The Environment and Economics

       Well, I sure don’t want you as my investment adviser. Here I, as an American citizen, own the national-park system. It is, I think you will agree, truly irreplaceable and unique–I can’t go out and buy a replacement. Its value to me is recreational, spiritual, scientific. It’s not very likely to enhance the GNP very much if sold. And there are no likely buyers out there who would pay its replacement value. Future generations, and other critters dependent on its wonders, don’t have the practical ability to enter the marketplace. Putting it on the market would definitely flood the marketplace for this kind of land. My share of any proceeds would be divided among 300 million Americans, whereas I can enjoy far more than one-three-hundred-millionth of its value to me by owning it jointly.
       And you think we should sell it?
       On the other questions, there is plenty of precedent for declining living standards for most people during a period of increasing per capita income measured as a mean. India, for example, from 1700 to 1950. Or Britain during the early Industrial Revolution.
       But I have a counterproposal for your national-park idea. Let’s privatize the atmosphere–give each American ownership of the air that passes into his or her lungs. Let’s require every factory and power plant in the country to obtain permission from every affected owner before emitting pollutants … otherwise it’s common-law trespass time. Then we can look at the marginal price of pollution rights, and see how much our current market undervalues natural resources.
       Of course, some curmudgeonly parents might refuse to sell the rights to put ozone into their kids’ lungs at any price, which could be awkward for industrial polluters. But hey, don’t we need to protect private-property rights in this country? Where does Con Ed get the right to put tiny particles containing mercury into my lungs, even if they aren’t sure it’s hurting me?