Thursday, April 28, 2011

Trade is Made of WIN!

The folks at the Mercatus Center producing the new LearnLiberty video series are wonderful, brilliant people. Full disclosure, I had a meeting with their director a week and a half ago to pitch my own services (assuming I actually have any time) to produce some videos for them as well.

I'd been meaning to post a few of these videos regardless, but there is actually a special reason I'm doing so tonight.

The other day, I posted a link from to Facebook on 5 Ways People Are Trying to Save the World (That Don't Work). The 5 things and my own comments about them, in descending order, were:
  • #5. Buying Organically Grown Food: More expensive, worse on the planet (because it consumes more resources to produce the same quantity of food), no healthier for you. Genius.
  • ‎#4. Rejecting Vaccinations: Obvious, isn't it? Not to some people. Seriously though... Vaccines are a good thing. Get 'em.
  • #3. Recycling: This one is more interesting and more subtle... It uses enormous resources (including human labor) to recycle products. Many times, the energy expenditure - which often means carbon emissions, water usage, etc. - is way more to recycle some material than it is to just use new stuff. Additionally, the energy expenditure varies by material. Paper is easier to recycle than aluminum, for instance. The cracked article also makes the point that sometimes even *reuse* is more wasteful. I'm less convinced on that point, only because I understand that wealth is the cumulative goods & services people actually use and need on a daily basis... The more goods we have that we don't need to constantly re-make, the more human effort can be expended on creating new things and bringing produced goods to more people - thus raising the standard of living for everybody. Reuse is better overall.
  • #2. Using Antibacterial Soap: I'm pretty sure everybody knows about this one by now. Stop making super-resistant strains of bacteria! Let your immune system get a daily work out. You'll be healthier in the long run!
  • #1. Buying Carbon Offsets: If you're an idiot, then you might not understand why this is a massive fail. Al Gore and his carbon credit company is counting on there being a lot of idiots out there.
Somewhat predictably, the big one that set people off was the "organic" food one.

Over the course of the discussion I've come to discover that many people are rather confused on a number of issues related to organically grown food. But the one thing I really want to set straight right here isn't so much about whether or not your food is "organic" (it all is, by the way, as the word "organic" is nothing more than clever branding), but about trade.

One thing people keep coming back to on the Facebook thread is this idea that organic farming is better for the planet than so-called "factory" farming, and that buying "local" foods is better than buying foods produced in other parts of the world.

Yet... None of that is usually the case, and thanks to my friend Art Carden, Professor of Economics at Rhodes College and the Mercatus Center's "LearnLiberty" project, I have 3 excellent videos that quickly and effectively explain why:

Trade is Made of Win - Part I: Wealth Creation

Trade is Made of Win - Part II: Cooperation

Let's pause here for a moment. What does this have to do with local vs. non-local trade? Everything. Note how in both examples, more goods were produced with trade and with specialization (division of labor) than without... This is always going to be the case.

For example, I do not have a green thumb and embarrassing as this is to admit, I have never caught a single fish in my entire life.

When I was in Boy Scouts, I got my fishing merit badge (which was required) by going to a stocked lake, having somebody else ultimately catch a fish for me on my line, and then gutting and cleaning said fish myself to at least show that I had that skill. I'm a failure as a fisherman.

But you might not be... I don't know. Let's say that you are an excellent fisherman... If you are and we were stranded on a desert island, it would behoove you to do all the fishing, and for me to spend all my time doing something else, and then we would trade output for output and both be far better off than if we split our time doing things we were not good at.

Of course everybody pretty much gets that basic idea. But most people fail to expand it out to the rest of the world. Even if you're a great fisherman compared to your buddies, you realize that there are people who catch hundreds of fish each day as professionals working on boats in oceans and rivers world-wide. The same is true for producing anything else.

Some local farmers might produce the best food in the most efficient ways possible... But then again, maybe they don't. Maybe someone in Columbia does a better job. Or someone in Canada, or Germany, or China. Maybe people in Wisconsin, Oregon & Vermont make better cows milk cheeses than people in Florida... And maybe people in Florida make better oranges than people in Alaska, who probably produce better Alaskan King Crab legs than people in Nebraska, who might produce better USDA Prime Angus Beef than......... Yeah, you get the idea.

Local isn't always better. In fact, for probably 95% of the things you need and want on a daily basis, it's going to be much worse than non-local. But with trade, that doesn't matter. Everybody wins!

And of course, on a more preachy note... Prices help people determine what goods are being produced the most efficiently, and your own judgment will tell you if what's been produced is up to your standards, but if your local farmer isn't able to provide a better product at a lower price than a non-local farmer, not only would I encourage you not to support your local farmer, but I would say you were downright foolish if you did so.

You'd be contributing to the continued waste of resources - particularly including human labor - and the production of inferior products.

Don't do that!

If instead, you trade and cooperate with everyone regardless of where they are, prices can help coordinate the division of labor until everybody is really doing what they're best at and all over the world, people are utilizing world-wide resources as effectively as it's possible to do in this flawed universe.

Buying local regularly just results in waste... and higher prices to you as a consumer to boot, so dumb all the way around.

However... Now we come to the truly key clip...

Trade is Made of Win - Part III: Conservation

Organic farming is in many ways, primitive farming. Without taking advantage of the huge number of advances in biotechnology that make crops more robust and have higher yields, organic farmers condemn themselves to using more "inputs" for the same number of "outputs", as an economist might say.

It takes a greater land area to produce the same amount of food that modern commercial farming techniques can produce. So putting aside any complaints about the "quality" of the food (which isn't the subject of this post, but is absolutely no different as study after study confirms), on a pure numbers basis, organic farming is more resource intensive and is thus more wasteful per unit of food produced than alternative methods.

Generally speaking, it's worse for the planet in general to be producing goods at lower levels of efficiency, because we're using up more resources than we absolutely have to.

But much worse, in my opinion, is the human cost to all of this nonsense.

There are billions of hungry and starving people in this world. Organic farming produces less food by far than we know it is physically possible to produce with our available technology and resources. This means that in spite of the billions needing to eat, purely for the sake of the psychological (not physiological!) desires of a comparatively small group of incredibly wealthy "Westerners", we are under producing and contributing to a much hungrier world than we would otherwise have if we didn't have to go through this organic nonsense.

So... I'm making two big points here.

First, organic farming is a waste of human labor and resources compared to what we could be doing in food production, and that is worse on the environment inherently - since we're being comparatively less efficient. Bad for the planet in that way.

Second, organic farming is directly contributing to the continued starvation of billions of people who do not need to be starving!

I can't stress that second point enough. We have the technology and ingenuity to provide for the material needs of far more people than we are providing for as a species right now, and anything that inhibits that is, in my view, utterly cruel. So people who support all these kinds of primitive means of production, forgoing important capital developments like biotechnology - primarily due to unfounded, hyperbolized paranoia - are actively discouraging the development of a more prosperous world.

I do not like that at all.

No comments: