Monthly Archives: February 2013

Harmonizing Ecology and Economics

Ecology and economics are natural allies. Both words derive from the Greek word for “household.” Ecology is the study of our collective household: the Earth. Economics concerns the laws and conventions governing the use of our global home’s resources. It turns out that the best way to manage our natural resources is by using them in the most efficient ways possible, which economics guides us to do.

Efficient resource use is essential for conserving natural resources. Increased efficiency lessens the burden on the environment that maintaining our living standards requires. Yet the organizations that seek a more ecofriendly civilization often ignore economics and advocate for policies that run counter to efficiency, such as subsidizing supposedly “green” technologies or adopting costly and ineffective regulations such as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards (CAFE).

“Green” subsidies may seem environmentally friendly, but in reality they allow special interest groups to give themselves advantages over competing energy producers. The massive subsidization of corn ethanol is an excellent example. Corn ethanol has negligible (or even negative) environmental effects, but corn subsidies are a political third rail, because Ohioan corn growers are politically powerful.1 CAFE standards are also far from ideal; the Congressional Budget Office has concluded that requiring higher gas mileage standards is an ineffective and expensive approach to the problem of air pollution2.

Experience demonstrates the negative environmental impact of ignoring economics. The Soviet government had strong environmental regulations, but experienced some of the worst environmental disasters in history. One such case was the Soviet extraction of shoreline gravel from the Black Sea for construction projects between 1920 and 1960. This caused tremendous erosion as “hotels, hospitals, and, of all things, a military sanitarium collapsed into the sea as the shore line gave way.”3 A similar disaster occurred in the Chesapeake Bay, where only 2% of the historically massive oyster stock remains due to over-exploitation. Both cases were rooted in the fact that the natural resources were collectively owned; both fell victim to the tragedy of the commons.

The tragedy of the commons is a common cause of environmental issues. It occurs when many people have access to a limited resource. Each person with access to that natural resource knows that their own individual exploitation makes only a negligible difference in the health of that resource and that a choice not to abuse the resource won’t prevent others from laying it to waste. This eliminates any reason for individuals to conserve the resource; over-exploitation inevitably follows.

Happily, economics has revealed an elegant system that ensures efficient resource use and conservation: private property under the free market. Private property owners have all the right incentives to use their resources in only the most efficient ways. Copper mine owners do not strip all of the ore out of their mines as soon as it is discovered, because doing so would eliminate the future income that the mine could provide (along with value of the mine as a sellable asset). Mine owners, instead, extract and sell less as copper becomes scarcer since they realize that they will be able to sell their copper for higher prices if it becomes scarcer still. That is why, unlike the commonly held Soviet gravel and Chesapeake Bay marine resources, the free market has never run out of copper ore, despite its high usage over the millennia.

The free market encourages people to use resources in the ways conservationists wish them to: to use scarce resources less, to replace them with more abundant or renewable alternatives, to recycle, and to invest in more efficient means of using resources. Those who are best at these things earn profits, which they can convert into responsibility over more resources. This benefits society with both increased production and more efficient resource use.

Unlike private individuals, political actors’ control over resources is not dependent on how efficiently they use them. Politicians garner support and increase their influence by spending more of America’s limited resources in their electoral districts. It generally doesn’t matter to their constituents if the money is used efficiently; they gain the benefits, while the rest of the nation shoulders the burden. Every spending program garners votes for politicians, regardless of its efficacy.

Environmentalists must work with human nature rather than against it. We have forgotten that humans are natural beings, too. It is more productive to harmonize the desires of humans with ecological health rather than fight a fruitless war to conquer human nature in the name of Mother Nature. Individuals who are concerned about the environment should focus on minimizing commonly held property and government interference. We should place our trust in those private citizens who reliably protect their property and its natural resources, and not in politicians, whose only incentive is to exploit them.

– Post by Ian Downie, MPP ‘13

Sources

1. Taylor, Jerry. “An Economic Critique of Corn-Ethanol Subsidies.” The Cato Institute, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2013. <http://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/articles/jerrytaylor_aneconomiccritiqueofcornethanolsubsidies_2009.pdf&gt;.

