Sharks and the Tragedy of the Commons

The global shark population may be sharply declining, according to an article in the Washington Post. Actually, the article never quite gives a number for the global population, but it does warn that “something must be done to prevent sharks from disappearing from the planet.” And there are suggestive reports like this:

In March, a team of Canadian and U.S. scientists calculated that between 1970 and 2005, the number of scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks may have declined by more than 97 percent along the East Coast, and that the population of bull, dusky and smooth hammerhead sharks dropped by more than 99 percent. Globally, 16 percent of 328 surveyed shark species are described by the World Conservation Union as threatened with extinction.

Post reporter Juliet Eilperin notes that shark attacks can be big news, but in reality sharks kill about 4 people a year worldwide, while people kill “26 million to 73 million sharks annually.”

Why kill sharks To make money, of course, mostly for the Asian delicacy shark-fin soup. Shark fins are much more valuable than shark meat. Mexican shark hunters say they get $100 a kilogram for shark fins but only $1.50 a kilo for meat.

Unlike fish that reproduce in large numbers starting at an early age, most sharks take years to reach sexual maturity and produce only a few offspring at a time. Shark fishermen also tend to target pregnant females, which are more profitable because they are larger. As a result, said Michael Sutton, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Center for the Future of the Oceans, “there is no such thing as a sustainable shark fishery.”

So OK, here’s where Eilperin should have said, “Wait a minute . . . if there’s money to be made, why would greedy capitalists want to destroy the goose that lays the golden egg Shouldn’t they want to maximize their long-term profits ” And if she had, she might have run into a concept called “the tragedy of the commons.” Owners try to maximize the long-term value of their property. Timber owners don’t cut down all the trees and sell them this year; they cut and replant at a sustainable rate. But when people don’t own things, they have no incentive to maintain the long-term value. That’s why passenger pigeons went extinct, but chickens did not; why the buffalo was nearly exterminated but not the cow. (more…)

Posted on May 28, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Economics & Economic Philosophy,Environment & Climate,Int'l Economics & Development,Libertarian Philosophy

Public Opinion?

This week I’m getting emailed press releases telling me that “94% of international teens want the US to address global warming more aggressively. “If you read waaaay down in the email, you discover that it was an online survey of 250 teens who — it appears — mostly attend U.S. schools. So maybe the striking headline is just a teensy bit of a stretch.

But if it were a scientifically valid survey of actual teenagers around the actual world, one might still say: So 94 percent of teenagers in other countries — that is, respondents who don’t pay taxes and haven’t studied either climatology or economics and aren’t looking for a job — and if they did pay taxes or look for a job, wouldn’t do so in the United States — think that the United States should hobble its economy in the name of something that vaguely sounds scary. And we should care because…

Posted on May 16, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Environment & Climate,General

The Search for a Limited-Government Candidate Continues

Newt Gingrich, who continues to vigorously — though unofficially, so he can do it with million-dollar donations — campaign for president, appeared in Washington yesterday at what was billed as a debate with John Kerry on global warming. Some conservatives, disillusioned by the prospect of choosing among Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, have looked to Gingrich as an actually Reaganite candidate. He should have dispelled those thoughts yesterday.

Instead of disagreeing with Kerry, Gingrich said that global warming is a problem and that “we should address it very actively.” He raved about Kerry’s book on the environment. He refused even to disagree with Kerry over the urgency of government action. Perhaps most un-Reaganesquely, he declared that while he preferred tax incentives to government mandates, “I am not automatically saying that coercion and bureaucracy is not an answer.”

There’s a Republican mantra for the new century.

Posted on April 11, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Environment & Climate,Government & Politics


“I’m for free enterprise, but –” You can hear it coming. “I’m against all these government giveaway programs, but –” It’s a common and frustrating experience for a libertarian, hearing a ringing declaration of principle followed by a qualification that the speaker doesn’t have any intention of giving up his own subsidy, regulation, tariff, or pet project.

