Unquenchable

8 March 2010 at 11:46 am 4 comments

| Dick Langlois |

I attended an interesting lecture on Thursday, part of the University’s Edwin Way Teale lecture series on the environment. Normally these lectures do not tend, shall we say, to take perspectives that O&M readers would find congenial. But this lecture, by Robert Glennon of the University of Arizona Law School, was interesting along a number of dimensions. The talk was based on his book Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It. Here is the abstract:

From manufactured snow for tourists in Atlanta to trillions of gallons of water flushed down the toilet each year, Dr. Robert Glennon reveals the heady extravagances and everyday inefficiencies that are sucking the nation dry. The looming catastrophe remains hidden as the government diverts supplies from one area to another to keep water flowing from the tap. But sooner rather than later, the shell game has to end. And when it does, shortages will threaten not only the environment, but every aspect of American life. America must make hard choices — and Glennon’s answers are fittingly provocative. He proposes market-based solutions that value water as both a commodity and a fundamental human right.

The talk was interesting not only in that I learned a few things about the screwed-up water system in the U. S. (the broad contours of which I was vaguely familiar with) but also in that it presented an interesting case study in rhetoric. Glennon spent most of the talk revving up the environmentalist crowd, with lots of show and tell about the effects of bad water policy and a tour through various command-and-control policies that environmentalists might think of to fix the situation. (He even paused to make fun of Ann Coulter’s claim that the flush toilet is man’s greatest invention.) But Glennon’s bottom line, revealed at the very end, is that the only thing that will fix the problem is properly assigning property rights and trading those rights on markets. This was the conclusion I was expecting, not only because of the abstract but also because Glennon has an NBER Working Paper with Gary Libecap. Maybe this is the way to go in selling market-based solutions.

Entry filed under: - Langlois -, Food and Agriculture, Institutions, Law and Economics, Public Policy / Political Economy.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David Gerard  |  8 March 2010 at 3:28 pm

    That’s a fascinating question. One of the key policy-relevant questions about “renewable” resources is — how bad do things have to get before people actually buy into markets as an alternative to the generally horrible status quo. Certainly, Gary’s work shows that people will leave a lot of money on the table fighting over distributional issues, especially when the alternative is to “turn it over to the market.”

    Of course, it depends on what “markets” means, too. My reading of the current climate change “cap-and-trade” versus “tax” suggests that the cap-and-trade might end up being a rather substantial source of political goodies to give away.

  • 2. srp  |  8 March 2010 at 8:34 pm

    Wildavsky’s work on cultural theory suggests that this attempt at “market environmentalism” is likely to be an uphill struggle. The groups most amenable to hearing about collective environmental dangers are least receptive to market rhetoric and solutions and vice versa. You also have to distinguish between tradeable rights and “free” enterprise–the latter allows private producers of water to profit from selling it to thirsty people, an anathema for the collectivist leaners.

  • 3. David Hoopes  |  9 March 2010 at 8:59 pm

    I think a big problem is it’s difficult to know when to believe people. Anyone who lives in CA as I do should know we’re always on thin ice with our water supply. Hyperbole is so common in politics. It’s hard to know what any given book tour is really about. Hate to end up on the wrong side of a massive water shortage (again, always possible here in southern cal—giant desert). Nice post Dick.

  • 4. Robin JG  |  15 March 2010 at 4:51 am

    I like the blog http://www.aguanomics.com by David Zetland, UC Berkeley. He’s usually good on water.

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