Economics professors Nicholas Z. Muller, Robert Mendelsohn and William Nordhaus have a new paper in the latest edition of the American Economic Review that should be a major factor in how we discuss economic ideology. It won’t, of course, but let me lay out the case anyway.
In their paper, “Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy,” what Muller, Mendelsohn and Nordhaus do is estimate the cost imposed on society by air pollution, and allocate it across industries. The costs being calculated, by the way, don’t include the long-run threat of climate change; they’re focused on measurable impacts of pollution on health and productivity, with the most important effects involving how pollutants — especially small particulates — affect human health, and use standard valuations on mortality and morbidity to turn these into dollars.
Even with this restricted vision of costs, they find that the costs of air pollution are big, and heavily concentrated in a few industries. In fact, there are a number of industries that inflict more damage in the form of air pollution than the value added by these industries at market prices.
It’s important to be clear about what this means. It does not necessarily say that we should end the use of coal-generated electricity. What it says, instead, is that consumers are paying much too low a price for coal-generated electricity, because the price they pay does not take into account the very large external costs associated with generation.
If consumers did have to pay the full cost, they would use much less electricity from coal — maybe none, but that would depend on the alternatives.
At one level, this is all textbook economics. Externalities like pollution are one of the classic forms of market failure, and Economics 101 says that this failure should be remedied through pollution taxes or tradable emissions permits that get the price right. What Muller et al. are doing is putting numbers to this basic proposition — and the numbers turn out to be big. So if you really believed in the logic of free markets, you’d be all in favor of pollution taxes, right?
Ha ha ha ha ha! Today’s American right doesn’t believe in externalities, or correcting market failures; it believes that there are no market failures, that unregulated capitalism is always right. Faced with evidence that market prices are, in fact, wrong, they simply attack the science.
What this tells us is that we are not actually having a debate about economics. Our free-market advocates aren’t actually operating from a model of how the economy works; they’re operating from some combination of knee-jerk defense of the haves against the rest and mystical faith that self-interest always leads to the common good.
And they’re wrong, with every breath we take.
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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.
Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including "The Return of Depression Economics" (2008) and "The Conscience of a Liberal" (2007). Copyright 2011 The New York Times.