone. With Bt cotton, 4 million gallons of fuel and 93.7 million gallons of water are saved on the farm each year from fewer insecticide applications. Roundup Ready technology has allowed for glyphosate herbicide to substitute for 7.2 million pounds of other chemicals that are more toxic and persistent in the environment.

We’ve come a long way since the first Thanksgiving harvest. Perhaps major change will come in other areas, but in agriculture it will be the marginal tweaking of biotechnology that paves the way toward a sustainable future and provides us with tools for dealing with climate change.


1)Michael Maniates “Going Green? Easy Doesn't Do It” , Thursday, November 22, 2007; A37
5)Dr. Roger Leonard, LSU Agricultural Center and Dr. Ronald Smith, Auburn University. Research in Bt Cotton
6)Farm Industry News Feb 1, 2007
7)Gregory Conko “The Benefits of Biotech” Regulation. Spring 2003.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Thanksgiving was not about the Pilgrims embracing diversity and thanking the Indians for helping them survive. The celebration was about thanking God for the abundance which ultimately resulted from a move away from socialism ( imposed on them by the Colony’s Sponsors) to free market capitalism.

As governor William Bradford commented on the dreadful conditions of 1622:

" . . . the young men . . . did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense. The strong . . . had not more in division . . . than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors and victuals, clothes, etc . . . thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And the men's wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it."

"For this community of property (so far as it went) was found to breed much confusion and discontentment and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort . . . all being to have alike, and all to do alike . . . if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them."

In the Spring of 1623, they moved away from Socialism and embraced the incentives of Private Property and Capitalism:

"All their victuals were spent . . . no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any. So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length . . . the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves. . . . And so assigned to every family a parcel of land . . . "

"This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn, which before would allege weakness and inability, whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression."

Thanksgiving is therefore about freedom, private property and the unrestrained ability to worship and show thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


With all of the problems previously mentioned such as voting paradoxes and the results of the median voter theorem, democracy is not without its problems.

Our founders may not have spoke in these terms, but they did anticipate problems. Knowing that voting can be an imprecise method of determining the will of the people and government is limited in what it can do to promote the good of the society, the things that we vote for ( at the state, local, and federal levels) should be limited. Changes should come slowly, and interpretations of our laws should be consistant.

As James Madison Stated:

"It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man who knows what the law is today can guess what is will be tomorrow."
-- James Madison, Federalist no. 62, February 27, 1788

By specifically enumerating the powers of government, the constitution provides a means for mitigating these circumstances. Once we abandon this concept, democracy becomes less effective. As Thomas Jefferson stated:

"I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground that 'all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states or to the people.' To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power not longer susceptible of any definition."
-- Thomas Jefferson, Opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank, February 15, 1791

Public Choice Theory certainly provides a solid basis for limited government, and it is one that our founders would have agreed with.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Many of my recent posts have probably seemed a little more formal than my normal analysis of the biotech industry, agriculture, and natural resource issues. However, I think they highlight important tools and concepts. Because the agriculture industry and the pattern of natural resource use can be heavily influenced by government policy, it is important to be able to analyze government behavior in a way that is precise. The tools and concepts developed by public choice economists allow us to do this. To review, some of the tools/concepts that I have recently discussed include the following:

TYPE TWO ERROR BIAS - overcautious behavior, ex: FDA drug approval, response to Hurricane Katrina

VOTING PARADOXES- randomness of election outcomes

MEDIAN VOTER THEOREM- leads to exploitation of minority by majority

TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS – lack of property rights and pollution

COASE THEOREM – symmetry of environmental pollution, internalizing effect of property rights and markets

TRAGEDY OF THE ANTICOMMONS – underuse of resources due to excessive checks on power, bureaucracy. Ex: response to hurricane Katrina

KNOWLEDGE PROBLEM- government relies on a ‘shrunken’ pool of knowledge vs. markets

By clicking the ‘Public Choice’ link below, or under the ‘Selected Topics’ sidebar you can find more detailed discussions of each of these concepts.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


In a past post I discussed the scenario described as the ‘tragedy of the commons’ which characterizes many environmental problems, especially problems of overuse and resource depletion. To review, the tragedy of the commons basically occurs when ‘individuals have unlimited access to resources in absence of well defined property rights ( Sobell and Leeson, 2006). Without property rights, there can be no transfer of rights and no market to establish a price by which environmental tradeoffs can be valued. The problem is the failure of government to define and enforce property rights.

The ‘tragedy of the anti-commons’ is another type of government failure. This occurs ‘when too many owners hold (such) rights of exclusion’ (Heller, 1998). In this case resources are subject to underuse. This can also be described as a ‘tragedy of political commons’ when too many individuals have veto power in decision making processes ( Leeson, 2006). And note, related to other posts regarding public choice theory, these individuals are acting in their own interest, face ineffective incentive structures, and likely have limited information. When they actually do make a decision, it is likely a poor one.

A prime example of the tragedy of the anticommons and resource under use is the government’s response to hurricane Katrina. Post 9-11, FEMA was placed under Homeland Security, adding an additional layer of bureaucracy to the decision making process. There were further problems at the local level. An example given in a 2006 article in the journal Public Choice describes an incident where one out of state sheriff complied with all of the necessary procedures and paper work that would enable him to direct his resources for a relief effort and was never able to help. A second sheriffs department ignored procedure and was able to bring 9 truckloads of supplies and 33 deputies to the scene.

We also see that in the private sector, where this problem is less of an issue, companies like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and State Farm insurance were well prepared and on the scene where they were needed.

Because of the tragedy of the anticommons, resources that could have been used in the relief effort were underutilized.


Government’s Response to Hurricane Katrina: A public choice analysis
Public Choice Volume 127,numbers1-2/ April 2006
Russel S. Sobel and Peter T. Leeson

Heller, M. (1998). The tragedy of the anticommons.: Property in transition from Marx to Markets. Harvard Law Review, 111 930 622-688.