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We need not recount here the very simple economics required to determine whether recycling makes sense. The reality of the recycling world is that most of the “valuable” stuff out there is already being recycled and reused, and the question on residential recycling is about how we deal with low-value or even value-less trash in a way that avoids some perceived problems associated with its disposal. There are better or worse ways to proceed with that question, but the clear lesson from the literature, or even basic armchair theorizing, is that even if recycling residential wastes improves environmental conditions, they do so in such an inconceivably small way as to be totally negligible. It’s just not anything that is going to save the planet.

Obsessing about whether recycling saves fuel, or saves leaching in landfills, or conserves resources is a case of deck-chairism, and if we are actually interested in doing things that are useful to the planet and its people, the conversation ought to be moved in a better direction.

Universities are almost uniquely obsessed with recycling. The amount of resources and energy (intellectual and actual) dedicated to awareness, making bins pretty and noticeable, and so on is a distraction and it harms the environment in two ways, again directly and indirectly (don’t we see that a lot in economics).

The direct harm to the environment is obvious – any bit of energy, teaching, programming, etc. dedicated to recycling is not being dedicated to programming, research, energy on environmental programs that have a vastly greater impact on environmental health and human well-being. If we dedicated every minute of recycling energy even to just sending a few dollars to malaria relief foundations, the world would be a considerably better place, for example.

But here is the bigger problem, as the former problem will always be with us (it just kicks the intellectual can down the road, “e.g. if we spend some resources helping solve malaria, why not spend even more?”. The bigger problem of course is one that is less popular to think about. As you may sense already, almost no one gives a real damn about the environment. I’ve seen surveys where 2 out of 5 people claim they don’t care at all, and the remaining 60% say that the way they help the planet is by recycling and using new lightbulbs. Well, hell. Neither lightbulbs nor recycling is going to do anything about the planet. And remember, we live in a world of perpetual “box checkers” … our school system turned us all into them. Once our enlightened planet savers have “checked the box” by carefully sorting their recyclables, and even washing their recyclable plastic, phew, they’re done. Moving on to the next cause. Meanwhile sea levels continue to rise.

Our attention is limited. Our resources are limited. And most people don’t care about the things the way we wish them too. The gobs of energy dedicated to recycling out not to be cause for celebration, it should make us all ashamed, at least if we care enough about the planet as our bumper stickers suggest we do.

It is obviously extremely hard to pin down a solid figure for how many people are going to be displaced due to the challenges posed by a warming planet. But virtually every publication I have read on the challenges of global warming rank the issue of “climate refugees” as both a serious political and economic problem. Here is an old estimate of the number of climate refugees, and it seems pretty well within what other places are saying. Here it is argued that agricultural dislocation, sea-level rise, flooding, droughts and disruptions of traditional weather patterns may cause as many as 200 million people to be at risk for displacement.

Take that number seriously and at face value. I have no reason not to believe it. The linked to paper says that:

these findings are based on an 18-month research project carried out in consultation with representatives of governments, intergovernmental bodies, United Nations agencies, the World Bank and dozens of NGOs, including refugee organizations. The findings also reflect a broad spectrum of expert opinion on the part of leading scientists and policy analysts in all major parts of the world. In particular, the research report draws heavily on the experience of field workers with their extensive and first-hand knowledge. Further, the overall assessment is illustrated by six regional case studies with detailed documentation. All the individual findings and conclusions are supported by specific references, more than 1,000 of which can be found in the main text.

The above report itself was funded by the UN Population Fund, the US Government and the Rockefeller Foundation. That is good information for those of you thinking I may be pulling data from some sort of nefarious and disrespectful source. Of particular concern when it comes to global warming damages and costs is that they do not fall proportionately on the world and certainly not proportionate to income or on those who generated much of the warming. Put simply, the rich Northern countries created it, and the poorer Global South is eating it.That is one major reason why making progress on climate change is hard.

Now, if you look for what the estimated financial costs of these dislocations will be over time, you are going to have a very hard time finding them. So, to make it easy, let us suppose that the entire annual cost of global warming is going to come from the climate refugee problem. Remember, the argument is that poor people are being uprooted from their lifestyles that were happening near oceans, rivers and vulnerable farm and weather systems. It is also very clear that these areas and people are very poor and may in fact be very costly to develop climate resilience for.  Suppose global GDP is $100 trillion at the moment. Reasonable estimates of the annual cost of climate change if nothing at all is done are likely to come in the 1% of global GDP range. But let’s double it for the sake of conservatism. And, let’s assume that all of these costs are due to refugees. This would mean that a climate refugee crisis would lead to a $2 trillion per year global cost. Note that in many, many ways this is a vast overstatement of what the actual cost would be (I know, it can precipitate nuclear war and then we are in Talebian “blow-up” world). Why? Well, not alll of the costs from AGW are going to come from refugees … and two, while the refugee crisis is not just a one-time change, it also can’t be an ongoing change. Once every last climate victim is moved, there will be fewer remaining victims. But ignore all of that.

