Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Listen to the cavemen

I first visited China in the early 1980s and got caught up in the population debates. The American as well as the Chinese I encountered agreed that there were "too many mouths to feed". I thought that it was eerie that no one mentioned that there was not enough food due to nutty policies (and institutions).

That was before I had read any of the work of Julian Simon. Each mouth is attached to a brain and the "ultimate resource" (human creativity) combined with the proper institutions finds the way we escape Malthusian subsistence living. This work has to be on anyone's short list of great social science insights.

This morning's WSJ includes columnist William Gurn's discussion of a study that I had not seen by two University of Oregon researchers, titled "Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals." Gurn nicely evokes the Simon position in commenting on the paper.

"Footprint" analysis is a funny thing. It leaves aside just about everything that we know about basic economics. There are prices that convey information and provide incentives; there are incentivized buyers and sellers; they animate a dynamic economy, etc., etc., etc.

My favorite New Yorker cartoon is the one of the two cavemen sitting around a fire and puzzling over the fact that "Something's just not right -- Our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range, and yet nobody lives past thirty."