Summers receieves flack for his tactless pollution-control memo as VP of World Bank in 1991
As Christopher Robin pulls us down the stairs towards climate chaos — bump! bump! bump! — we might think that there’s something else we could do, if only we could stop bumping for a moment and think about it.
That relentless slam to the back of the head is called economics, and it’s used to convince us that, while keeping the climate from tipping into some wild new state that humans have never experienced might sound good, it really doesn’t pencil out.
The estimable Sam Smith unearths this gem of economic logic while revealing something very important about Larry Summers, who apparently includes one B. Obama in his fan club:
In 1991, Larry Summers signed a memo when he was vice president and chief economist of the World Bank concerning the handling of pollution in less wealthy lands. When an excerpt of the memo was leaked, more than a few people became upset. Summers initially took responsibility for the memo but claimed it was satirical. Later, blame for writing the memo was taken by aide Lant Pritchett. Pritichett went on to lecture at the Harvard Kennedy School and Summers went on to be president of Harvard.
If the memo was in fact intended to be humorous, whoever wrote it didn’t understand that humor used against the poor and defenseless is not satire but ridicule and bigotry. The fact that Summers thought it funny should disqualify him from any government position.
‘Dirty’ Industries: Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]? I can think of three reasons:
1) The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.
2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.
3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income elasticity. The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostrate cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is is 200 per thousand. Also, much of the concern over industrial atmosphere discharge is about visibility impairing particulates. These discharges may have very little direct health impact. Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare enhancing. While production is mobile the consumption of pretty air is a non-tradable.
The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization.
While Summers and Pritchett survived the memo incident, the Brazilian secretary of the environment was not as fortunate. He was fired after writing to Summers:
"Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane … Your thoughts [provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists’ concerning the nature of the world we live in … If the World Bank keeps you as vice president it will lose all credibility."
Composer John Halle has memorialized this seedy memo and the Brazilian official’s reply with a musical number performed by the Sequitur Ensemble, Kristin Nordeval and Dora Ohrenstein, sopranos.