Jared Diamond's work always engages. "Guns, Germs, and Steel" was the kind of imaginative work that would never have emerged from within a single discipline. His most recent book, as described by his op-ed in the NYTimes, provokes thought. But his conclusions in the op-ed, startlingly illogical and unsupported, provoke little more than criticism. After describing societies that have collapsed due to mismanaged ecosystems, Diamond concludes:
History also teaches us two deeper lessons about what separates successful societies from those heading toward failure. A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions. That's why Maya kings, Norse Greenlanders and Easter Island chiefs made choices that eventually undermined their societies. They themselves did not begin to feel deprived until they had irreversibly destroyed their landscape.
Could this happen in the United States? It's a thought that often occurs to me here in Los Angeles, when I drive by gated communities, guarded by private security patrols, and filled with people who drink bottled water, depend on private pensions, and send their children to private schools. By doing these things, they lose the motivation to support the police force, the municipal water supply, Social Security and public schools. If conditions deteriorate too much for poorer people, gates will not keep the rioters out. Rioters eventually burned the palaces of Maya kings and tore down the statues of Easter Island chiefs; they have also already threatened wealthy districts in Los Angeles twice in recent decades.
Eco-systems fail due to mismanagement. Fair enough. But the link to present day Los Angeles? Oh, come on. This is poorly reasoned on so many levels one scarcely knows where to start. (Full disclosure for those who read biographical information into every intellectual position: I do not live in a gated community and prefer a more open neighborhood.) Consider the implicit assumption in the analogy:
The wealthy are out of touch with the threat of environmental disaster because they do not feel its effects the way the poor do. Diamond's clumsy simile: People in gated communities are like Mayan Kings. Absolute nonsense. Evidence suggests that environmental goods are luxury goods: They become more important to consumers as their income rises. When survival is the primary concern, when the struggle for food and clothing occupies one's waking thoughts, there's little room for concern about clean air, clean water, the plight of endangered species, and fears of distant climate change. Gated communities are not the enemy. Those living within these communities are often the most "in touch" with environmental concerns.
And the drinking of bottled water? This has nothing to do with being in any way like a Mayan King. (Poor people in communities around the world drink bottled water, too, or they take precautions to ensure the safety of their water by boiling it.) Is it really the best allocation of resources to have municipal water authorities providing the purest and tastiest drinking water? Perhaps fewer resources are used if municipal authorities provide water clean enough for bathing and washing clothes, for toilets and showers, but perhaps mountain spring water, melted glaciers and the like, would be wasted on these activities. Private provision of high quality drinking water might well be a much better way to insure optimal allocatation of this resource. What does it mean when agents demonstrate a high willingness to pay for bottled water (that is, when the demand curve for clean drinking water shifts out)? It means that more bottled water will be produced, more companies will specialize in its production and more resources overall will be devoted to the production of clean water. And this is a bad thing?
Further, Los Angeles is a terrible example of Diamond's larger point about insularity. Gated communities are not protected from bad air. Last time I checked, no one in a gated community had manged to gate off the sky. Moreover, the affluent in gated communities are often the very persons who make greatest use of the amenities a city like Los Angeles provides, e.g., the beaches. These persons are not insulated from the polluted waters of Santa Monica Bay.
And living in a gated communities makes you less willing to support the police? Oh, really? Where's the evidence? Measures to put more cops on the streets are approved routinely at the ballot box. If anything, tough crime measures tend to be popular with the affluent. If some people do not feel safe with the security provided by the state or city, and thus use their own private funds to augment that provision, does this imply that they would disapprove of measures allocating resources to keep order outside the gates of their housing complexes? Do voting records show this? (That would be very surprising indeed.) Moreover, doesn't private provision of security actually help the local police by reducing the burden on them and allowing them to focus resources on communities that cannot provide for their own protection? The implication of Diamond's argument: Unless you free-ride on state provision of security, you do a disservice to the community at large and set it on the course to disaster and collapse. Free-riding is good. Take as little responsibility as possible for your own security needs.
And how about Social Security? Let's get this straight: Diamond is suggesting here that if you have a private pension, you might actually be undermining Social Security. Golly. That's odd. It seems to me that when you save diligently for yourself, you reduce the burden on the Social Security system by wisely planning for your own future. Because of private pensions and private savings, Social Security is not really in danger. A means-testing provision and/or indexing would make the system solvent. Diamond's implicit argument: Unless we all abdicate responsibility for our own future needs and let the state take care of us, we will lose the incentive to provide any kind of a safety net for others. This is 1) false, and 2) dangerous. Social Security remains very popular, despite private pensions and private savings. Moreover, most economists would agree that discouraging personal savings would be extremely unwise.
