Wednesday, July 25, 2007

News: The economics of eating locally

The blogosphere is all a flutter over Elizabeth Edward’s recent comment about tangerines. As far as I can tell, this story originated on a blog by Ben Smith. Here’s the orginal text:

The politics of global warming got very concrete, and oddly difficult, in a meeting with local environmentalists
in the coastal town of McClellanville today, where Elizabeth Edwards raised in passing the importance of relying on
locally-grown fruit.

"We've been moving back to 'buy local,'" Mrs. Edwards said, outlining a trade policy that "acknowledges the carbon
footprint" of transporting fruit.

"I live in North Carolina. I'll probably never eat a tangerine again," she said, speaking of a time when the fruit is reaches
the price that it "needs" to be.

Edwards had talked about "sacrifice," at the meeting, but Elizabeth's suggestion illustrated just how difficult it is to sell the specifics of sacrifice.

Asked about her comment immediately after the event, John Edwards avoided the question twice, then said he isn't sure.
"Would I add to the price of food?" he asked. "I'd have to think about that."

UPDATE: Just to be clear, he's not talking about a food tax. The basic point is that any plan that imposes new costs on carbon emissions is going to make anything that's transported long distances with fossil fuels cost more. It is, in a way, a moment of clarity in this debate.

This story was picked up on Drudge Report and by numerous other bloggers. I found myself reading through the many impassioned responses. There was a general consensus that the Edwards cutting out tangerines was not going to make much of a difference to their “carbon footprint,” and many dismissed it all as a bit of political pandering to those voters that care about global warming. Nearly lost in the midst of all these outraged responses, however, I found something a little meatier: economics. The trade policy proposed by the Edwards calls for a tax--based on carbon emissions--to be attached to items that are transported, thereby discouraging excess use of fossil fuels and, at the same time, generating income to support efforts against global warming. According to one blog response, this policy would allow less efficient, smaller operations to gain a hold on the market and leading to higher prices. To simplify further, buying local can mean putting money towards businesses that are not making a significant contribution to our economy and will cost you more in the end.

I am no economist, but I do recognize the role of global commerce in the financial stability of my country. I will not deny that I benefit from it. From that standpoint, buying local may turn out to be a risky policy for the wife of a presidential hopeful.

As a side note: I don't know how I feel about the Edward's proposed trade policy, but I will say this: the economic argument against buying local is certainly intriguing, but it does not take into consideration intrinsic values (economic arguments rarely do). I know from personal experience that consumers buy goods for many more reasons than the price. I also believe quite vehemently that if we lived by economic principles alone, this world would be a less agreeable place to be.

1 comment:

Jamie Thornton said...

Even if a tax isn't enacted by politicians, won't there be just this kind tax - maybe happening already - as fossil fuel becomes a scarce and expensive resource? Maybe we just need to wait until the world runs out of oil, then we'll all be localtarians by default!