Along with ‘Inequality’ and ‘Democratic socialism’, ‘Sustainability‘ is one of the words that captures the essence of my generation. A sustainable project, event or business is met with “wow”s and “oooh!”s, an indicator of its owner’s moral righteousness and altogether praiseworthy character.
But its meaning is far from clear from all but its most fervent supporters. Dealing with the extraction of resources, the use of ecological reserves or harvesting of crops, a process is allegedly ‘sustainable’ if the naturally occurring regeneration exceeds the current levels of extraction. Simply put, don’t use more than what is (annually?) renewed. Moreover, a process branded as sustainable usually involve a mix of some other virtue signalling activities of our time: carbon emission neutrality or offsetting; at least a superficial concern for one’s environmental impact; energy produced in ‘renewable’ ways (read: nothing but solar, wind or hydro); or the use of recycled materials.
If this sounds unobjectionable and self-evident to you, this piece is for you. Despite the fancy branding, the SDGs, the fervor of self-proclaimed do-gooders, is the ‘sustainability’ of an activity really what we care about?
There are at least two major confusions with the assessment of activities as sustainable or its despised opposite: unsustainable. First, and most frequently occurring, is the belief that we aim to pursue our current endeavor in the same way for all eternity. If you think about it, the indignant objection of unsustainability is often quite meaningless, worthy of nothing but a ‘so what?’ response; everything we do at any given moment is in a sense “unsustainable”:
- if I keep typing on my computer I will eventually starve;
- if I keep lifting weights or endlessly running on that treadmill, I will collapse;
- if I keep eating this chocolate cake of mine, I will be sick.
So? Everyone who has ever engaged in those activities understand that there are ends to them, that we’re only doing them for a particular purpose for a certain period of time, and that extrapolating snapshots of reality is quite silly; I do not intend to continue this activity until the brink of whatever physical boundary there might – or might not – be. Until I approach some “safe” distance to that brink, I’ll happily indulge in my chocolate cake, lift my weights or type away at my keyboard. In economic speak we are trading off one resource for another, until saturation or the fulfillment of some other aim becomes more important (prime example is Environmental Kuznets Curves).
The other confusion is to believe that economic systems cannot change and that humans cannot adapt. It is emphatically irrelevant that there is a physically limited amount of oil in the ground, since price systems and their incentives effectively ration oil use according to urgently-induced needs and encourage substitutes when those are needed. More importantly, the price system for raw materials incorporate and incentivize technological improvements that 1) through discovering new deposits literally expands “the” amount of resources, 2) shape cost-effective processes to hard-to-access deposits we couldn’t profitably exploit before, 3) improve the bang for our buck, i.e. how much output we can squeeze out of a given quantity of material. Thus, there might ultimately be a physical limit, but not an economic limit.
Let me give an iconic example: chopping down trees quicker than the forest grows. Such an activity seem pretty ‘unsustainable’ since the declining size of the forest implies that one day there will no longer be a forest. So what? There might be urgent present reasons for doing that (say, for instance, no other source of heat/fuel for cooking or no other source of income) that are very likely to change in a fairly short time frame (ie, before complete deforestation has occurred); the current prices of pulp or firewood may be meaningfully higher than their anticipated future prices (‘selling’ off some capital assets would therefore be fairly prudent); there might be future technological innovations that a) (re-)grows forests quicker, b) offers a better substitute to the current use of wood, c) allows us to cheaply make use of more from what we chop down.
Almost any practice taken as a snap-shot in time is literally ‘unsustainable’. Naively believing that they will mindlessly continue linearly into the future is quite silly; hailing processes that don’t as righteous and ‘sustainable’ is similarly silly. Human societies and their economic process are dynamic systems capable of (read: constantly) change.
By saying that something is unsustainable, my generation wants to convey the idea that these activities are immoral and that they shouldn’t continue. It’s a naive and erroneously nonsensical conviction.
The last few years I’ve loudly protested that home ownership is overrated; it’s a bad investment plus lots of responsibility. And yet, this summer my fiance and I bought a 100 year old house on the south shore of Long Island.
Yes, I have lost my mind.
I basically stand by my earlier position, but with greater nuance. Owning a home is a complicated undertaking. But it’s given me a greater appreciation for the nuance involved in managing real estate.
Home ownership is a great big Gordian knot of inter-dependencies. It’s massive set of knowledge problems wrapped in externality problems.There’s a massive role for local knowledge which means policy makers’ attention should be less focused on things like home ownership rates, and more on guiding the right people into the right places to take advantage of that local knowledge.
With local knowledge comes local politics. I don’t know anything about local politics, but expect more posts about what’s going on in my town hall over the next few decades.
So what have I learned in this first month of home ownership?
- There’s something to be said about pride in ownership
It’s still a real trip to turn on my lights in my kitchen so I can do my laundry in my laundry machines. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it this much. The endowment effect is real. One effect has been to increase my interest in contributing to local public goods via civic engagement and other routes.
I haven’t been to a town hall meeting yet, but I plan on going to one tomorrow. I suspect it will be awful. But I’m walking distance, so I’ll be a little bit drunk.
- The real estate market has some serious frictions
This might be obvious, but it’s interesting. There are artificial and natural obstacles to the efficient use of real estate. Transaction costs are significant and property rights issues are hairy.
Buying a house is a complicated transaction and going through the process has really made clear to me how difficult it is to commodify land. Each piece of land has a unique location and history. Information asymmetries are substantial. The neighborhood you’re buying into is utterly out of your control. Put simply: Amazon won’t be selling real estate any time soon.
Part of the reason I’m happy with buying a house is that our rent had been increasing about $100/month/year. Land lords absolutely take advantage of real estate frictions to charge as much as they can. The alternative (which I chose) is to lock-in to a specific property.
- The required knowledge to operate a home is significant and difficult to evaluate.
It takes a lot of knowledge to manage a house. If I were to take a wild guess (at this non-quantifiable variable), I’d say that between 5% and 50% of a homeowner’s brain is necessary to operate a house. Even if you bring in experts to do everything, evaluating those experts is a lot of work.
There are repairs and upgrades to make, and my formal education prepared me for exactly none of those projects. On the other hand, I’ve got the Internet. Without YouTube and Reddit I’d be a half dozen unlucky mistakes away from homelessness.
On the other other hand, I’ve learned a ton of stuff I’ve got no use for. Like how to grow asparagus (which it turns out it isn’t worth doing except out of boredom).
You can’t evaluate knowledge until it’s too late. And there’s more to learn than you ever will, so you have to make mistakes. It’s true of home ownership and it’s true of life more generally.
- Gardening is a real trip.
In History of Economic Thought professor Gonzalez shared a story about two economists meeting in Switzerland during WWII. On showing his vegetable garden to the visiting economist, the visitor said “that’s not a very efficient way to grow food,” to which the gardener said, “yes, but it’s a very efficient way to grow utility.”
I’ve wanted to garden for some time, but the market for gardens is thin. So now I’m starting with almost no useful experience. My public stance has been that lawns are boring and dumb. But figuring out how to manage a little ecosystem ain’t easy. I now get why someone would just put in a lawn and be done with it.
At my old apartment complex the entire ecosystem was made of: humans, trees, lawns, cockroaches. I suspect the cockroaches did so well because all their competition was poisoned away. As an emergent order guy, I’m not really into that. But I get it now. In the same way the king wants everyone living in neat little taxable rows my life would be easier if I could just slash and burn all the complexity out of my yard.
Tl;dr: My biggest surprise as a new home owner is just how big a cognitive load owning a house is. You hear homeowners talk about how much work it can be, but I think it’s rare to hear someone talk about how much know-how is required.
Given the capacity to generate externalities, I’m a bit surprised that there isn’t more public policy devoted to issues of home ownership* (beyond subsidizing finance and increasing barriers to entry). I supposed I’ll learn a lot more about these issues as I learn about local politics.
*That isn’t to say I think it’s a good idea to get the government involved in trying to tell people how to go about the business of daily life. I think homeowners are (basically) doing fine left to their own devices.
- Nation-Building, Nationalism and Wars [pdf] | Would A Libertarian Military Be More Lethal?
- Formal or Informal, Legal or Illegal: The Ambiguous Nature of Cross-border Livestock Trade in the Horn of Africa [pdf] | A note on the police or – “Why I don’t trust the police.”
- Political Cleavages and Changing Exposure to Trade [pdf] | Slowly debunking the trade leads to peace fallacy
- Realism, Liberalism and the Iraq War [pdf] | When Should Intellectuals be held Accountable for Popular Misrepresentations of their Theories?
