Archive for September, 2009


that’s garbage! (or why recycling is kind of a joke)

I just read an interesting article (you might not be able to get access to this article unfortunately) that looks at the welfare implications of recycling programs.

As usual, a close analysis reveals some really interesting issues.

On first glance, it seems that recycling is kind of a losing proposition.

The costs to the
municipality to collect, process, and transport recyclable materials exceed by an
average of roughly $3 per household per month the budgetary benefits of
reduced disposal fees and revenue from the sale of recycling materials (Kinnaman,
2000; Aadlan and Caplan, 2005). On a per-ton basis, recycling is roughly twice as
costly as landfill disposal.

The costs to the municipality to collect, process, and transport recyclable materials exceed by an average of roughly $3 per household per month the budgetary benefits of reduced disposal fees and revenue from the sale of recycling materials (Kinnaman, 2000; Aadlan and Caplan, 2005). On a per-ton basis, recycling is roughly twice as costly as landfill disposal.

And, as this author points out, most of the benefits to recycling do not come from the natural resources they preserve, because the preservation value is incorporated into the above quote via the price that recycled goods fetch in the market for raw resources.

Assuming that markets for recycled material are sufficiently competitive, the marginal benefit of preserving natural resources through recycling is equal to the corresponding market price for each recyclable material and is therefore internalized by municipal recycling programs selling recyclable materials. Prices for recycled glass, various recycled papers and cardboards, and the various forms of recycled plastics have historically been near zero.1 Prices for aluminum and bi-metal cans are higher, but the quantity of these materials recycled by households is rather small. Judging by the prices for recycled materials, the natural resource benefit of recycling is not particularly substantial.

So, given this, why recycle. Well, the authors point to two other benefits of recycling. First, recycling can reduce costs that are not internalized by trash collection. For example, landfills have costs, including smell, reduced housing prices in an area (landfills are ugly), possible water contamination and the CO2 and pollution cost of transporting garbage to and from the landfill (though recycling probably wouldn’t reduce this last factor very much). However, these costs are not very significant to start and they are mostly reduced by taxes that already exist precisely to try and incorporate these costs.

What’s far more interesting is that these authors propose that the apparent loss of recycling is outweighed by the utility recyclers derive from recycling. As they point out, many consumers will pay to be able to recycle (many people contracted with private parties to recycle before their municipality required it):

Recycling is something parents and children feel good about, and for this reason households may be willing to pay for the mere opportunity to recycle. An expanding literature employing the contingent valuation method finds that households are willing to pay an average of $5.61 per month for recycling services (Jakus, Tiller, and Park, 1996; Lake, Bateman, and Partiff, 1996; Tiller, Jakus, and Park, 1997; Kinnaman, 2000; Aadlan and Caplan, 2005).2 Unlike the sources of external benefits discussed above, these benefits to households exceed the $3 per household average cost of operating curbside recycling programs in many (but not all) municipalities.

This benefit is known as the “warm glow” effect of recycling.

The semi-philosophical question I want to raise is this: if the warm glow utility benefit rests on a mistake (that recycling is good for the environment), then should it count in our total welfare assessment. In other words, I think people only feel good about recycling because they think it helps, but if it’s a source of inefficiency, wouldn’t the warm glow feeling disappear?

Thus, the question: should we respect people’s preferences, or their considered preferences (their preference after finding out about recycling). Or is it that the benefit of recycling does not make anyone better off, yet it makes the results of our actions better off. In other words, is it just good that we respond to our natural surroundings in a certain way even if that response is actually less efficient.

Another argument one might make against this analysis is that the price of raw materials does not price in the damage to animal habitat and the blight it causes to the environment (my guess is that these might be significant, but my guess is also that they are partially if not completely accounted for in various environmental regulations and taxes).

So the question really is: why recycle?


here’s my school

This is a pretty funny CNN piece on Tufts new rule.

Really, 10 minutes?


An interesting point about abortion

Natural rights theorists / libertarians are often pro-choice. There are often two reasons given for this position a) the baby is taking resources from the woman that the woman is not required to give up. She has a right to her body and so can choose to withhold nourishment from the child. b) the baby is an aggressor that is invading the personal space of the woman.

I think b) is not really an argument at all, because an aggressor is so called because it will or is doing harm. The fact that the baby is inside the personal space of the woman is not in itself causing any harm, unless one wants to talk about the taking of resources, which is just argument (a) again. Also, notice that even if there is something wrong with invading someone’s personal space, it does not seem that deaths is the proper remedy. If I followed you around all day, 1 mm from your body, this would surely be creepy at the very least, and might be grounds for a lawsuit, but you could not turn around and kill me just for being in your personal  space.

