Sunday, September 20, 2009

Determining The Cost Of Pollution Is Hard (Which Makes Finding The Right Government Policy Hard, Too)

This past week in my principles classes I talked about areas where economists generally agree that the government needs to intervene in the economy and that the free market does not give us the best outcome (although economists will disagree about how much intervention we should have). One was the area of negative externalities, that is, things like pollution. One solution is to tax pollution (or the activities that cause them). The ideal would be to tax each unit of pollution exactly as much as the damage it causes in dollars. If each ton of steel causes $100 in environmental damage, then we should tax each ton of steel $100. There is a danger that we tax steel too much and we end up with too little steel produced.

But how do we figure out the cost of each ton of steel produced? Apparently, this may not be easy as the article Hate Calculus? Try Counting Cow Carbon shows. Here is the intro:

"Shoppers soon will be able to buy everything from meat to moccasins based on a number that purports to tell them the products' environmental impact.

Manufacturers and retailers across the globe are working to measure their products' carbon footprints for a variety of reasons, and all of the efforts have one thing in common: The results have the appearance of precision.

But all the decimal points in the world can't hide the fact that measuring carbon footprints is inexact. It is clouded by varying methodologies and definitions -- not to mention guesses."

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