Sunday, January 4, 2015

About that memo, Professor Summers...

Let this be the year when we put a proper price on carbon is the theme and headline of an op-ed by Lawrence Summers at the Financial Times. There is indeed a compelling case for a carbon tax, as Summers argues. The case could be even more compelling were it not for the persistence of an "impeccable economic logic" that never was.

That  "impeccable logic" made a cameo appearance in an infamous World Bank memo that went out over Summers's signature some 23 years ago: "the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable." Take it as given that Summers did not write the memo, that the infamous passage was taken out of context and that the intention of the author, Lant Pritchett, was ironic and not making a serious proposal.

And yet... Satire has an object. The full memo is a chapter-by-chapter commentary on the outline for the 1992 World Bank publication, "Global Economic Prospects and the Developing Countries." Chapter 3 of the outline was presumably the target of the infamous excerpt. Note that chapter 3 in the final version is titled "Interlinkages, human capital and export competitiveness" and has nothing to say about pollution. In fact, the entire document has nothing to say about pollution.

Where is the rest of the infamous memo? Pages one and five of the original memo are posted on the internet but searching phrases from those pages turns up nothing. Daniel Hausman and Michael McPherson used the provocative toxic waste passage as exhibit "A" in their Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy and Public Policy. But they are silent on the broader context of the full memo and the Global Economic Prospects outline.

Hausman and McPherson do, however, delve into the matter of cost-benefit analysis, which they conclude "is not a scientifically valid or value-neutral procedure for social decision making." This is sort of the argument I have been making here but not entirely. My argument, though, is that the "economic logic" is extraordinarily "peccable" -- its logical fallacy concealed behind an impenetrable veil of incongruity.

Whether conventional cost-benefit analysis is merely "not scientifically valid or value neutral" or is downright incongruous and "unacceptable nonsense," the Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon relied on it in 2010 to estimate the social cost of carbon to be $21 per ton of CO2 (in 2007 dollars). If Summers is serious about "letting this be the year when we put a proper price on carbon," perhaps he could nudge things along a bit by showing that the "impeccable economic logic" of not doing so is an abysmal sham and a swindle.

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