- High-Value Work and the Rise of Women: The Cotton Revolution and Gender Equality in China [pdf] | When (Where and Why) Women Were More Literate than Men
Freakonomics had an episode on the dramatic impact of subsidies on the visual effects (VFX) industry. Long story short: 1) VFX companies operate on razor thin margins, 2) the industry chases subsidies from competing local governments–Canada and London are currently important locations, 3) Californian politicians want to bring these jobs back to LA, but doing so would probably be a net burden.
(Let’s put aside the issue of the state of California trying to play central planner by effectively creating different tax rates for different industries. That’s a bad idea for reasons we can explore later.)
Putting yourself in the head of a Californian, something about the policy feels right (maybe not for the typical NOL reader, but probably for the median voter). I’m sure you could convince the median voter that these subsidies are a bad idea, economically. But even so, I’d be willing to bet that you’d still get significant support.
I’m confident that if you were to talk this issue over with a representative sample of California voters–or X industry in Y region for similar industry upheavals–you could convince them of the probable negative impact of such policy and still see many voters at least weakly supporting the policy. Why? Because being able to point to a movie and say “that awesome explosion was made in my backyard,” is worth some degree of sacrifice for these people.
Perhaps people want our government to give us something to be proud of (God knows they give us enough things to be ashamed of!). Perhaps people have some latent willingness to pay to be able to say that some high status industry is in their community/city/state/country.
We like pride, but it costs us. This puts us squarely in the domain of economics. How do we figure out how to make the trade off between pride, and the price we must pay for it? Some cases seem easy, at least in hindsight–the sacrifice of the civil rights movement was a small price to pay for the pride generated–but cases like the VFX industry, aren’t so obvious, but still high stakes.
I don’t think we’re likely to be able to figure out the bill. We can be proud of NASA, movies, the post office, and whatever else. But how much of the cost can we attribute to engaging in activities that make us proud? We get the same issue in markets. I have more than brand loyalty for Honda (the maker of my motorcycle); I’m also proud to associate with Honda as an innovative company with a history of liberating the world’s poor.
A clever statistician or economist could estimate some important facts about how people tend to make these trade offs. Doing so could help us make better decisions, but can’t ultimately replace our own judgment.
Given the uncertainty we face we really have to make a decision about whether to err on the side of over- or under-provision of pride goods–and this is true in a variety of settings.
I suspect that the “let 1000 flowers bloom” approach is the appropriate one here. We don’t want to have one Secretary of Pride deciding to err on the side of over-provision and the result is that a bunch of children die from preventable causes so that we can all feel proud about how cool the latest domestically produced Fast and Furious movie is going to be. On the other hand, it would be a tragedy of slavery was never ended because it would interrupt business as usual.
Markets, civil society, and government face different sorts of pros and cons with respect to how they might make these trade offs. Arguing about them could create a new academic discipline at the intersection of ethics, economics, and sociology.
In all three spheres, there will be many very bad decisions made. But if you aren’t free to be wrong, you aren’t free. The question to ask is what sort of pride goods will tend to survive, and in which spheres?
What we can say for sure is that private, voluntary exchange and cooperation (free markets and civil society) at least allow us to choose our associations. And they require us to choose, and choose again on a regular basis. Our nation is mostly based on luck. Where we live tends not to change much. Voting with your feet is costly, so we should expect it to be that much harder to dismantle big mistakes. The political process routinely results in outcomes we’re ashamed of (about half of voters are ashamed of the results every presidential election!).
There aren’t markets in pride so it’s hard to know how the benefits compare to the costs. But we can (and do) exhibit pride in markets. We should probably do more of it. And perhaps we should also be more skeptical of government, even though we normally think of them as providing pride goods. On the margin, anyways, I think this is a good direction for most people to move. Be proud of your community because the people have whatever unique traits they do. Be proud of the brands you buy from for their contributions to the state of the art. Be proud of your local sports team.
I recently gave an interview on Economics Detective Radio with Garrett Petersen to talk about my forthcoming article in Economics & Human Biology (with Vadim Kufenko and Alex Arsenault Morin). In the interview, I explain why anthropometric history is important to our understanding of living standards, their evolution and short-term trade-offs in economic history. The interview is below, but you should subscribe to Garrett’s podcast as he is well on his way to becoming a serious competitor to EconTalk with the bonus that he does lots of economic history.