Greg Mankiw Forgot What He Teaches

Originally posted on The Baseline Scenario:

By James Kwak

I’ve written severaltimes about what I call the Economics 101 ideology: the overuse of a few simplified concepts from an introductory course to make sweeping policy recommendations (while branding any opponents as ignorant simpletons). The most common way that first-year economics is misused in the public sphere is ignoring assumptions. For example, most arguments for financial deregulation are ultimately based on the idea that transactions between rational actors with perfect information are always good for both sides — and most of the people making those arguments have forgotten that people are not rational and do not have perfect information.

Mark Buchanan and Noah Smith have both called out Greg Mankiw for a different and more pernicious way of misusing first-year economics: simply ignoring what it teaches — or, in this case, what Mankiw himself teaches. At issue is Mankiw’s Times column claiming that all economists agree on the overall benefits…

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The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP): This Is Not About Ricardo



Theoretical cases for enhanced trade continue to dominate, despite the only hazy link between the theoretical case and, you know, messy, complex, not-ceteris-parabis reality.

Originally posted on The Baseline Scenario:

By Simon Johnson and Andrei Levchenko

The Obama administration is lobbying hard for Congress to pass a trade promotion authority (TPA) and to quickly approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement that is on the verge of being finalized.

The administration and its supporters on this issue, including leading Republicans, argue that the case for TPP rests on basic economic principles and is only strengthened by the findings of modern research.  On both counts their claims are greatly exaggerated – particularly with regard to the notion that more trade, on these terms, is necessarily better for the United States.

There is a strong theoretical and empirical case – dating back to David Ricardo in 1817 – that freer trade should make countries better off. However, modern-day trade agreements, including those currently being negotiated, are very different from earlier experiences with trade liberalization.

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Corncrake conservation: the role of heterogeneous farmland

Originally posted on Ideas for Sustainability:

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to share key points from a recent paper led by Ine Dorresteijn on the Corncrake (Crex crex). It’s one of the most charismatic bird species in Europe, and has attracted the attention of a lot of conservationists. In landscapes where it remains common, it’s well known for its nocturnal calls “crex-crex-crex…”, which is where it got its name from.

Image source: Image source:

Corncrakes have disappeared from most of Western Europe. Where the species does persist, it is most commonly associated with extensive, wet meadows. But what about in landscapes where larger populations remain?

We studied the corncrake in Central Romania, where it seems virtually ubiquitous. It’s difficult to be out in the countryside at nighttime in June and not hear a corncrake sooner or later. We wanted to know what constitutes habitat for the corncrake in this traditional farming landscape – and our…

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Ecomodernism and the Anti-Politics of Prometheus

Originally posted on Thinking like a human:

Prometheus is the man (or immortal, depending who you read) from Greek myth who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity. Like other tales from the classics, this one has been co-opted in many different ways. In this case, Promethean fire has most often been taken as symbolic of the development of technology and industrialism: Blake’s ‘dark Satanic mills’ in all their forms, from eighteenth century English mills to twenty first century sweat shops.

Classically, environmentalism is painted as a reaction against industrialism, a Romantic call for nature untainted by human artifice. Reflecting another Classical trope, much Western environmental thought has been seen as Arcadian, comparing a dystopian urban and industrial present with an idealized rural past.

But not all environmentalism is Arcadian. In his 1992 book Green Delusions, Martin Lewis criticised ‘radical environmentalism’, and its calls for a return to a simpler, rural, way of…

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Your Netflix addiction is screwing the climate

Originally posted on Grist:

This story was originally published by Wired and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

You recycle. You ride your bike to work. You bring your own bags to the grocery. You might think you’re a good environmentalist. But those cat videos, TED talks, and Netflix original series you watch to unwind might be slowly killing the planet.

That’s the word from Greenpeace’s latest Clicking Clean report, which evaluates the clean energy initiatives of many different internet companies.

