Category Archives: Environment

“Pollution for Promotion,” R. Jia (2012)

Ruixue Jia is on the job market from IIES in Stockholm, and she has the good fortune to have a job market topic which is very much au courant. In China, government promotions often depend both on the inherent quality of the politician and on how connected you are to current leaders; indeed, a separate paper by Jia finds that promotion probability in China depends only on the interaction of economic growth and personal connections rather than either factor by itself. Assume that a mayor can choose how much costly effort to exert. The mayor chooses how much dirty and clean technology – complements in production – to use, with the total amount of technology available an increasing function of the mayor’s effort. The mayor may personally dislike dirty technology. For any given bundle of technology, the observed economic output is higher the higher the mayor’s inherent quality (which he does not know). The central government, when deciding on promotions, only observes economic output.

Since mayors with good connections have a higher probability of being promoted for any level of output in their city, the marginal return to effort and the marginal return to dirty technology are increasing in the connectedness of the mayor. For any given distaste for pollution among the mayor, a more connected mayor will mechanically want to substitute clean for dirty technology since higher output is more valuable to him for career concerns while the marginal cost of distaste for pollution has not changed. Further, by a Le Chatelier argument, higher marginal returns to output increase the optimal effort choice, which allows a higher budget to purchase technology, dirty tech included. To the extent that the government cares about limiting the (unobserved) use of dirty tech, this is “almost” the standard multitasking concern: the folly of rewarding A and hoping for B. Although in this case, empirically there is no evidence that the central government cares about promoting local politicians who are good for the environment!

How much do local leaders increase pollution (and simultaneously speed up economic growth!) in exchange for a shot at a better job? The theory above gives us some help. We see that the same politician will substitute in dirty technology if, in some year, his old friends get on the committee that assigns promotions (the Politburo Standing Committee, or PSC, in China’s case). This allows us to see the effect of the Chinese incentive system on pollution even if we know nothing about the quality of each individual politician or whether highly-connected politicians get plum jobs in low pollution regions, since every effect we find is at the within-politician level. Using a diff-in-diff, Jia finds that in the year after a politician’s old friend makes the PSC, sulfur dioxide goes up 25%, a measure of river pollution goes up by a similar amount, industrial GDP rises by 15%, and non-industrial GDP does not change. So it appears that China’s governance institution does incentivize governors, although whether those incentives are good or bad for welfare depends on how you trade off pollution and growth in your utility function.

Good stuff. A quick aside, since what I like about Jia’s work is that she makes an attempt to more than simply find a clever strategy for getting internal validity. Many other recent job market stars – Dave Donaldson and Melissa Dell, for instance – have been equally good when it comes to caring about more than just nice identification. But such care is rare indeed! It has been three decades since we, supposedly, “took the ‘con’ out of Econometrics”. And yet an unbearable number of papers are still floating around which quite nicely identify a relationship of interest in a particular dataset, then go on to give only the vaguest and most unsatisfying remarks concerning external validity. That’s a much worse con than bad identification! Identification, by definition, can only hold ceteris paribus. Even perfect identification of some marginal effect tells me absolutely nothing about the magnitude of that effect when I go to a different time, or a different country, or a more general scenario. The only way – the only way! – to generalize an internally valid result, and the only way to explain why that result is the way it is, is to use theory. A good paper puts the theoretical explanation and the specific empirical case examined in context with other empirical papers on the same general topic, rather than stopping after the identification is cleanly done. And a good empirical paper needs to explain, and needs to generalize, because we care about unemployment (not unemployment in border counties of New Jersey in the 1990s) and we care about the effect of military training on labor supply (not the effect of the Vietnam War on labor supply in the few years following), etc. If we really want the credibility revolution in empirical economics to continue, let’s spend less seminar and referee time worrying only about internal validity, and more time shutting down the BS that is often passed off as “explanation”.

November 2012 working paper. Jia also has an interesting paper about the legacy of China’s treaty ports, as well as a nice paper (a la Nunn and Qian) on the importance of the potato in world history (really! I may be a biased Dorchester-born Mick, but still, the potato has been fabulously important).

