Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Explaining the Ehrlich-Simon wager

In 1980, prominent environmentalist, and author of the book The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich, entered into a wager with the late cornucopian economist Julian Simon. Ehrlich saw resource scarcity as a major problem, and that with time, resource prices would begin to rise as a reflection of physical limits. On the other hand, Simon predicted that with increased human population and ingenuity, the prices of resources would continue to decline indefinitely. Based on this logic, he challenge Ehrlich with “a public offer to stake US$10,000… on my belief that the cost of non-government controlled raw materials (including grain and oil) will not rise in the long run.” They designated September 29th 1990 as the cut off date for the wager, and bet on five metals – chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten. The result was that the price of all five metals dropped in inflation adjusted terms, and Ehrlich sent Simon a cheque in October 1990.

So why did Ehrlich lose the bet, when we know for a fact that there are long run physical limits to natural resources? The first reason raised by many environmentalists is that his timing was a little off. Maybe he was a few decades early in his prediction. I believe this explanation is entirely incorrect.

The second reason is Ehrlich ignored economic principles. The price of a good at any point in time only reflects its relative scarcity compared to the availability of other goods – not the absolute scarcity. If the rate of supply (aka the rate of extraction) of these metals was high, the price will be low, even if this rate could only be sustained for a few years before the total physical supply was exhausted. Ehrlich made the fundamental mistake of ignoring the rate of production. But the environmental debate of that decade did raise what has become a pressing issue in ecological economics of getting the absolute scarcity of natural resources reflected in the price.

What we know more clearly now is that the rate of extraction of most minerals and fossil fuels follows a Hubbert curve, where the rate climbs before at some point peaking, the beginning a long decline. While many suggest that the peak generally occurs when 50% of the absolute physical quantity of the resource has been extracted, this peak in the rate of supply still does not mean there will be a peak, or explosion in the price at this point.

First, consider what happens when there is a small increase in the price of copper. This makes the use of copper in production less attractive than alternatives such as fibre optics. So demand will drop as well, stopping the price from spiking. The prices cannot get too ‘out of whack’ before other adjustments take place.

Consider then if Ehrlich had wagered on the price of oil, and that the bet began in 2000, with the cut off date 2010. A year ago one would have been inclined to think that Ehrlich was a genius for predicting the price spike. But in the last few months, Simon would have got the upper hand, and Ehrlich would be on the back foot making excuses about the so called ‘credit crunch’. But what really happened?

First, the oil price spike was the result of a decrease in the rate of supply of oil compared with the rate of supply of other natural resources. But more than that, it was the expectation of a continued increase in demand in the face of decreasing supply. If you take a look at the metals, their price also spiked on the expectation of future demand and low future supply.

But the catch was what happens when the economy adjusts. These ‘out of whack’ prices cannot be sustained. They flow on to the real economy. In this case, the high cost of oil and metals made it difficult to increase production as there were few susbsitutes, so economic output slowed. Suddenly, the expectation of high future demand was replaced with the expectation of recession, and prices or natural resources (oil and metals) fell accordingly.

That’s the thing with supply constraints and physical resource limits. The general rule of thumb is that relative prices between goods are caused by available technologies. When one input is constrained, it doesn’t change the relative prices so much in the long-run, rather it changes the output level - especially if there are very few or no substitute resources.

This net result of an output reduction is due the infinite complexity of the modern economy. Estimating the embodied resources in goods has been a pursuit of the past decade, but recently it is coming to light that due to this infinite complexity, all goods have equal embodiments of all resources. A dollars worth of petrol requires an equal amount of oil to produce as a dollars worth of a massage. Thus a constraint of a single natural resource flows through to have an impact on the price of every good in the economy.

So when I previously wrote that supply side restrictions are the only way to go for improving environmental quality, it implies that economic output will be reduced. If Ehrlich knew then what ecological economists now know, he would have had a much different wager. In fact he did propose a second wager. He wanted to bet that the quality of the environment would deteriorate over the 1990s by referring to 15 different environmental quality measures. Simon declined because he believed that measuring such things did not reflect well-being. Although he did lose a wager about the price of timber in Canada, but blamed new government policies.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Is public transport for the public?

On a leisurely Saturday afternoon, I ventured down to the ferry with fiancĂ©, child, friend and dog in tow, to take a trip across the river to enjoy a BBQ in the park with friends. I was initially impressed by the frequency of ferries – every 15 minutes on Saturday is pretty good I thought. I was not impressed by being refused entry because of the dog, nor was I impressed with the cost. $3.60 for a one zone return ticket per adult. That was even a discount from the regular cost of $4.80 on a weekday. Remember, these are the cheapest adult fares for a return ticket. For the three of us (luckily infants are free and two of us were full-time students) the cost was $7.20. For three adult fares it would have been $10.80, and if it were a weekday and three adults where headed to the park, it would cost $14.40. Does that seem a little much to anyone else?

We realised that it was cheaper to drive together in one car. Cheaper by a country mile in fact. Even with the fuel price around $1.20, the same round trip would cost less than $2 between us (and we could take the dog). It would still probably have been cheaper to take a car each!

With my economic hat on I saw the reason that the situation exists where private vehicle transport is now cheaper than public transport. Governments have spent decades (centuries?) subsidising private transport, rather than investing in public transport. You could logically argue that private cars are a form of publicly provided transport, since tax revenues are the dominant funding source for road building.

Governments must believe that public transport is not an appropriate or beneficial urban transport alternative. For if that was the case, less money would be spent on roads, and more on public transport, so that the incentives shift towards using public transport. You can’t build more roads and more public transport, and expect there to be a shift towards public transport use. By investing in both alternatives you have not changed the incentive structure – yes it is now cheaper to catch the bus/train/ferry, but it is also cheaper to drive! Public and private transport are substitutes. The more expensive one is, the increase in quantity demanded of the other. Therefore traffic jams, no parking, high registration costs, difficult licensing tests, high fuel costs, and strict vehicle emissions standards all provide incentives to use public transport (but sound like a list of things to promise if you are a government intending to lose the next election). On the other hand, new roads, improved traffic management, more parking, cheaper fuel and registration are good measures for reducing public transport patronage.

Fluoride: Medication for the masses?

The Queensland government is currently phasing in fluoride to the reticulated water supply in many parts of the State. Yet there is by no means a scientific consensus that adding fluoride to drinking water provides net health benefits to the community. While there is debate regarding the ability for fluoridated water to improve the condition of teeth, there are more broad and significant implications of the decision to fluoridate water. I aim to add some further economic dimensions to the fluoride debate.

When considering a policy decision, an economist will seek to implement only those policies whose welfare benefits outweigh the costs. Regarding fluoridation, the benefits are the potential for reduced tooth decay and any health and psychological benefits that this may encompass, as well as reduced dentist bills. The costs include the provision of fluoride to the water supply, the cost to people who suffer allergies or long term side effects of which little in known, and the costs imposed on people who wish to drink water that contains no fluoride. Some estimates put the benefit to cost ratio at 56:1.

But an economist would take one step further, and would judge this policy decision against other alternatives. What about spending the money on education? If the benefit to cost ratio is higher than 56:1, then education spending should get priority.

The question the few people seem to raise is that if fluoridation is about medication of the masses, surely there are less obscure medicines that would provide greater benefits. What about adding vitamins to the water? Maybe anti-depressants? Viagra? To an objective observer, each of these options should be open to assessment as a potential policy if the social benefits outweigh the costs.

When I have the fluoride discussion with friends, this line of reasoning, about assessing alternative medications for the water supply, is generally the enough for them to actually think deeper about the fluoride issue. It raises questions like:

• How can you medicate anyone without any prior knowledge of his or her medical history?
• Why would you spend so much on putting medication in the water when most water from the reticulated supply is not consumed by people? Only about 1-2% of water in the home is used for drinking. Do we really need to fluoridate the laundry, the toilet, and the garden?

Asking the first question should really be enough to stop water fluoridation. The second question pricks the ears of an economist. If 98% of the fluoride is wasted, surely a more cost effective alternative would be to subsidise fluoride tablets, which would ensure the 100% of the fluoride gets to the people. A misallocation of 98% of a medication alerts even the serious fluoride believer.

Even for those who believe in the potential health benefits of fluoride, using the water supply for medication delivery is wasteful, and inappropriate.