Thursday, September 6, 2007


Message no. 571[Branch from no. 558] Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Thursday, March 8, 2007 4:33pm Subject: Re: LET THEM EAT CAKE...

My wife and I adore your comments Pat! Thanks for all you have said about Sybille's student's post and our reply, and for your insights into what motivates people. I agree that fear is the motivating factor in most of these situations, and that fear of loss is the greatest fear -- compounding the fear of the unknown (for what is it we fear in an unknown environment but that we might lose something upon entering it?). My problem with "the rich" as a class ("the haves") is historically an almost universal refusal to re-invest capital gains into the creation of an ever larger safety net for themselves and all of us. It reeks of laziness and stupidity when the most privileged in society do not make use of their differential wealth in both material and educational goods to strive for the elimination of deadweight losses and inefficiences that are responsible for most of the poverty in the world. We live in an environment of abundance and renewable surplus. I believe in the motto I learned from Spiderman Comics number 1 as a kid: WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY. The responsibility, in my view, is not to sacrifice for the sake of the poor -- no! It is to eliminate inefficiencies so that surpluses now being lost to society as waste are available to the have nots.

Let me give an example from plumbing, since I have been working with Egyptian plumbers these past few weeks training them in the construction of solar hot water systems while they train me in the use of pipes and wrenches:

In many buildings there are leaks and dripping faucets because nobody bothers to use enough "qitan" (flax used instead of expensive teflon) on the threads, or they don't tighten the fittings enough or they don't replace worn out O-rings. Among the poor, hiring a plumber to do these things can be economically unfeasable, so we can understand them letting it go for a while. But the relative fraction of the budget for somebody rich to bring a plumber out for an hour is negligible. If everybody who could afford it would plug their leaks and fix their drips, they would realize savings in excess of what it cost to fix the leaks. But the downstream effect, for the poor, would be that there would be alot more water available and thus the cost of water for everybody would go down. With the cost of water lower, the poor could then afford to hire a plumber to fix their leaks, making more water available, saving money and driving the cost for all of us down still further.

Do the poor want to steal the rich people's water and deprive them of their water? No. They could make do simply with the water that the rich are wasting and throwing away every day. It is a win-win if we eliminate waste, but somebody has to take the first step. In my belief system it is the responsibility of the haves to eliminate their own waste so that the have nots have more. And it wouldn't deprive the rich of anything.

In theory this plumbing example exemplifies the utopian view of the republican's "trickle-down effect". And in theoy trickle down does work. The problem as I see it is that we are letting the wrong sources of wealth trickle down. I look at trickle down as a resource economist -- we have an abundance of resources that are being lost as waste.

What is pollution? Pollution is merely an underutilized resource that has been delivered to the wrong place in the wrong form at the wrong time. When I see smoke from a tail pipe or from a smokestack, I think "there goes millions of dollars worth of useful carbon or sulfur up in smoke every year -- elements that could be used in manufacturing in agricultre, that are now lost as global warming gases". When you see smoke, remember that what you are seeing is the carbon dioxide and other nutrients that plants use to grow, but which they can't possibly remove from the air at that rate and in that form. When you see phosphates polluting a stream or lake or river, remember that you are seeing vital nutrients that farmers could be using to fertilize a wheat or soy field. When you see garbage rotting in a landfill, or feces pouring into an ocean from a sewage pipe, remember that you are seeing all the fertilizer that should be being composted and turned into soil for growing delicious fruits and vegetables.

Working with the garbage people of Cairo I learn these lessons every day. There is enough wealth in our waste to make everybody rich enough to afford a decent life, but somebody must invest in the infrastructure and technology to transform what we throw away, waste or leak into our environmental commons and make it a useful input into a wealth generating process. This is industrial ecology.

I think that only the wealthy have the immediate surplus to build this infrastructure. So I think it is our responsibility. When there is no longer any waste and all that is now "pollution" is gainfully recycled and reemployed in the economy, we can worry about the rich "losing" what they have or "giving it up" for the have nots. But for now, there are no worries -- the rich can keep what they have if they would just not allow so much to simply rot, pollute or go to waste.

I hope we can get that message to the rich as well as the poor so that we can give up our fear and start cooperating to reach what economists call "Pareto Optimality" (look that one up!). That is one of my prescriptions for a working "eutopia"!

Thanks for the chance to share!

The Prof, on his way home from the slums of Cairo...

No comments: