Home > Uncategorized > Scott Sumner misses government role in "sh*t happens"; epitomizes discussions of BP/offshore oil development

Scott Sumner misses government role in "sh*t happens"; epitomizes discussions of BP/offshore oil development

Another BP post!

1. Over on his The Money Illusion blog, Chicago-school economist Scott Sumner has a curiously uninsightful post up on the BP oil spill: “Stuff Happens“. Perhaps some of my friendly enviro-hater readers here might like it, but I didn’t. I left the following comments (still pending approval as I copy them here) (emphasis added):

Scott, what you’re rather glaringly missing with your cost-benefit analysis – which blithely ignores the real face of “externalities” – is the institutional setting, which can be summed up as a tragedy of the government-owned and (rather expensively) mis-managed comonns.

Ed Dolan is exactly right about incentives problems facing BP and regulators, none of whom really directly own the downside risks, which instead are borne by fishermen, oystermen, shrimpers, the tourist industry, those who value wildlife and a clean environment, and those who consume what harvesters catch. Some of these are very marginalized communities, but all face tremendous difficulties organizing and expressing their interests effectively with respect to resources on which their very livelihoods may depend, but in which they have no ownership rights.

On the other hand, the oil industry are very powerful actors, very well organized and represented in the corridors of power and influence (remember Cheney’s secret energy meetings, and that BP was one of Obama’s largest donors?), and are adept at shifting risks to others (though self-damage is possible when catastrophic losses occur). As Ed Dolan rightly notes, this is built into their very nature as a result of the government grant of limited (zero) liability to shareholders, who have disincentives to monitoring too closely or to questioning whether profits come at the expense of others who – because of government ownership – have no effective voice regarding losses they bear.

It’s hard to feel much sympathy for either the oil cos or government in theis Avatar-like situation, but I don’t mean to castigate either as “evil”. Rather, we simply need to take a close look at the problems of Moral Hazard that our government interventions – from grants of limited liability, to government resource ownership and concomitant inept and occasionally management – have been fuelling.

Answers lie not in gross CBA analysis, but in letting resources users own the rights to manage and harvest wild resources (which would give them direct claims agains polluters), AND to determine when and where seabed resources are developed. (NOAA’s successful experiments with “catch rights” need to be vastly scaled up.) We would still have oil & gas development, but the fishermen would do a vastly better job of policing the oil companies – who would have to face other resource users with full incentives and abilities to protect their livelihoods. (Obversely, oil companies would also be better managers if they had control over the very valuable fish harvest rights in particular blocks, and would manage to in a way that would reflect such value.



Austrian-leaning Ed Dolan, whose recent post on Moral Hazard and agency issues I have just noted, joins in on the comment thread. 

Sadly, Sumner is not alone in paying little attention to those who are at the short-end of the messy oil stick.

2. Liberal blogger Matt Yglesias has a useful blog post up in response to Scott; unfortunately his comment thread has fallen into blind, clear-sighted partisan bickering.

3. I see Richard Posner now has a similar blind piece of blather up at the Washington Post: “From the oil spill to the financial crisis, why we don’t plan for the worst”; more on Posner perhap’s later.

4. Sadly/fortunately, for those of you who haven’t seen or (or could use a little further diversion) this litle one-minute “BP kittens ” YouTube video does a better job than virtually all discussions I’ve seen in noting relevant agency and institutional failure issues.

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