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Robert Stavins' Posts

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Misconceptions about water pricing

Approach water management as an economic problem

Throughout the United States, water management has been approached primarily as an engineering problem, rather than an economic one. Water supply managers are reluctant to use price increases as water conservation tools, instead relying on non-price demand management techniques, such as requirements for the adoption of specific technologies and restrictions on particular uses. In my March 3 post, "As Reservoirs Fall, Prices Should Rise," I wrote about how -- in principle -- price can be used by water managers as an effective and efficient instrument to manage this scarce resource. In a white paper, "Managing Water Demand: Price vs. Non-Price …

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A tale of two taxes

Let’s call a gas tax the ‘All-American Energy-Independence Assessment’

Whether they are called "revenue enhancements" or "user charges," fear of the political consequences of taxes restricts debate on energy and environmental policy options in Washington. In a March 7 post on "green jobs," in which I argued that it is not always best to try to address two challenges with a single policy instrument, I also noted that in some cases such dual-purpose policy instruments can be a good idea, and I gave gasoline taxes as an example. Although a serious recession is clearly not the time to expect political receptivity to such a proposal, the time will come …

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Aparting shots

An argument for separating climate action and economic stimulus — sometimes

The January 12, 2009 issue of The New Yorker includes a well-written and in some ways inspiring article by Elizabeth Kolbert, profiling Van Jones, founder and president of Green for All. In the article, "Greening the Ghetto: Can a Remedy Serve for Both Global Warming and Poverty," Kolbert includes the following passage: When I presented Jones's arguments to Robert Stavins, a professor of business and government at Harvard who studies the economics of environmental regulation, he offered the following analogy: "Let's say I want to have a dinner party. It's important that I cook dinner, and I'd also like to …

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Pay up

As reservoirs fall, water prices should rise

Last week, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency and warned of possible mandatory water rationing as the state struggled through its third consecutive year of drought. This well-intentioned response to the latest water crisis should not come as a surprise. Whenever prolonged droughts take place -- anywhere in the United States -- public officials can be expected to give impassioned speeches, declare emergencies, and impose mandatory restrictions on water use. Citizens are frequently prohibited from watering lawns, and businesses are told to prepare emergency plans to cut their usage. A day after the restrictions are announced, the …

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The myth of simple market solutions

No particular policy instrument is appropriate for all environmental problems

I introduced my previous post by noting that there are several prevalent myths regarding how economists think about the environment, and I addressed the "myth of the universal market" ­-- the notion that economists believe that the market solves all problems. In response, I noted that economists recognize that in the environmental domain, perfectly functioning markets are the exception, not the rule. Governments can try to correct such market failures, for example by restricting pollutant emissions. It is to these government interventions that I turn this time. A second common myth is that economists always recommend simple market solutions for …

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Mythbusting

The myth of the universal market … debunked!

Communication among economists, other social scientists, natural scientists, and lawyers is far from perfect. When the topic is the environment, discourse across disciplines is both important and difficult. Economists themselves have likely contributed to some misunderstandings about how they think about the environment, perhaps through enthusiasm for market solutions, perhaps by neglecting to make explicit all of the necessary qualifications, and perhaps simply by the use of technical jargon. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that there are several prevalent and very striking myths about how economists think about the environment. Because of this, my colleague Don Fullerton, a …

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Do something, dammit

Opportunity for a defining moment

The inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States is a defining moment in American history. For most Americans and countless others around the world, this is an inspiring political transition. The question we must face, however, is whether compelling inspiration will lead to effective action. As I wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed (November 12, 2008) one week after election day, environment and energy issues -- particularly climate change policy -- provide a microcosm of the forces that are shaping and will shape the actions of the new administration and Congress. About eight years ago, …

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