While we’re used to thinking about our environmental impact in terms of how much trash we throw out, how much we drive, and how much electricity we use in our homes, the report highlights the ways that our internet usage has environmental effects that we never see.

Data center emissions account for small percentage of global emissions, Greenpeace information technology analyst Gary Cook tells us. That’s not much…

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Against population essentialism – Redux

The quintessential point that population is the “one subject too taboo” or “the elephant in the room everyone is ignoring” or “the fundamental issue we need to deal with” with respect to climate change, biodiversity, food security, environment, etc. seems to raise its hoary head less often than it did, but I still see it skitter around the room somewhat on the regular.

So I thought I’d just post a couple of “oldies” today that address this rather ossified talking point, to remind us of what a “science/evidence-based” look at the issues really says. (Spoilers/tl;dr: it says pointing to population is too simplistic, and if thought of in isolation of other factors, is positively incorrect and unproductive):

De Sherbinin et al. are masterful on this:

“Thus, it would appear that population growth is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for either declines or improvements in agricultural productivity to occur. Population growth can either operate as a negative factor, increasing pressure on limited arable land, or a positive factor, helping to induce intensification through adoption of improved technologies and higher labor inputs. Where it does which depends on factors in the economic and institutional realms. This conclusion is supported by two ambitious meta-analyses of studies that looked at dryland degradation (or desertification) and agricultural intensification (76, 77). The authors reject both single-factor causation and irreducible complexity but propose instead that a limited number of underlying driving forces, including population, and proximate causes are at work to produce either degradation or intensification…

In summary, as in other areas, the relationship between population dynamics and water resources is complex. At the aggregate level, other things being equal, population growth most assuredly does reduce per capita water availability. It is in this light that the Global International Waters Assessment listed population growth first in a series of root causes of the “global water crisis” (89). Yet there is more to population change than growth alone, and rarely are other factors equal, so the specific impacts of population dynamics on water often come down to a complex array of place-specific factors that relate to economic and climatic changes, agricultural and industrial technologies, sewage treatment, and institutional mechanisms, to name but a few.”

With specific reference to Africa, Homewood et al. is a classic:

“Correlation and causal analyses demonstrate that major changes in land cover and wildebeest numbers are driven primarily by markets and national land tenure policies, rather than agropastoral population growth. Spread of mechanized agriculture, but not agropastoral land use, is associated with the critical spatial location of changes underlying wildebeest decline.”

And a final piece — many people (including the noted ecologist Paul Ehrlich) seem to continue to believe/say that cutting consumption is impractical, so even though population and consumption (and technology) affect total “impact” or footprint, population [control] is where we have the most potential leverage. In response, I’d like you, dear reader, to keep the following points in mind:

  1. Wait, what?
  2. Umm….

Ok, perhaps I should be more specific. Starting again with tl;dr/spoilers, Macalaster geographer William Moseley is very straightforward and trenchant on the topic in an “oldie” from 2007 I twittered out yesterday:

…Americans consume, on average, 6.8 times as much energy as the Chinese, 7.3 times as much as Brazilians and 28 times as much as Ethiopians.

In other words, in terms of environmental impact, our already high and exponentially growing per capita energy consumption far outweighs any population growth in the developing world.

So why focus on controlling population numbers when environmental impact is the result of three factors, not one?

As a college professor, I have watched students debate this issue for years. While students recognize the importance of all three factors, they invariably argue that it just isn’t practical to try to control overconsumption. They suggest that the pragmatist must focus on what can be done – for instance, developing energy-efficient technology worldwide and supporting education and distribution of family planning methods in the developing world.

I am perplexed by the assumption that encouraging families in the developing world to have fewer children is more doable than reducing U.S. consumption. Having fewer or no children may be easy for a middle-class person in the United States, where raising children is expensive and most of us expect no economic return from children as they grow older. In fact, one could argue that having children in the American context is economically irrational.

