Economics and the mid-life crisis have much in common: Both dwell on foregone opportunities

C'est la vie; c'est la guerre; c'est la pomme de terre . . . . . . . . . . . . . email: jpalmer at uwo dot ca

. . . . . . . . . . .Richard Posner should be awarded the next Nobel Prize in Economics . . . . . . . . . . . .

Friday, February 25, 2005

The Other Larry Summers Controversy

With all the flap over what Larry Summers may or may not have said about the comparatively small number of women in the sciences, I have not seen any recent references to this memo from him back in 1991:

'Just between you and me shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [least developed countries]?" So wrote Treasury Secretary designee Lawrence Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, in a 1991 World Bank internal memorandum arguing for the transfer of waste and dirty industries from industrialized to developing countries. There's more: "I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.... I've always thought that underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly underpolluted; their air quality is vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City." After the memo was leaked, Summers apologized, saying it was intended to be ironic and that it was offered as a thought experiment.

Later reports suggest that someone else actually wrote the memo, although Summers's name appeared on it.

But here is the question that remains unanswered, and that should be atop the list of questions posed by the senators who have to confirm Summers's appointment to replace outgoing Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin: "Ironic or not, from your point of view, what was wrong with the logic of the memo?" The notion that poor countries should import pollution and waste is just an unsavory application of the economic theory of the U.S. Treasury Department, shared also by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and, to a lesser extent, the World Bank. In this worldview, poor countries should exploit their "comparative advantage" of low wages, or access to natural resources, or lower environmental standards.

Not that I like or agree with the tone on that site. I actually thought the arguments in the memo were worth pursuing, and I have used it in my teaching for years.

Given that flap, and how it was handled, his latest hip-shots should be less surprising. I can't imagine the former controversy was related to God and equality, though.
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