2. United States of America. Congressional Budget Office. By Terry Dinan and David Austin. Fuel Economy Standards Versus a Gasoline Tax. 9 Mar. 2004. Web. 15 Mar. 2011. <http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/workshops/energymarkets/background/austin.pdf&gt;.

3. Dilorenzo, Thomas J. “Why Socialism Causes Pollution.”: The Freeman : Foundation for Economic Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2013. <http://www.fee.org/the_freeman/detail/why-socialism-causes-pollution&gt;.

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Up to Us: Our Nation’s Rising National Debt

Up To Us is a student-led campaign to engage the University of Virginia and Charlottesville community about our nation’s rising national debt and its effects on our generation now and in the future.

Led by five fourth-year students (including three Batten students), the Up to Us campaign, began on January 22 and runs through March 2. It is part of a nation-wide campus competition among 10 colleges to develop outreach regarding the nation’s fiscal status and future. The campaign has included over 20 events, ranging from academic (such as Flash Seminars) to social (ex: a national-debt themed trivia night at Mellow Mushroom). Such events aim to increase students’ awareness and knowledge about the national debt.

An event held on January 25th, titled “HOOs Talking about the National Debt”, featured three distinguished professors from various schools: Tom Massaro, Harrison Foundation Professor of Medicine and Law Emeritus, professor of pediatrics emeritus, and an expert on national health care systems; Craig Volden, professor of public policy and an expert on American political processes; and Herman Schwartz, professor of politics and expert on debt and political economy. Each professor shared their viewpoints on the United States budget deficit and its relevant consequences with, despite the snowy weather, over 60 students.  With lunch kindly provided by the Batten Council, the students were extremely engaged, asking thought-provoking and introspective questions throughout the discussions.

One of the centerpieces of the campaign was a speech by Virginia Senator Mark on February 11. Introduced by University President Teresa Sullivan, Senator Warner spoke to an audience of about 500 members of University of Virginia community regarding our nation’s debt crisis. Senator Warner has played a crucial role in addressing our nation’s fiscal challenges. Last year, Senator Warner helped organize a bipartisan coalition consisting of 45 Senators and 100 members of the House of Representatives to urge action on the debt. The former Virginia governor has been active on the issue of fiscal responsibility. A video of his talk is available online.

Throughout the campaign, Up to Us has received generous support from Batten’s community of faculty and students, with numerous sponsorships of events and aid in planning. The Up to Us team is extremely grateful to attend a school where all are so supportive and engaged in such an important issue as the national debt.

Upcoming events include:

Feb 28: How Students Can Save and Build Their Own Financial Future

Professor Karin Bonding

6:30 PM

Robertson 120

March 1: TEDTalk of “Final Thoughts”

Professor Mary Margaret Frank (Darden), Stuart Wolf (Engineering), and a Board of Visitors member will drive home the main take-away points of our national debt issue, why it’s important for students to get involved, and how UVA will be affected.

1:00 PM

Garrett Hall

March 2: Closing Reception

Location TBD

Reception for all the attendees, professors, deans, community members, etc. who were involved in our campaign or who have attended any event

Serves as a closing opportunity for networking to continue work around the national debt

Please visit Causes.com/UpToUSUVA for more information.

– Post by Ryan Singel, MPP ‘14

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Dumpling Party to Celebrate the Year of the Snake!

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The Batten School hosted its first-ever dumpling party in the Great Hall on Monday, February 11, 2013, to celebrate Chinese New Year. Headed by the Career Services Team with the help of four Batten students from the first- and second-year MPP cohorts, the event attracted more than 50 people. The event was open to the entire University community; both Batten and non-Batten students and faculty attended.  In addition to being able to appreciate the lunar year celebration, students had the opportunity to learn how to make dumplings with homemade fillings made by Batten students and Dean Rockwell. Then of course, they were able to enjoy their hard work! A big thanks to the Career Services Team and everyone else who helped make the event happen! Happy belated Chinese New Year!

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-Post by Katy Lai, MPP’13

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