Diamond says that if people live in gated communities, they will lose the incentive to provide public goods. Again, he offers not a shred of evidence. Its a good thing, because the evidence here is actually quite starkly against him. The best evidence we have (and there is a lot of it from the top researchers in the field--see here and here for examples) is that in diverse (and thus, ungated) communities, public goods provision is actually significantly lower than in homogeneous communities. Tearing down those gates and having everyone mix together is not a recipe for increased provision of public goods. Some of us, myself included, like diversity anyway, and believe it is worth promoting. But this is in spite of the lower provision of public goods associated with diverse communities, not because diversity solves or lessens public goods problem.
Then there is the last gratuitous line that gates will not keep rioters out if conditions "deteriorate too much" for the poor. That's trues. But, um... what exactly does poverty or rioting in L.A. have to do with a mismanaged ecosystem? Did I miss something? Were the L.A. riots a veiled protest against smog? An angry statement against bad-tasting tap water? Violence and rioting, I thought, were the result of poverty and larger social problems. Isn't urban poverty an extremely complex problem that has been resistant to the most well-intentioned interventions? I guess not. A collapsing ecosystem caused somehow by bottled-water drinkers in gated communities is going to cause riots.
What is Diamond's recommendation, based on this compilation of somewhat bizarre and often counterfactual assertions?
In this New Year, we Americans have our own painful reappraisals to face. Historically, we viewed the United States as a land of unlimited plenty, and so we practiced unrestrained consumerism, but that's no longer viable in a world of finite resources. We can't continue to deplete our own resources as well as those of much of the rest of the world.
This is not strictly true. Growth theory argues that if technologies continue to improve--so that we get more and more out of less and less--finite resources can support us indefinitely. But this is a quibble. I do take Diamond's point. (And certainly in the very long run finitude will due us all in, e.g. the sun burning out). Certain resources may become a lot more scarce. Do we need to come up with cooperative mechanisms that helps us avoid environmental degradation when private incentives are not strong enough? Certainly! But Diamond does not make this simple specific point, as far as I can tell. I see only a general wash of ambiguous and overheated rhetoric. "We need to restrain consumerism." Nonsense. We need to find mechanisms that allow us to consume what we really want. Externalities cause ecological goods to be underprovided and pollution to be overprovided. We need to find mechanisms that induce us to reallocate.
The difference is extremely important. Growth in consumption and wealth in a country is linked to lower birth rates! This, more than anything else will relieve pressure on the environment. In some sense then, "consumerism" (whatever that is--does the word even have a precise meaning?) is our best friend. There is little point is stigmatizing or discouraging wealth-creation and the associated increases in consumption.
Diamond's final conclusion:
A genuine reappraisal would require us to recognize that it will be far less expensive and far more effective to address the underlying problems of public health, population and environment that ultimately cause threats to us to emerge in poor countries. In the past, we have regarded foreign aid as either charity or as buying support; now, it's an act of self-interest to preserve our own economy and protect American lives.
Do we have cause for hope? Many of my friends are pessimistic when they contemplate the world's growing population and human demands colliding with shrinking resources. But I draw hope from the knowledge that humanity's biggest problems today are ones entirely of our own making. Asteroids hurtling at us beyond our control don't figure high on our list of imminent dangers. To save ourselves, we don't need new technology: we just need the political will to face up to our problems of population and the environment.
All we need is the political will, huh? Ah, I see. This is splendid, except that it ignores the entire recent history of development economics (detailed here, among other places.)
One fact emerges over and over again in the research: Problems in the developing world have been largely immune to good intentions. This is not controversial. Foreign aid simply hasn't worked. If anything, foreign direct investment, powered by evil "consumerism," appears to have had more impact, though it has been difficult to establish causality. In any event, there is no clear solution. The great challenge, not to put too fine a point on it, has been to find something that has even a snowball's chance in hell of working.
But according to Diamond, solving problems of global poverty only requires "political will" and, presumably, more foreign aid (which hasn't worked in the past). If we just cared enough, we could make everything better. Suffice it to say, he offers no evdence. Quite simply, the evidence is against him.
My final point is that Diamond is not alone in thinking this way. There has been a tendency to mix-up aesthetic concerns with issues of survival, and then to reason sloppily from those aesthetic preferences. You don't like gated communities? You find them distasteful? Then you are justified in attributing all manner of destructiveness to them and to their inhabitants. The sad thing is there are genuine environmental threats. And we should address them! But environmental passions are often lead people to distort those threats, as Diamond has here. Some people like whales and want us to protect them. This is a separate issue from any bizarre claim that losing a species of whale will cause the fall of human civilization. False doomsday scenarios do little more than discredit the legitimate enterprise of protecting the environment.
Lastly, there is an unpleasant tendency on the part of Diamond (and many others) to attribute intractable global problems to moral failings, particularly (and I think this is implicit) to the moral failings of those who disagree with him. If we only cared enough, we could solve global poverty. It is a failure of compassion, he seems to say--not his compassion of course, but other people's. This trivializes difficult problems and demonizes those with different views.
Diamond is a master of weaving disciplines together and I read his work with great respect for that accomplishment. But his mastery of economics, as demonstrated here, is not impressive. He is to be celebrated as a jack of all trades. If anything though, the op-ed here shows us that the usual caveat applies.