Years ago, when I was raising money for a free-market business group, I remember one of those letters: “I agree with everything you say. Government is too big. Subsidies and regulation are impeding the operation of our free enterprise system. But the Hawaiian sugar industry is unique.” A friend told me once that he’d persuaded his father, a dentist, to become a consistent libertarian–except on licensing for dentists. What about licensing for brain surgeons I asked. No, my friend said, I think he’s OK with letting the free market work there.

And now NPR has brought us the latest example. On the way home, my mind wandered as “All Things Considered” reported on a biodiesel refinery in Washington state. And then I heard a familiar opening line from the tech millionaire who is now the CEO of Imperium Renewables, which built the refinery.

I’m a pretty conservative guy, generally. I’ve voted Republican my whole entire life. And I’m very skeptical of the government’s role in any kind of market.

Wait for it, wait for it — you just know there’s a “but” coming.

But, in this case, there’s no other way to do it but with government support and mandates.

Turns out biodiesel is profitable with a federal tax subsidy of up to a dollar a gallon, and with the anticipation of restrictions on greenhouse gases. So a guy who’s normally “very skeptical of the government’s role” supports subsidies in this case because there’s “no other way to do it.” But that’s the whole point of markets and prices–to tell us what economic endeavors make sense. If Hawaiian sugar, or South Carolina textiles, or biodiesel fuel isn’t economically viable without subsidies, then that means it’s not the best use of our limited resources.

One of the values of a political philosophy–sometimes dismissed as “ideology” or “dogma”–is that it gives us a rule, a set of principles, for deciding such questions. We don’t have the time to look at all the data and decide what we think about every issue, and we’re certainly all subject to personal biases on the issues that touch us. There are lots of speakers I’d personally like to shut up, but if I remember that I do believe in the First Amendment, I realize I have to allow even offensive speech. I may want Amtrak to run fast trains between Washington and New York, or I may want to keep my own factory in business. But if I remember that the free-market economy produces the best results for all of us, then I will accept the outcomes of the market process.

People should think about the benefits of the whole libertarian system–free markets, free speech, freedom of religion, constitutional limits on government–whenever they’re tempted to say “I’m for freedom, but–”.

Posted on March 21, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Energy,Environment & Climate,General,Government & Politics,Libertarian Philosophy

Why Won’t Al Gore Debate?

Former vice president and Oscar winner Al Gore is scheduled to testify to both House and Senate committees today about global warming. For the past few years Gore has traveled across America speaking to audiences that range from friendly to worshipful, from journalists in New York and Washington to actors in Hollywood. If he has ever faced skeptical questions, it hasn’t been reported.

We have several times invited the former vice president to present his famous slide show at the Cato Institute, in conjunction with a slide show prepared by Patrick J. Michaels, who takes a more benign view of climate change. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia. He is the state climatologist of Virginia, a past president of the American Association of State Climatologists, and an author of the 2003 climate science “Paper of the Year” selected by the Association of American Geographers. His research has been published in major scientific journals, including Climate Research, Climatic Change, Geophysical Research Letters, Journal of Climate, Nature, and Science. He received his Ph.D. in ecological climatology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1979. His most recent book is Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media, which has been number one on Amazon’s global warming bestseller list for months at a time and has been reprinted twice this year.

Gore’s office has declined our invitations. If Vice President Gore is committed to public understanding of climate change, why will he not demonstrate to a Washington audience composed of both supporters and skeptics that his ideas can carry the day in a dialogue with a leading critic He wiped the floor with Ross Perot; does he fear that the case for catastrophic climate change is not as strong as the case for NAFTA

The invitation is still open. Mr. Vice President, please come to the Cato Institute and present your slide show to an audience of journalists and scholars with a knowledgeable climate scientist also on the dais.

Posted on March 21, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Environment & Climate,General,Government & Politics

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