Responding to shareholder demands and broad public pressure, international development banks backed by western economies are throwing their weight behind renewable energy projects in the developing world. Projects that would facilitate better distribution of gas, or accelerate electrification with readily available coal or gas are denied funding. But while policymakers in Europe, the United States, and other wealthy economies gain domestic political traction from opposing fossil fuels, their efforts to select growth paths for the developing world seem out of touch and condescending. Former Indian chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian has called this anti-fossil fuel push “carbon imperialism,” and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has complained of a new colonialism, in which the developed countries of the world, having used fossil fuels to achieve prosperity, now promote energy policies that would deny growth to countries like his own.
Without access to reliable electric power or liquid fuels, around three billion people worldwide use biomass (e.g., wood, charcoal, or crop waste) to cook and heat their homes. These highly polluting fuels—which, it should be noted, are renewable—remain in use partly because of the objections of foreigners to alternatives like LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) and coal- or gas-fired electric power grids, a deplorably out of touch way of thinking. The WHO estimated in 2018 that 3.8 million people—mostly women, children, and the elderly who spend disproportionate time indoors—die each year from respiratory illnesses and other diseases caused by indoor air pollution. Many of these “traditional fuels” require time-consuming collection, taking away from other uses of time such as education or wage-earning activities.
Economic growth can affect land use change to release or sequester carbon, intensifying or mitigating the impact of other carbon emissions, and the functional form of that relationship is important to crafting policy responses. Data on land use and land cover change (LULCC) for 14 countries reveal an N – or M-shaped environmental Kuznets curve (EKC) for LULCC carbon flux to/from the atmosphere in some nations, while others display very different relationships. Most nations studied show some variation of the inverted-U EKC. All but one nation display initial turning points ranging from $2,000 to $9,000 per capita GDP (2011 dollars), and half are now net negative carbon emitters with respect to LULCC. For the US, regression analysis of the LULCC EKC indicates a roughly M-shaped quartic EKC function, with local maxima at about $3,700 and $45,700 and a local minimum at about $29,400. Where N-shaped EKCs are observed, the carbon sequestration from increasing forest regrowth is transient, and may be followed by a phase in which rising aggregate emissions dominate slowing sequestration in maturing forests. An M-shaped EKC indicates a third turning point, representing a return to increased net carbon absorption.
Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) produced an economics textbook, Principles of Economics, that in many ways would be recognizable to students of mainstream microeconomics today. He was immensely influential, partly because of his prolific writing, but also because of his creation of a strong legacy. In 1888, Herbert Foxwell wrote, “Half the economic chairs in the United Kingdom are occupied by [Marshall’s] pupils, and the share taken by them in general economic instruction in England is even larger than this.” (Ekelund and Hebert, A History of Economic Theory and Method, 5th ed., p. 345).
Though Marshall was a mathematician before he became an economist, and used mathematics in economics (early in life he translated Ricardo and Mill into mathematics), he recognized that mathematics had its limits. In 1906, he wrote to a friend, Arthur Bowley:
I had a growing feeling in the later years of my work at the subject that a good mathematical theorem dealing with economic hypotheses was very unlikely to be good economics: and I went more and more on the rules–(1) Use mathematics as a shorthand language, rather than as an engine of inquiry. (2) Keep to them till you have done. (3) Translate into English. (4) Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life. (5) Burn the mathematics. (6) If you can’t succeed in 4, burn 3. This last I did often.
Alfred Marshall, quoted in Ekelund and Hebert, 5th ed., p. 346.
Years ago, a religion professor at my college gave a talk to economics seniors on the limitations of economics and the necessity of considering religious principles in determining what we should do. Free-market economics, he said, has difficulty reconciling with the harsh criticism of market activity found in the Bible. There were, of course, other religions he could have considered, but Christianity was most familiar to these students.
One of his key points—that the economic way of thinking is not sufficient to understand the world around us—is valuable. An interdisciplinary approach to learning is indeed vital. However, I believe there are some problems with assertions that free markets and Christianity are incompatible.
The idea of free markets is about minimal intervention of the civil government into the marketplace. It is not about creating morality through markets. Neither is it an argument that people operating in a free market environment do not do bad things. It is true that markets sometimes produce things that should not be produced. For example, pornography, prostitution, and contract murder are provided in markets (and not all of these are universally illegal). And people who produce good things sometimes do so while cheating, lying, and stealing. But no market-oriented economists I know would argue that markets are expected to stamp out all unsavory and destructive behavior. A market structure allows people to accomplish their goals, but is neutral about what those goals should be.
The “marginal revolution” in economics is usually linked to three men: Carl Menger, Léon Walras, and William Stanley Jevons, who wrote on the concept of marginal utility nearly simultaneously in the early 1870s. In 1871, the Austrian economist Carl Menger published his Principles of Economics [Grundsätze der Volkswirtschaftslehre]), While the term “marginal utility” came from Friedrich von Wieser (another “first-generation” Austrian), marginality had been anticipated by some earlier thinkers, notably Jules Dupuit (1804-1866).
Restoring the Promise is essential reading for those trying to wrap their heads around the many serious problems in America’s ivory towers. Colleges and universities can be saved from their politicized sclerosis, and Vedder’s engaging and thoughtful analysis shows us how.