What is the point of all of this? So, climate refugees are going to be a big cost.

There is also extremely strong research (no less authoritative on the refugee numbers above) that shows that there are tremendous gains to migrants when they move from poor countries to rich countries. Indeed, even under very modest assumptions about the changes to open-borders policies, economists have estimated that the total gains to world well being from migration would absolutely swamp any cost that you can come up with from the costs of refugees. Here is perhaps the most famous paper, but there are many more. One of the paper’s findings is that,

If half the population of the poor region emigrates, migrants would gain $23 trillion—which is 38 percent of global GDP. For nonmigrants, the outcome of such a wave of migration would have complicated effects: presumably, average wages would rise in the poor region and fall in the rich region, while returns to capital rise in the rich region and fall in the poor region. The net effect of these other changes could theoretically be negative, zero, or positive. But when combining these factors with the gains to migrants, we might plausibly imagine overall gains of 20–60 percent of global GDP.

Let’s get our heads around this. The MORE migrants that global warming creates, the greater the potential wealth will be created from those migrations. Indeed the very core of the global warming migration worry is that the people migrating are among the poorest and least fortunate people. If that is the case, these migrants MUST be making their way into richer countries. For sure, the dislocations and the political issues are extraordinarily challenging and costly. But given the size of the gains. it would seem to me, much like people like to see “silver linings” when lightning burns their old house down, that indeed moving people, even if not by choice, to richer countries because of climate change, is likely to make the world better off by something close to $40 trillion per year.

I would make two points. First, it is hard to argue that these dislocations would be entirely unwelcome among those migrating. Why? They are really prevented from freely migrating today! I am sure some percentage of the world’s poor would very gladly go to Canada or Norway or some such place if they had the chance. Global warming may just force that outcome. Second, while the costs of these great migrations are likely to be transitory, these gains from “forced open borders” would seem to be longer-lasting, if not permanent. So, we are looking at a permanent increase in GDP that is at least twenty times larger than the transitory costs imposed on the world by the forced Global Warming migrations.

You can talk these benefits down from $40 trillion for sure, and the magnitude of them is seriously a function of many policies choices and institutions in the wealthier world, but it is really hard to imagine you can get those benefits down anywhere near that $2 trillion cost, which itself is exaggerated for the purposes of this post.

I am not saying we should all pray for sea level rise and mass dislocation due to warming, particularly since unknown positive feedbacks can certainly push global warming into existential threat territory. On the other hand, if  we want to put blinders on and throw out the worst case scenarios, along with the other benefits a warmer world may bring (along with the costs), it would appear to be that Global Warming may in fact be one of the greatest gifts we have ever given to humanity, behind sliced bread of course.


If you look at the major risks to human health and well-being around the world, you will quickly come to realize that climate change ranks nowhere near the top of the list. For example, the WHO and various other estimates show that something like 10 million people per year die from easily curable infectious diseases every single year, most of these concentrated among poor children. Something on the order of 5 to 7 million people die from exposure/sickness caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution.

These are out of a total global annual death total of 50 million.

What is absolutely astonishing about these figures is that as a “technical” matter, both of these are really straightforward to eradicate (this post is not a lesson about that), and would be economically very inexpensive to eradicate. While there are many other things to worry about in the world, these would seem to swamp them. Most notable, even the most dramatic estimates of the additional deaths due to climate change (WHO) are on the order of an extra 250,000 deaths per year. And these are deaths attributed to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. Note that these diseases obviously have other causes, and can and have been incredibly dealt with without worrying about climate. The number of deaths, directly, due to floods, droughts and storms (all of which will get worse under climate change) are nearly an order of magnitude smaller than this.

To put it a little in perspective, it seems like the number of suicides in China is on the order of 300,000 per year. The number of automobile fatalities in Indonesia is on the order of 316,000 per year. Combined, these swamp the accumulated global impacts of climate change on death.

Now, look – the fear (if I were an alarmist) of me making such points is that people would be inclined to dismiss the potential seriousness of climate change, especially if climate feedbacks turn out to be large, and the accumulated effects of warming, interacting with other environmental factors, push us toward an extremely bad future. And being prepared for the potential catastrophe is in fact the appropriate way to think about climate risk. My point is that exaggerating the most likely deaths and damages are undermining the point, because if this is the “best” that the models conjure up, people will not take the existential threat seriously enough.

So I get that.

But, if we need to make sure we make people aware of the possible (albeit not extremely likely) awful future climate scenarios despite the fact that it really is not going to cause many deaths (malaria can and will be eradicated despite climate change, so how does that change our thinking about it), then how come we are not consistently making people aware of even more likely threats and in areas where the current and historical death tolls are orders of magnitude greater.