“Welfare Gains from Optimal Pollution Regulation,” J. M. Abito (2012)

Mechanism design isn’t just some theoretical curiosity or a trick for examining auctions. It has, in the hands of skilled practitioners like David Baron, Jean-Jacques Laffont, Jean Tirole and David Besanko (an advisor of mine!), had a huge impact on economic regulation. Consider regulating a natural monopoly that has private information about its costs. In the standard sorting problem, I am going to have to pay information rents to firms that have low costs, since otherwise they will claim to have high costs and thus get to charge higher prices. If funds are costly – and the standard estimate in US public finance is that the marginal dollar of taxation imposes 30 cents of deadweight loss on society – then those information rents are a welfare loss and not just a transfer. Hence I may be willing to sacrifice some allocative efficiency by, for example, randomizing over all firms who claim to be at least somewhat efficient rather than paying a large information rent to learn exactly who the efficient firm is. Laffont’s 1994 Econometric Society address covers this basic point quite nicely.

Mike Abito, on the job market here at Northwestern, notes that few real-world policies actually take account of this tradeoff. Consider a regulator who wants polluting firms to abate their pollution when economically feasible. If the distribution of abatement costs is widely dispersed, then low cost firms have a large incentive to claim high costs and therefore avoid paying for abatement. Especially in this case, it may be worthwhile to sacrifice some allocative efficiency in an optimal pollution abatement scheme, having low cost firms not abate as much as they would if the regulator wanted all information about each firm’s costs. In order to design the optimal pollution regulation scheme, then, we need to know the distribution of marginal abatement costs, which is not something we know immediately from data. In particular, consider regulating SO2 among power plants. Hence, to the world of theory, my friends! (And, briefly, why not just sell pollution permits? If you give away the permits to each plant, then the same informational issue arises, and you do not earn any tax revenue that could offset distortionary taxes elsewhere in the economy.)

Let a power plant, at some cost and effort level, produce some bundle of electricity and SO2. Observed costs alone are not enough if firms have inherently high costs, since firms may appear to have high costs when in fact they are simply exerting low effort. Abito notices that power plants are both rate regulated – meaning that they are natural monopolies whose rates are set by a government agency that estimates their costs – and regulated for pollution reasons. By writing down an auditing game, you see that in the periods the firm is being watched for rate-setting purposes, they exert low effort. They do exert effort in future periods, since any cost reduction comes to them as profits. Indeed, if you look at, for instance, heat generation during years where the plants are being watched, the amount of heat generated declines by roughly the same amount as effort is estimated to decline in the model, so the hypothesized equilibrium of the auditing game is not totally out of line with the data.

What this wedge between cost efficiency in years when the plant is being watched and in other years gives us is an estimate of the cost function, including disutility of effort, which generates some bundle of SO2 and electricity. In fact, it gives us just enough of an exclusion restriction to estimate the distribution of marginal abatement costs of SO2 using techniques from dynamic structural IO. Once we have estimated that distribution, we can solve for numerical estimates of the welfare gain from various abatement policies. Laffont long ago showed that the optimal pollution regulation under this private information, assuming we know the distribution of marginal abatement costs, involves a bundle of type-dependent emission taxes and type-dependent transfers which give the least efficient firm zero profits, but which also lead to less effort and less pollution abatement for more efficient firms that you would get with full information; again, this is just the tradeoff between information rents and allocative efficiency. Such a heterogeneous policy might be tough to implement in practice, however. Welfare gains from the optimal policy instead of a uniform emissions standard, given the estimated distribution of marginal abatement costs, are equal to about 10% of the entire variable cost of the average plant. A uniform emissions tax (rather than a standard which imposes a maximum amount of emissions) captures something like 60-70% of this improvement, and is easier to implement.

