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Friday, March 28, 2008

There you go again

Historically, natural resources have been subject to long periods of chronic scarcity or abundance with prices rising and then falling back towards their cost of production for extended periods of time. The bullish phases have typically lasted 15 to 25 years until supply finally overtakes demand again. This adjustment usually entails some combination of greater production, more efficient usage and/or creation of a substitute. Countries which are large net exporters of natural resources will seem to have an economic wind at their backs during the bullish phase (think Russia, Brazil and Australia) and more of an economic headwind during the bearish phase. Note also that the magnitude of the price swings and the difficulty of adjustment can be exacerbated by bad economic policy.

This Malthusian redux appeared recently, although in fairness, the authors are not quite full-blown apocaholics.

Now and then across the centuries, powerful voices have warned that human activity would overwhelm the earth's resources. The Cassandras always proved wrong. Each time, there were new resources to discover, new technologies to propel grow.

Today the old fears are back.

Although a Malthusian catastrophe is not at hand, the resource constraints foreseen by the Club of Rome are more evident today than at any time since the 1972 publication of the think tank's famous book, "The Limits of Growth." Steady increases in the prices for oil, wheat, copper and other commodities -- some of which have set record highs this month -- are signs of a lasting shift in demand as yet unmatched by rising supply.

As the world grows more populous -- the United Nations projects eight billion people by 2025, up from 6.6 billion today -- it also is growing more prosperous. The average person is consuming more food, water, metal and power. Growing numbers of China's 1.3 billion people and India's 1.1 billion are stepping up to the middle class, adopting the high-protein diets, gasoline-fueled transport and electric gadgets that developed nations enjoy.

The result is that demand for resources has soared. If supplies don't keep pace, prices are likely to climb further, economic growth in rich and poor nations alike could suffer, and some fear violent conflicts could ensue.

In the past, economic forces spurred solutions. Scarcity of resource led to higher prices, and higher prices eventually led to conservation and innovation. Whale oil was a popular source of lighting in the 19th century. Prices soared in the middle of the century, and people sought other ways to fuel lamps. In 1846, Abraham Gesner began developing kerosene, a cleaner-burning alternative. By the end of the century, whale oil cost less than it did in 1831.

A similar pattern could unfold again. But economic forces alone may not be able to fix the problems this time around. Societies as different as the U.S. and China face stiff political resistance to boosting water prices to encourage efficient use, particularly from farmers. When resources such as water are shared across borders, establishing a pricing framework can be thorny. And in many developing nations, food-subsidy programs make it less likely that rising prices will spur change.

Indeed, the true lesson of Thomas Malthus, an English economist who died in 1834, isn't that the world is doomed, but that preservation of human life requires analysis and then tough action. Given the history of England, with its plagues and famines, Malthus had good cause to wonder if society was "condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery." That he was able to analyze that "perpetual oscillation" set him and his time apart from England's past. And that capacity to understand and respond meant that the world was less Malthusian thereafter.

Political responses can alter rules and institutional arrangements so as to facilitate the adjustment by consumers and producers or they can make things worse, particularly by trying to choose the solutions. (Think ethanol from corn...)

I suspect that many people haven't met The Doomslayer.

This is the litany : Our resources are running out. The air is bad, the water worse. The planet's species are dying off - more exactly, we're killing them -at the staggering rate of 100,000 per year, a figure that works out to almost 2,000 species per week, 300 per day, 10 per hour, another dead species every six minutes.We're trashing the planet, washing away the topsoil, paving over our farmlands, systematically deforesting our wildernesses, decimating the biota, and ultimately killing ourselves.

The world is getting progressively poorer, and it's all because of population, or more precisely, overpopulation. There's a finite store of resources on our pale blue dot, spaceship Earth, our small and fragile tiny planet, and we're fast approaching its ultimate carrying capacity. The limits to growth are finally upon us, and we're living on borrowed time. The laws of population growth are inexorable. Unless we act decisively, the final result is written in stone: mass poverty, famine, starvation, and death.

Time is short, and we have to act now.

That's the standard and canonical litany. It's been drilled into our heads so far and so forcefully that to hear it yet once more is ... well, it's almost reassuring. It's comforting, oddly consoling - at least we're face to face with the enemies: consumption, population, mindless growth. And we know the solution: cut back, contract, make do with less. "Live simply so that others may simply live."

There's just one problem with The Litany, just one slight little wee imperfection: every item in that dim and dreary recitation, each and every last claim, is false. Incorrect. At variance with the truth.

"Our species is better off in just about every measurable material way," he says. "Just about every important long-run measure of human material welfare shows improvement over the decades and centuries, in the United States and the rest of the world. Raw materials - all of them - have become less scarce rather than more. The air in the US and in other rich countries is irrefutably safer to breathe. Water cleanliness has improved. The environment is increasingly healthy, with every prospect that this trend will continue.

Julian Simon: The facts are fundamental.

Garrett Hardin: The facts are not fundamental. The theory is fundamental. - from a 1982 debate with the UC Santa Barbara biologist The doomslayer-doomsayer debate, Simon thinks, is an opposition between fact and bad theory, a case of empirical reality versus abstract principles that purport to define the way things work but don't.