It’s true that millions of families in the developing world desire access to modern contraceptives, and filling this unmet need is important. However, for millions of others, children are crucial sources of farm labor or important wage earners who help sustain the family. Children often act as the old-age social security system for their parents. For these families, having fewer children is not an easy decision…

It’s time population control came off the top of the environmental agenda. While we should help those who want access to better family planning abroad, the real focus should be on controlling wasteful consumption at home.

Said in a more rambling, wordy way:

  1. Why is consumption not possible to control, but population is? If you ask an economist, damaging consumption (should they deign to acknowledge such a thing exists) can be curbed through proper pricing, taxes, or other similar approaches. In a way, consumption is (based on the unrealistic equations/expectations of Econ 101) practically the easiest thing in the world to “control” — or at least, incentives & disincentives (in price) should moderate consumption of many products. (The details, including elasticity, get a bit complex, but that doesn’t typically stop economists from emphasizing simplistic underlying mechanisms.)
  2. Ah, one might say–that’s (arguably) true! Consumption can be moderated easily through the pricing and tax mechanisms. BUT–c’mon, those things are politically unrealistic. Ok, if I grant you that (which I don’t)–what makes population control, particularly for overconsumers in the Global North, MORE realistic? I realize many countries are seeing their population growth slow down or reverse, but us mega-consumers in the US: not so much. And many countries are trying to FIGHT their population growth slow-down. Not to mention the deeply personal choices–and survival choices, in the case of most places with rapid population growth rates–these personal choices would seem to be if anything even harder to “control” than consumption, no?

I’d like us to be able to follow Prof. Moseley’s advice, and see population essentialism–Malthusianism and its step-child, neo-Malthusianism–slink ever farther into the corners, making way for much more nuanced–science-based, you might even say–conversations. ‘Tis a dream I have.

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Belated IATP X-post: Vice Documentary & GMOs

Upcoming* interview with IATP’s Dr. Jahi Chappell on GMOs for HBO’s “Vice” 

Coming up May 8*, HBO will air another episode of Vice, the Emmy-winning documentary series coming out of the Vice Media group. Already this season, Vice has addressed topics from the challenges facing us due to growing antibiotic resistance, to how much of the $10 billion in reconstruction and relief aid sent to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake has actually reached and helped Haitian communities.

The May 8 episode will focus on the future of our food system, in particular, the role of GMOs in helping us achieve a sustainable and food-secure future. Vice interviewed IATP’s Director of Agroecology and Agriculture Policy, Dr. Jahi Chappell, to respond to the claims they heard directly from Monsanto about how useful, necessary, and safe GMO crops are. Dr. Chappell’s arguments follow:

[*The episode, naturally, has already aired. It is Episode 31 of HBO’s Vice; you can find it here.]

Genetically modified food is the wrong answer to the wrong question

Although recent pieces in the popular media and press have dismissed critics of GMOs as being anti-science or ideological, many credentialed scientists, myself included, argue that the “GMO = Science” line is incorrect. I would point to three reasons why:

  1. GMOs are different: Genetic modification is not, as the National Academy of Science review argued, simply the same as all other breeding techniques used by humankind for 10,000 years of agriculture. It is not that there is a clear and established danger from them—it is rather the fact that we do not have a good science-based process in place to regularly determine the safety of most crops and foods, and genetic modification does introduce new techniques and new risks that could produce unforeseen harm to people and the environment without much more careful scrutiny across our food system. This includes GMOs, but—as often is called for by GMO advocates—it would also include looking much more carefully at all of our food, because while GMOs do present new risks and challenges, it is true that there are many risks that we simply do little or nothing to gauge throughout the “traditional” parts of our system.
  2. GMOs don’t help small farmers or the environment: That said, the potential unintended or unknown health risks are not the most pertinent or important part of the conversation about GMOs. As Vice’s documentary will discuss, Monsanto and its fellow companies often discuss how beneficial their products are for farmers and the environment. At best, the results are actually quite mixed The question of why and when farmers will use GM crops is relatively complicated, and it’s pretty definite that it hasn’t always brought advantages to farmers, particularly small farmers. For example, anthropologist Glenn Stone points out that even though the horrific trend of farmer suicides in India cannot be laid at the feet of GM crops, it is also true that “Bt seed also appears to be exacerbating a key problem underlying the suicides: technology treadmills.” In short: GM crops do not necessarily help small farmers, and in many ways contribute to existing trends that hurt them by tying them to a “modern” system that drives up debts, pushes farmers to ever expand their territory no matter the cost to the environment, often hurts already-poor farmers and the landless, and exacts huge costs on the environment and human health—such as the recent classification of Glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen” and its implication in contributing to antibiotic resistance. Given that the vast majority of GMOs in the world either incorporate a pesticide (Bt) directly into crops, or only work alongside continued heavy application of a pesticide (RoundupReady crops – Roundup is the brand name for glyphosate), the idea that GMOs decrease environmental impact or pesticide use is questionable, at best: insecticide use has decreased throughout the world, “but more profoundly in France (also Germany and Switzerland) that do not use GM plants and only modestly in the U.S. Total insecticide use is not decreased in the U.S. when insecticidal plants are included in total insecticide use.” At the same time, herbicide use (like glyphosate) has unsurprisingly increased over recent years—and increased more than insecticide use has decreased.
  3. We don’t need GMOs! But perhaps the most important point of all is the fact that, in order to have a future that nourishes everyone in the world and doesn’t harm the environment, GMOs are not only not the best tool, they’re not even a necessary or important one. As a team of agronomists wrote in the scientific journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development:

    “Existing biodiversity in combination with plant breeding has much more to offer the many [sic] world’s farmers and consumers, while GMOs have more to offer the agro-industry and some large-scale farms, and this explains why they have received so much attention and research funding. GMO research should be seen as basic research, very much worth pursuing as such and with potential applications over the long term, but it cannot be seen as good strategic research directed at increasing world food production within the coming decades.  Rather, emphasis on (1.) improved agricultural practices in hunger-prone developing countries, (2.) development of agrobiodiversity resources through plant breeding, and (3.) more sustainable consumption as production of foodstuffs, could be the basis for a much better strategy if the goal is to feed the world’s population in the coming decades.”

    What’s more, it is very, very clear that the most important ways to improve food security lie in improving gender equality, women’s access to education, and increasing dietary diversity—something I’ve written about before and that was re-confirmed in a recent peer-reviewed study by established food system researchers Lisa Smith and Lawrence Haddad.

So given that GMOs are, in fact, different than the breeding we have traditionally done, that they do not necessarily help farmers or the environment and that we actually don’t need them to nourish the world, what should we do?

Agroecology For the Win

Besides the very important point to be made about the importance of gender—increasing women’s education and political equality will help decrease population growth while improving food security and nutrition, not to mention improving women’s livelihoods directly—the other thing we can do, and indeed many people are already doing, is agroecology. As seen in recent pieces in the popular press awareness of agroecology and its benefits are starting to be talked about beyond the academics, agronomists and farmers who study and practice it.

By focusing on support and collaboration with the world’s farmers, and using existing natural processes and innovative ecologically-based practices, agroecology offers the most sustainable way to go about providing for the people of the planet without irreparably damaging our environment through climate change, pollution, toxic chemicals and loss of biodiversity. Consider this: 43% of the reduction in malnutrition over the past 40 years has been tied to increases in equality for women and girls, and increases in dietary diversity. (This is more than twice the contribution by increases in productivity/food availability.) Agroecology, when done right, includes acknowledging and addressing issues of social equity and developing systems supporting autonomy and dignity for farmers across lines of class, creed, caste, and gender. It also leads to more diverse diets, as a key element of agroecology is supporting biodiversity on- and off-farm—including diversity in what you grow, and therefore, can eat.