More generally, the gain to society of using regulatory regimes that condition on the underlying properties of each firm really depends on properties like the distribution of marginal abatement costs which atheoretically can never be known, but which with the use of proper structure can actually be estimated. What is particularly cool here is that, unlike most earlier work, the underlying firm properties are estimated without assuming that the regulator is already optimizing, an assumption that is simply false in the case of pollution regulation. Good stuff.

November 2012 Working Paper (Not available on IDEAS). There are a number of interesting papers in environmental economics on the job market this year. Lint Barrage at Yale discusses how carbon taxes and other taxes should interact in optimal fiscal policy. In particular, since carbon in the atmosphere lowers the productive capacity of assets (like agricultural land) in the future, not taxing carbon is identical to taxing capital, producing the same distortion. When the economy already has distortionary taxation, the optimal rate of carbon taxation will need to be adjusted. Joseph Shapiro from MIT estimates the environmental damage from CO2 produced in international trade. It is two orders of magnitude smaller than the gains from that trade, and a small carbon tax on international shipping is optimal. In a separate paper, Shapiro and coauthors find that US mortality during heat waves declined massively over the twentieth century, that all of the decline appears to be linked to adoption of air conditioning, and hence that mitigation of some negative health impacts of climate change in poor countries will likely be handled by A/C. Since A/C uses electricity, non-carbon methods of generating that electricity are critical if we want to avoid making climate change worse while we mitigate these impacts.

“Buffalo Hunt: International Trade and the Virtual Extinction of the North American Bison,” M. S. Taylor (2011)

In less than 10 years near the end of the 19th century, the US buffalo population fell from up to 15 million to fewer than 100. This near extinction is directly linked to much of the early environmental movement in America, as it was directly witnessed by Roosevelt and Muir, among others. Historians have long asked why the slaughter was so punctuated. Was it a result of the railroad easing access? Indian hunts made easier with the gun? A US government policy aimed at starving out troublesome tribes? In a new AER, Taylor presents quite interesting cliometric evidence that another source is primarily responsible: a technological development on the other side of the Atlantic.

Until 1870, buffalo were hunted mainly for meat or, in the case of the Northern Herd during winter, their heavy robes. The meat rotted relatively quickly and was difficult to transport – a fact you know if you’ve played the old computer game Oregon Trail. There was no simple way to tan the hides and create leather. But sometime around 1870 or ’71, German and English inventors discovered how to tan buffalo. This discovery made the shooting of buffalo much more lucrative. Ox leather was also roughly a substitute for buffalo leather, so even a massive slaughter of buffalo, which represented at the peak only a small percentage of world hides, would have had little impact on the price of hides. Following the invention, kills of buffalo and exports to England and Germany of buffalo hides – a series constructed using a nifty set of assumptions, actually – soared. The Southern Herd was totally depleted by 1879. In 1881, following the defeat of the Sioux, relatively safe hunting was again possible among the (smaller) Northern Herd, which itself was depleted within a couple years.

Evidence is provided that this increase in exports was related to the tanning technology, and was not simply the result of a US supply or a different European demand shock. The relative share of hides in Europe that came from the US soared; this was not true of Canada and other countries, which did not have access to the tanning knowledge. Canada saw no large increase in US-exported hides during the buffalo slaughter. The raw number of exports, plus reasonable estimates of wastage, roughly matches the size of the slaughter.

The other stories about buffalo extinction are less compelling. No direct evidence has ever been found of a US policy to exterminate the buffalo, though there are certainly instances of individuals or groups from the Army killing wantonly. The railroad arrived in the region of the Southern Herd a few years before the slaughter began; the large increase in buffalo killed was only seen after the tanning technology was invented.

What does this tell us about today? It is another example of potential harms when a country joins the international market. A lack of property rights plus demand for exports can be devastating to newly integrating countries. This suggests that development plans and loosening of trade restriction may, in some cases, indeed best be linked with environmental regulation – the buffalo slaughter, Taylor argues, would not have occurred as it did if the US had been in a state of technological autarky.

http://works.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=taylor (2007 Working Paper. Final version in December 2011 AER. I see this paper listed as an R&R at AER as far back as 2008 – yet more evidence of the utterly ridiculous publication lags in economics. Are journal editors aware that when lags reach 4 or 5 years, to say nothing of longer ones, the journal itself is in danger of becoming useless? Or that editors in other fields, and some in economics like the J. Urban E., seem to have problem running peer review and revision in well under a year?)