(a) is a more serious argument, but notice that it has an interesting consequence. In most cases, the woman would be permitted to kill the baby if she is allowed to control the resources of her own body, but this ability to withhold resources does not in itself guarantee a right to abortion. Imagine that in the far future, a charity group comes in and offers to pay for the costs of all the food that the woman must eat to sustain two lives. They also offer to pay for costs resulting from being inconvenienced by being pregnant and promise to take the baby and find parents for it. Now, on what grounds could the woman now claim a right to abort the baby. There are considerations of her health, but those reasons to abort a baby are not controversial. The question is, can the woman abort a baby when her health is not endangered.

It seems that there is no reason to permit her to abort the baby if she will be compensated for the harm she undergoes and will not have to care for the baby. What this indicates is that maybe a traditional conception of rights, autonomy, and self ownership cannot ground the right of abortion.

(note: this entire post depends on the argument that a fetus does have some more consideration, whether that is a full right to life or just a more limited weight in moral deliberation I do not know. The point is that the argument above is not valid if someone denies that fetuses have any moral value).


the difference between reading the news and reading philosophy

I read the news a lot when I didn’t have classes to go to, and I usually found something that (I thought) was worthing saying about a given topic.

News is mainly about the facts, or at least, with cable news programs, its about the fax plus some crude but minimally sensible interpretation of those facts (“Bush is an idiot!” or “Everything liberals do is wrong!”).

It’s easy to move beyond these unhelpful prisms laid onto the news and thus come up with lots of blog posts.

After reading philosophy, which is what I do all day now, it’s much hard to come up with something that is really worth saying. Sure, you can recapitulate the deep thinking of a just-read argument, but to really add something, you must go even deeper. This is hard, especially when I want my posts to be interesting to a wide group of people and not just the group of 10 people working on the philosophy or perception, for example.


Human nature

Hobbes, along with many other liberal writers, claim that there is a single human nature. For Hobbes, we are always selfish and suspicious, meaning that we must take drastic steps to get out of the state of nature and that, if were to somehow to revert to the state of nature, we would face the same problems. Humans are only one way, and with a state, their lives are tolerable, and without it, miserable.

But I think a very good question would be: why think that human nature is immutable. Rather, one might think that human nature is shaped by the circumstances. If the state of nature represents an early period of human development where resources are scarce and cooperation even scarcer, than perhaps people are selfish and violent. But what about after humans enter society and get a taste of cooperation and the pleasures of socialization? One might think that there nature changes, and that if we got rid of society tomorrow, people might return to cooperation rather than suspicion. Certainly some have argued that a nuclear war might shock humanity into giving up certain types of violence. Of course pessimists believe we would learn nothing and be just as violent as before.

However, if it turns out that human nature is shaped by circumstances, than we might wonder how many equilibria there are. Do we move steadily to continuously higher levels of socialization and cooperation, or do we oscillate between suspicion and trust? Perhaps we are actually becoming more dangerous and warlike as history proceeds ? (this one seems tough to substantiate)

My point is that state of nature theories act as if we are a certain way, and this way of being resurfaces every time circumstances change back to the state of nature. However, one might believe that humans are irrevocably changed by going through certain historical epochs. I think, it is plausible, for example, to suppose that the rise of democracy, or capitalism, or modern science, or any number of other intellectual movements, has altered humans in fundamental ways; ways that would not just be washed away by the fading of these ideologies.


trends in face accessories


I know this comic isn’t uproariously funny, but for some reason I really like it. I think the writing of the caption was done with care. First, the guy’s name is Timothy, perfect for the situation, and also the man criticizing him uses the word monstrosity.

I really thought mouth boards were in too…


Counterfactual friendship

I have this theory…it’s not fully worked out and I think there’s a good chance that it, like all theories, is wrong, but let me lay it out.

I there are two main reasons people don’t like other people. The first is that they had an initial connection/friendship/attraction with the person, but found out that they were no good. This is the case of the cheating spouse, the disloyal friend. Then there is the case of the person you never really get to know, but sense that something about them is bad.

Usually I think this something is a lack of mutual respect. You don’t think this person would respect you, or you think that even though this person would respect you, you could never respect them. The mutuality I think is key. The one-sidedness or absence of respect is really behind most ill will we have toward others.

However, I think when we judge that someone won’t respect us, we judge implicitly from the circumstances we find ourselves. The unathletic kid who can’t play soccer assumes that the jock walking past him wont’ respect him. The skater boi assumes that the preppy kid going to his finance job on the subway won’t respect him. However, I think this is a mistake, and that we should often think about other circumstances that we might come across certain people. Could two people develop respect for each other if both had to survive in the wilderness, or if both were the target of a joke in poor taste, or if both worked at the same company, or if both had the same problems to deal with, or if they became rivals (I think many friendships form out of what starts as rivalry, both sides learn to appreciate the other’s tenacity for one thing)?

Often when I catch myself thinking that I could never get along with someone (which is more often than I would hope for) I imagine our circumstances being different. I imagine a counterfactual situation, and then I think it’s usually much easier for me to see how we could become allies, or in other words, to develop a mutual respect for each other.