Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Recycling my mind

You may remember that here at MM we are always looking for ways to change our minds. In fact, it is an ongoing resolution. Well, we may have found my jewel of the Nile for this year.

I referenced this recycling conversation in my last blog post. I highly encourage you to read all the essays and followup conversation. Mike Munger makes what is for me the first rational point I've ever encountered theoretically supporting mandatory recycling programs. Recycling is an economics and business issue. It is about optimal use of resources. The problem might be that we have too little of it. Why? Because the incentives might be messed up. How? Because we want them to be. I don't mean choose them to be in some sinister, corporate-cronyism sort of way (although there is plenty of that in the larger political economy of recycling). I mean truly want them to be . . . to a degree and as an unintended consequence.

The intention is to make landfills artificially cheap by subsidizing them so that illegal and undesirable dumping is minimized. As a result the relative incentive to recycle is lower than it should be as compared to landfilling. In his response essay Steven Landsburg raises very good and strong concerns about what that actually implies for a recycling effort. Remember, I said theoretical case for mandatory recycling. It is in seeing now a theoretical defense of mandatory recycling (or preferably some less coercive means of encouraging recycling) that I have changed my mind. To that point and in his last response in "The Conversation" Munger makes a very Coasian/Hayekian point about how we need to shift the incentives (Coase would emphasize property rights here) but that he doesn't know, a la Hayek, what that solution(s) will actually be. I agree very much with that thought process.

Another very important point raised throughout the issue is how the moral crusade for recycling is quite an awful thing. It magnifies and worsens all that is bad about excessive recycling, and most mandatory recycling is excessive. A little neglected in the issue is the simplistic but problematic solution of fighting the subsidy come incentive problem with an additional subsidy--this time for recycling. That would be the road to a farm bill for waste/recycling. You think I hate mandatory recycling now . . .