“Buy Coal!: A Case for Supply Side Environmental Policy,” B. Harstad (2012)

The vast majority of world nations are not currently participating in agreements to limit global warming. Many countries cut down their rainforests in a way harmful to global social welfare. Even worse, attempts to improve things by the countries that do care can be self-defeating because of the problem of “leakage”, or what we economists just call supply and demand. Imagine Sweden cuts emissions by lowering domestic demand for oil. That lowers world demand for oil, lowering world price, hence increasing quantity demanded elsewhere. Boycotts may work in a similar way: when consumers in Canada stop buying some rare wood, the price of that wood falls, increasing the quantity of wood consumed in other countries.

What to do? Well, Coase tells us that externalities are in many cases not a worry when property rights are properly defined. Instead of trying to limit demand side consumption, why not limit supply? In particular, imagine that one set of countries (call them Scandinavia) imagines some harm from consumption of oil, and another set doesn’t care (let’s call them Tartary, after my favorite long-lost empire). Oil is costly to produce, and there is no entry, which isn’t a bad assumption for something like oil. Let there be a market for oil deposits – and you may have noticed from the number of Chinese currently laying pipe in Africa that such a market exists!

Let (q*,p*) be the quantity and price that clears the world market. Let h be the marginal harm to Scandinavia from global oil consumption. Let qopt be the socially optimal level of consumption from the perspective of Scandinavia, and popt the price that clears the market at that quantity. The Scandinavians just need to buy all the oil deposits whose cost of extraction is higher than popt minus h and lower than popt. Once they own the rights, they place an extraction tax on those deposits equal to the harm, h. With such a policy, no one exploits these marginal oil fields because of the tax, and no one exploits any more costly-to-extract fields because the cost of extraction is lower than the world oil price. There are many well-known mechanisms for buying the marginal oil fields at a cost lower than the harm inflicted on Scandinavia if the oil were exploited: the exact cost is particularly low if a few countries own all the world oil, since that country will benefit from Scandinavia’s policy as the world oil price rises following Scandinavia’s purchase of the marginal fields. Note that this policy is also nice in that oil, after the policy, costs exactly the same in Tartary and Scandinavia, so there is no worry about firms moving to the country with lax environmental policies. Another benefit is that it avoids the time inconsistency of related dynamic problems, such as using subsidies for green technology until they are invented, then getting rid of the subsidies.

There are some policies like this currently in place: for example, Norway’s environmental agency buys the rights to forest tracts and keeps them unexploited. But note that you have to buy the right tract to avoid leakage: you want to buy the tract that is worth exploiting, but just barely. This is great for you as the environmentalist, though, since this will be the cheapest tract to buy given the limited profit to be made if it is cut down!

This paper should also suggest to you other ways to enact environmental policy when facing leakage: political recalcitrance doesn’t mean we are completely out of options. The problem is that you want to decrease quantity consumed in your country – whose policies you control – without causing quantity consumed to rise elsewhere as price falls. The Pigouvian solution is to make the marginal suppliers unprofitable, or make the marginal demanders lower their willingness to pay. One way to do this without tax policy is to introduce products that are substitutes for the polluting good: clean energy, for instance. Or introduce complements for products which are substitutes for the polluting product. There are many more!

http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/faculty/harstad/htm/deposits.pdf (January 2012 draft – forthcoming in the Journal of Political Economy)

“Cents and Sensibility: Economic Valuation and the Nature of ‘Nature’,” M. Fourcade (2011)

The US, certainly, is a “cost-benefit state,” as Cass Sunstein puts it, and much of the world has gone the same way. No major policy can be enacted without weighing the monetary costs and benefits. Even legal cases, in large part, involve such a reckoning. This isn’t to say that cost-benefit analysis is strictly good – see Marx on commodification, or more recently Gneezy and Rustichini’s famous paper on Israeli daycare centers. These basic criticisms aside, though, cost-benefit analysis does seem practical and technocratic and, indeed, democratic: we let the numbers rather the agent of the state do the deciding when it comes to policy. Alas, things aren’t so simple, as Marion Fourcade points out in the present paper from a recent issue of the American Journal of Sociology.

