Rob Stavins continues his series on myths about environmental economics. Here he takes on the myths that "economists are not concerned only with the financial value of things," and that they pay no attention to distributional equity:
The Myths of Market Prices and Efficiency, by Robert Stavins: In my two previous posts I described a pair of prevalent myths regarding how economists think about the environment: “the myth of the universal market” – the notion that economists believe that the market solves all problems; and “the myth of simple market solutions” – the notion that economists always recommend simple market solutions for social problems. ...
A third myth is that when non-market solutions are considered, economists use only market prices to evaluate them. ... [E]conomists are not concerned only with the financial value of things. Far from it. The financial flows that make up the gross national product represent only a fraction of all economic flows. The scope of economics encompasses the allocation and use of all scarce resources. For example, the economic value of the human-health damages of environmental pollution is greater than the sum of health-care costs and lost wages (or lost productivity), as it includes what lawyers call “pain and suffering.” Economists might use a market price indirectly to measure revealed rather than stated preferences, but the goal is to measure the total value of the loss that individuals incur.
For another example, the economic value of some parcel of the Amazon rain forest is not limited to its financial value as a repository of future pharmaceutical products or as a location for ecotourism. Such “use value” may only be a small part of the properly defined economic valuation. For decades, economists have recognized the importance of “non-use value” of environmental amenities such as wilderness areas or endangered species. The public nature of these goods makes it particularly difficult to quantify the values empirically, as we cannot use market prices. Benefit-cost analysis of environmental policies, almost by definition, cannot rely exclusively on market prices.
Economists try to convert all of these disparate values into monetary terms because a common unit of measure is needed in order to add them up. How else can we combine the benefits of ten extra miles of visibility plus some amount of reduced morbidity, and then compare these total benefits with the total cost of installing scrubbers to clean stack gases at coal-fired power plants? Money, after all, is simply a medium of exchange, a convenient way to compare disparate goods and services. The dollar in a benefit-cost analysis is nothing more than a yardstick for measurement and comparison.
A fourth and final myth is that economic analyses are concerned only with efficiency rather than distribution. Many economists do give more attention to aggregate social welfare than to the distribution of the benefits and costs of policies among members of society. The reason is that an improvement in economic efficiency can be determined by a simple and unambiguous criterion, an increase in total net benefits. What constitutes an improvement in distributional equity, on the other hand, is inevitably the subject of much dispute. Nevertheless, many economists do analyze distributional issues thoroughly. ... Indeed, within the realm of global climate change policy, much of the economic analysis is dedicated to assessing the distributional implications of alternative policy measures. ...
Having identified and sought to dispel four prevalent myths about how economists think about the natural environment, I want to acknowledge that my profession bears some responsibility for the existence of such misunderstandings about economics. Like our colleagues in the other social and natural sciences, academic economists focus their greatest energies on communicating to their peers within their own discipline. Greater effort can certainly be given by economists to improving communication across disciplinary boundaries. And that is one of my key goals in this blog in the weeks and months ahead.