Bad Trade Deals: Making the Bad Worse

The upcoming TPP and TTIP trade deals in the U.S.—and the “Fast Track” legislation that would allow President Obama to basically continue to write the deals in secret, with help from corporate observers—are poised to exacerbate the flaws of the GMO model. As IATP Vice President Ben Lilliston wrote last year: “The secrecy of the U.S.-EU trade negotiations, combined with the insider power of agribusiness and biotech companies, is a potentially toxic combination.” The threats posed by thissecrecy continue unabated, including the potential to pre-emptively shut down domestic attempts to label GMOs, not to mention the retaliation the U.S. government has considered against EU countries who don’t accept GM foods, as previously revealed by Wikileaks. The U.S. government wants to push back on the EU’s rational approach to GM foods based on the “precautionary principle” (i.e., “the burden of proof on the safety of an unnecessary product or technology is on the people who want to use it, not on the people who want to avoid it”). This is just one of many anti-democratic ideas lurking in these two trade deals—and GMOs are just one place where the deals could lock in corporate interests and ignore the interests and needs of farmers, everyday citizens and our democratic processes.

“No thank you” to a currently unnecessary new technology

Agricultural biotechnology is still a young area, and GMOs are a new-to-the-world technology. This means we cannot be fully sure of their effects—science can work only so fast and evidence can be slow to accumulate, especially when the effects are subtle or take years to appear. Further, the general public and independent (non-corporate) researchers have not been part of the decisions on risks and rewards, consolidated corporate interests have been.

The benefits of GMOs have not been clear, but some of their negative effects—particularly creating “superweeds”, encouraging increased pesticide use overall and putting farmers on treadmills of debt and technology where they have to take out loans to keep buying the newest thing in order to just keep pace—have become clear.

And we know that alternatives—such as the science, practice and social movements of agroecology—can do just as much or more to address the fundamental levers of food security: enhanced equality for women, dietary diversity and yes, agricultural yields. Let’s hope that Friday’s episode of Vice will help get across the evidence-based message that we don’t need GMOs, many people don’t want GMOs and in fact, with proper support for farmers and agroecology, we can do even better without them.

Dr. Chappell holds a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan, and has experience as a postdoctoral researcher in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University and as a professor of Environmental Science and Justice at Washington State University.

Further Reading

See talks from a wide variety of perspectives at the National Academy of Sciences study site: “A science-based look at Genetically Engineered crops”, recordings on the Past Events page:

“Stick to Physics”, on how Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comments misunderstand the nature GMOs, by evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace:

“Can ‘agroecology’ bring food security to Latin America?”

“The New Scientism”, touching on similar points, by developmental biologist Kamil Ahsan, at Jacobin magazine:

“Agroecology: Agroecosystem diversification” (subscription required)

“The Time Has Come for Agroecology”

“Agroecology can feed Africa – Not agribusiness”

“Complementary effects of species and genetic diversity on productivity and stability of sown grasslands” (subscription required)

“GMOs: Capitalism’s distortions of biological processes”, by genomicist Michael Friedman, at Monthly Review:

“Safety of genetically engineered foods: Approaches to assessing unintended health effects”, by National Academies Press/Institute of Medicine and National Research Council:

“No scientific consensus on GMO safety”, by Angelika Hilbeck et al., Environmental Sciences Europe:

“Key FDA Documents Revealing Hazards Of Genetically Engineered Foods—And Flaws With How The Agency Made Its Policy“ :

“Can GM maize benefit smallholders and increase food security? Lessons from the field in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa”, by Mary Hendrickson et al.,

“Interrogating the technocratic (neoliberal) agenda for agricultural development and hunger alleviation in Africa”, Moseley et al.,

“Plant Breeding vs. GMOs: Conventional Methods Lead the Way in Responding to Climate Change”, by Doug Gurian-Sherman,

“Getting Past Scientized Scrutiny”, by Montenegro de Wit and Iles,

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Latest ThinkForward blog (by Tara Ritter and MJC): Feeding the future through agroecology

by Tara Ritter  and Dr. M. Jahi Chappell

April 17, 2015

Used under creative commons license from Suzie’s Farm.