What’s not so simple is, for non-market goods, how we ought to construct the costs and the benefits in the first place. Examples include the value of human life, compensation for injury, “pain and suffering”, and destruction of nature, among others. Fourcade considers a recent example: court settlements following oil spills on the coast of France in 1978 and Alaska in 1989, the latter, of course, being Exxon Valdez. Ignoring direct payments for immediate cleanup and restitution to fisherman, there was a huge difference in what the oil companies paid for their damage to “nature”. In particular, the American case involved a massive payment for damages to Prince William Sound incurred by non-locals, whereas the French spill involved no payments of any kind for destruction to nature directly.

The reasons why are sociohistorical, of course. In the US, land has long been held by the government (today, 13% of the US is federally owned), and the conception of a “public trust” or government interest in preserving waterways, forests, mines, etc. for the future use of citizens has a longstanding history. France, with many conflicting local land claims, centuries-long patterns of regional settlement, and near-nonexistence of federal land, instead tends to be focused on the national patrimony, a conception that tends to see nature through the lens of her local users. For instance, France did not establish a national park until the 1960s; if you’re a hiker, you can’t help but notice the difference between a French Grande RandonnĂ©e, with cabins and good food every night, and America’s long distance trails like the Pacific Crest, with weeks-long detours into wilderness. Conceptions of the role of money and morality also differ across cultures, in the obvious direction: the French are more skeptical than Americans of putting monetary value of things outside the traditional economic sphere.

These sociohistorical factors led to different ideas about how to present evidence of damage to courts. The French, organized generally at the level of a group of villages where the spill was most prominent, basically just counted up the amount of biomass destroyed, valued this at market price (without accounting for movement on the demand curve that such biomass might cause), and threw in the cost of restoration of the shore. The Americans (under guide from Solow, among others), at the level of the federal government, attempted to construct a “contingent value” of the existence of a pristine Prince William Sound. All Americans, not just locals, were seen as relevant economic actors. Surveys found the median US household would pay $31 for the existence of such a bay, whether or not they might eventually use it in the future, which gives a contingent valuation of $2.8 billion for a clean shore. (We’ll ignore the many problems with contingent valuation here, only noting that two of my favorite economists, Peter Diamond and Jerry Hausman, have a lengthy 1994 JEP on the topic that, indeed, may be too nice; in any case, my distrust of learning about the economy from surveys is probably too extreme.) That figure is orders of magnitude more than the French settlement.

Fourcade also briefly discusses performativity at the end of the article. If you don’t know the concept, performativity basically just makes the point that social scientists affect the social world by their research: game theory or whatever economic concept you like is not exogenous to society, but rather is “performed” over time. In the case of valuation of nature, the use of contingent valuation in Exxon Valdez led to a large settlement that was partially used to fund ecosystem research that has found interesting results about the links between animals in the food chain which justifies higher payments in future natural disasters than those used in Valdez.

One final point I’m curious about: would this be published in a top economics journal? The most famous papers about contingent valuation that I know – Hausman’s critique and the Kakadu Park paper – appeared in a book and in Oxford Economic Papers, neither of which are prominent for economists. I’d like to think an interesting article like the present one could find a home in a top 5 journal, or in J. Envir. Econ. at least – after adjustments to the style to better fit the norms in economics, of course – but I’m not sure what reviewers would make of the methodology. What do you think?

http://sociology.berkeley.edu/profiles/fourcade/pdf/AJSIII_Published.pdf (Final published version – big thumbs up to Fourcade for good Green Open Access practice! May she be emulated by her fellow sociologists!)

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