Take socialism. Now, we can have a talk about what “optimal” socialism or even better communism looks like. We can talk about what corruptions of socialism there were in the past, and ignore the fact that if you want to use those arguments you need to use them in regard to other -isms too, or that they are fanciful. The point being is that historically, socialism has led to the direct murder, maiming, beating, torturing, dismemberment, burial-alive, poisoning, etc. of well over 100 million people. So, if those were evenly spread over a century, it killed directly 1 million people per year. And the dirty little secret of socialism that does NOT get discussed in these figures is the obvious fact that socialism made people poorer than they otherwise would have been – even if living conditions in many of those places was “acceptable.” Look at Soviet life expectancies for example. Now, no one I know would argue against the general idea that one of the greatest risks to life and health is poverty. And we can conjure up all kinds of epidemiological tables demonstrating how every $1,000 less of income or wealth correlates with worse health outcomes.

Then …. socialism probably killed hundreds of millions more than even Uncle Joe or Pol Pot executed directly. Why is this never talked about, especially when folks mention the idea that capitalism, despite massively increasing overall wealth, also seems to lead to inequality and hence (it is assumed) more death for the folks “left behind?” This is not a case of “whataboutism.”

Furthermore, if folks get nervous about “normalizing” the idea that climate change won’t kill hundreds of millions of people and that is reason enough to speak more cautiously of the numbers I cite above, then why is there ANY serious conversation about implementing even the soft socialisms of today? They are not just historical death machines, but the “risk” that the present to us is at a scale no less than the existential risks that climate change poses. This is not some pie in the sky guess. We’ve already seen it dozens of times.

So, what is the difference? If we are going to wrap our civilizations in bubble wrap, it would seem to me that the first thing that needs to go is any appeal to central planning and property abolition. Somehow I don’t think we can ever have that conversation.

While we go tweet-crazy about plastic straws … millions of people die from easily curable infectious diseases. Have a nice day.

Selling the Dream

Realtors are quite well known for trying to make their properties sound good, and use language and discuss amenities that potential customers find attractive.

If inequality were such a huge concern, how come we don’t see reports of Gini Coefficients in real estate listings, or some other such similar measures?

Now, sure, this is my attempt at snark – implying that virtually no one outside of the clerisy cares much about “inequality” and indeed I am not convinced many inside the clerisy care much about it. I think that is quite clear. Talk to people, even in places that are unequal, and the list of things they tell you they care about almost never gets anywhere in the zipcode of inequality.

On the other hand, I suspect we are all ants on the proverbial garden hose. Many places we choose to cluster are probably places with low levels of inequality (come to where I live for an example), we see great stratification of areas into gentrified urban areas, run down urban areas, hoighty-toighty rich people areas and so on. So, an eagle eye view will show quite dramatic levels of cross-residential inequality, even as everyone around you is living in a fairly similar circumstance.


Weekly Ponderence

That’s all there is.

Enjoy the experience folks.

… for the “rules of economics” not to apply!

How often have you heard things like, “during an emergency, the rules of economics don’t apply!”? Or, health care and the environment are too important for the rules of economics to apply. Economics just doesn’t belong here.

If only!

To suggest that the rules of economics do not apply means precisely that we do not have a problem! There is no scarcity, no tradeoffs, no hard choices.

What an amazing, heavenly world.

If only!

My sense is that is not what the “anti-economics” sentiment is capturing. If not, then what does that sentiment really mean?


Eco 108 is Malarkey!

When you sit through a Physics 101 course, you are taught fundamental laws of motion, particularly Newtownian mechanics. You are then assigned problems that may go something like: you jump naked off of the Freedom Tower, and there is no wind velocity in any direction. How long until impact?

And then you go ahead and do a simple calculation and recognize that in no short time, you are a pancake on the ground.

But then, aha, an erudite college professor and her acolytes sniffs something wrong about this. They just KNOW that Physics 101 is false. Why? Well, they read an article that mentioned some stuff Einstein worked on. And in Eintstein’s work, he demonstrated a subtle way of thinking that blended space and time into a richer picture of how the world actual works. One application of his insights is that as objects speed up, they actually become more massive and shrink.


Physics 108 is mierde!

Your calculations in Physics 108 are wrong, because as you leap from the building, you must shrink, and therefore your calculations of how long it takes to hit the ground are attenuated from reality.

Ergo you can ignore the hegemony imposed on us by the so called “laws” of physics.

Have a lovely day.


Another very interesting discussion with Thad Russell, this time with Bret Weinstein. Many highlights, but the back and forth on the actual meaning of post-modernism and the confusion about it starting at about the 29:30 mark is well worth listening to. I tend to fall on the interpretation that what is going on on campuses today is in conflict with that which it objects to, so more in line with the Russell interpretation than the Weinstein one. Super interesting points from both.

The discussion is here.


Not only does this Virginia Big Eared Bat have big ears (get it, more listening …) it also happens to not be susceptible to the White Nose Syndrome that is causing problems for other bat populations.

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