Monday, July 21, 2008

Ed Glaeser spanks Paul Ehrlich, and good

which the latter seems to really need (via Greg Mankiw):
Unfortunately, the authors' forays into policy making are the most painful part of the book. The authors have thrown together a left-wing wish list crammed with proposals that stray far from their science. How can environmental issues get better treatment in America? The Ehrlichs propose we "stop gerrymandering." Ah yes. The best thing to save the spotted owl would be to spend millions of hours trying to pass a constitutional amendment that would prevent legislatures, which seem likely to be overwhelmingly Democratic after the next census, from redrawing the political map.

On foreign policy, they recommend that "congress should insist in the short term that the executive branch work with Russia on what may be the most crucial environmental problem of all — the threat of a humanly and ecologically catastrophic nuclear war." Is it really wise, or constitutional, for Congress to pass a resolution that forces the hand of the executive branch in conducting diplomacy? Such a resolution would do wonders to ensure that the State department has as little bargaining power as possible in its dealings with Russia.

The authors are particularly ardent in their opposition to population growth. It is true, as they point out, that there are environmental costs of having more people — all of us use natural resources and energy and bear some responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. But there are also benefits, especially to the people being born. Each new person has a brain that might come up with new technologies that could reduce humanity's environmental impact. As an urban economist, my life's research has focused on the many ways in which we are all enriched by the people around us. Are there many parents who think that the world would have been better off if they had decided to have one less child?

The Ehrlichs are right that we face real environmental threats, but there are better and worse ways of facing those threats. Today, we need sophisticated policies that weigh costs and benefits, not more warnings. Ironically, the very success of environmental alarmism has convinced many of us that the environment is too important to be left to the environmentalists.

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