The devastating drought in California, home to much of the country’s fruit and vegetable production, is spurring discussions about the future of food production in a new age of climate change. When broaching the topic of solving the future food dilemma – feeding a growing population while using the same amount of land and facing more volatile weather events – the arguments typically fall into one of two camps: 1.) produce more food on less land through the use of technology, chemicals, and genetically modified seeds, or 2.) turn to decentralized and diversified farming practices that naturally boost soil health and farm resilience, such as diverse crop rotations, cover crops, reducing tillage where it makes sense, and building local food systems.

Feedstuffs, a weekly newspaper for agribusiness, recently ran an article on the topic of solving the future food dilemma that included results from an Oklahoma State University study called FooDS (Food Demand Survey). FooDS is a national online survey which includes at least 1,000 individuals each month, measuring consumers’ priorities, expectations, and awareness and concern about various food and agriculture issues, among other topics.

When such studies appear in an agribusiness publication, one might expect them to highlight the benefits of technological fixes to farming problems. However, the FooDS results found that “more than three-quarters of the consumers polled said adopting a more ‘natural’ agricultural production system – that includes additional local, organic and unprocessed foods – would be most effective at addressing the future food challenges rather than adopting a more ‘technological’ agricultural system.”

The three out of every four consumers advocating for a natural—as opposed to a technological—food system to solve the impending food crisis are in line with the science: farming grounded in agroecology is shown to not only boost and support robust crop yields in the long term, but help farms better withstand extreme weather events, and put the control of food systems in the hand of local communities.

Unfortunately, changing the minds of people who disagree with the efficacy of agroecology and promote increasingly technological farming systems is not as easy as presenting evidence. For example, work done at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication shows that people accept or reject beliefs based on their worldviews and who they trust. In other words, people are more likely to listen to trusted community members who share their worldview than to messengers they’ve never met and who view the world in a different way. Indeed, previous stories in Feedstuffs have reported that consumers trust farmers far more than scientists, and that scientists are viewed as “competent, but not entirely trustworthy,” arguably because scientists are not seen as warm or empathetic.

This makes the case that the way to build agricultural systems grounded in agroecology – the type of agricultural systems that three out of four consumers say that they want – is to work directly with farmers and consumers themselves. There’s a great need to develop more mutual understanding and trust between farmers and consumers. Closing the gaps between rural and urban communities will not only fulfill the stated desires of so many eaters and the desire of so many farmers for their work and livelihoods to be better understood, but it is also essential to building an agroecological, food sovereign world. Creating spaces and opportunities for real conversations and exchange will help us change from this system that “as individuals none of us would choose,” and bring us to a future where farmers do well and are well-supported, and everyone has access to healthy, sustainable, fairly produced and served food. We think this is a future we can all agree on.

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Losing humanity and other questions science doesn’t ask

Originally posted on Ideas for Sustainability:

By Joern Fischer

Prompted by a recent visit to the US, I am once again wondering what kind of science we ought to be doing for it to be of use in the sense of creating a better, more sustainable world. A woman in the street yesterday wanted me to (financially) support an anti-bullying campaign. She explained to me all the wrongs of school bullying, as well as the substantial legal costs that needed to be covered to fight it. While her cause was worthwhile the whole interaction left me somewhat befuddled – the insanity of appealing to the good will of a few to fix what is systemically messed up seemed almost unbearably pathetic; and a theme that to me (as an outside observer) seems to run through much of the US in particular. Electric cars, good-natured philanthropists and coffee sleeves made of “85% post-consumer fiber” will not fix…

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From PRNewswire: Nationwide Economist Network Tackles Important Question: Has The Future Economy Arrived?

“The E3 Network – Economics for Equity and Environment – examines the impacts of new business models such as community-supported agriculture, sharing platforms, community energy, green jobs initiatives.”

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