"It's the difference," he says, "between a speculative analysis of what must happen versus my empirical analysis of what has happened over the long sweep of history."

The paradox is that those abstract principles and speculative analyses seem so very logical and believable, whereas the facts themselves, the story of what has happened, appear wholly illogical and impossible to explain. After all, people are fruitful and they multiply but the stores of raw materials in the earth's crust certainly don't, so how can it be possible that, as the world's population doubles, the price of raw materials is cut in half?

It makes no sense. Yet it has happened. So there must be an explanation.

And there is: resources, for the most part, don't grow on trees. People produce them, they create them, whether it be food, factories, machines, new technologies, or stockpiles of mined, refined, and purified raw materials.

"Resources come out of people's minds more than out of the ground or air," says Simon. "Minds matter economically as much as or more than hands or mouths. Human beings create more than they use, on average. It had to be so, or we would be an extinct species."

The defect of the Malthusian models, superficially plausible but invariably wrong, is that they leave the human mind out of the equation. "These models simply do not comprehend key elements of people - the imaginative and creative."

As for the future, "This is my long-run forecast in brief," says Simon. "The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above today's Western living standards.

"I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse."

Eventually the current bullish phase for natural resources will end, although not without more predictions of doom, and those familiar with the ideas of the doomslayer will smile.

See also videos of Julian Simon.

The Ultimate Resource

Alex Tabarrok sounding like Julian Simon:

(from Forbes via The Club For Growth):

Forget the talk of recession. The world is about to enter a new era in which miracle drugs will conquer cancer and other killer diseases and technological and scientific advances will trigger unprecedented economic growth and global prosperity.

Pie in the sky optimism? Perhaps. But there are reasons to be optimistic, and they rest not on science fiction but within the badly misnamed "dismal science," economics.

To understand why economics triggers such optimism, imagine that there are two deadly diseases. One disease is relatively rare, the other common. If you had to choose, would you rather be afflicted with the rare or the common disease?

If you don't want to die, it's much better to have the common disease. The reason? The cost of developing drugs for rare and common diseases are about the same, but the revenues aren't. Pharmaceutical companies concentrate on drugs with larger markets because larger markets mean more profits.

As a result, there are more drugs to treat diseases with a lot of patients than to treat rare diseases, and more drugs means greater life expectancy. Patients diagnosed with rare diseases--those ranked at the bottom quarter in terms of how frequently they are diagnosed--are 45% more likely to die before age 55 than are patients diagnosed with more common diseases.

So imagine this: If China and India were as wealthy as the U.S., the market for cancer drugs would be eight times larger than it is today.

Of course, China and India are not yet as wealthy as the U.S., but their economies are growing rapidly, and with them, the market for new drugs. Cancer is now China's leading killer, with spending on treatment increasing by 17% per year. To be close to the Chinese market, AstraZeneca and Novartis are building major research facilities in China, which will benefit patients everywhere.

Like pharmaceuticals, new computer chips, software and chemicals also require large research and development (R&D) expenditures. As India, China and other countries become wealthier, companies will increase their worldwide R&D investments. Most importantly, as markets expand, companies and countries will put to work the greatest asset of all for the betterment of mankind: brain power.

Amazingly, there are only about 6 million scientists and engineers in the entire world, nearly a quarter of whom are in the U.S. Poverty means that millions of potentially world-class scientists today spend their lives trying to eke out a subsistence living, rather than leading mankind's charge into the future. But if the world as a whole were as wealthy as the U.S. and were devoting the same share of population to research and development, there would be more than five times as many scientists and engineers worldwide.

People used to think that more population was bad for growth. In this view, people are stomachs--they eat, leaving less for everyone else. But once we realize the importance of ideas in the economy, people become brains--they innovate, creating more for everyone else.

New ideas mean more growth, and even small changes in economic growth rates produce large economic and social benefits. At current income levels, with an inflation-adjusted growth rate of 3% per year, America's real per capita gross domestic product would exceed $1 million per year in just over 100 years, more than 22 times higher than it is today. Growth like that could solve many problems.

In the 20th century, two world wars diverted the energy of two generations from production to destruction. When the horrors ended, the world was left hobbled and split. Communism isolated much of the world, reducing trade in goods and ideas--to everyone's detriment. World poverty meant that the U.S. and a few other countries shouldered the burdens of advancing knowledge nearly alone.

The battles of the 20th century were not fought in vain. Trade, development and the free flow of people and ideas are uniting all of humanity, maximizing the incentives and the means to produce new ideas. This gives us reason to be highly optimistic about the future.

Whatever problems we will struggle with in the short term, there is indeed reason to be optimistic. It is also good to understand that although globalization means more competition, more trade and more people working on new innovations is very much a positive sum game.

People, even better when they are free, are the ultimate resource!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Drunken Debauchery of the Past

Reading Throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater at Thought Mesh reminded me of a blues song I wrote in the 70's called Wellesley which chronicles the drunken debauchery of those around me (Note that it's not about me; it's about a frat brother). I didn't actually get around to recording the song till much later, but it still captures the essence of some behaviors from thirty years ago. This song is actually a man-bites-dog story in that, unusually and surprisingly, the drunken encounter didn't actually end with sex.

The amazing thing about being alive a long time is that you see that human nature and behavior changes very, very, very slowly, if at all.