Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Critiquing The Lorax

Ed Glaeser criticizes The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss over at the NYT. I've been meaning to discuss the Lorax, as I have discussed other Seuss and children's books. Glaeser's criticisms are a bit different from mine, as he makes the argument for urbanization:
But the unfortunate aspect of the story is that urbanization comes off terribly. The forests are good; the factories are bad. Not only does the story disparage the remarkable benefits that came from the mass production of clothing in 19th-century textile towns, it sends exactly the wrong message on the environment. Contrary to the story’s implied message, living in cities is green, while living surrounded by forests is brown.
What surprises me though, is that Glaeser does not have a problem with the book on the grounds that I usually criticize it:
Some of the lessons told by this story are correct. From a purely profit-maximizing point of view, the Once-ler is pretty inept, because he kills his golden goose. Any good management consultant would have told him to manage his growth more wisely. One aspect of the story’s environmentalist message, that bad things happen when we overfish a common pool, is also correct.
Not only is the Once-ler inept for not managing his growth responsibly, but at the end of the book he actually gives a child the last remaining Truffula Tree seed and tells him to repopulate the forest!

I realize Glaeser is mostly just trying to stick to an issue and the Lorax is a hoook, but my problem with the book is that it implies that the profit maximizing strategy leads to destruction of the resource, whereas the profit maximizing strategy is maintaining the resource through adequate assignment of property rights. The tragedy of the commons is not on display in the book, the Once-ler appears to be a monopolist with no concern that he will not be able to make legal claim on the property. So I don't cede that part of the story to the environmentalist message, nor do I believe they have special claim on understanding the tragedy of the commons.

This resource conservation aspect of profit maximization is a point I actually make to my v517 students when they study the case of Champion Timber. In the case study, it is revealed that Champion owns a 55 acre forest and only reaped 1-acre per year because the trees had a 55 year maturity cycle. Like the Once-ler, any company who could not figure this out would be eliminated from the market in very short order. Unlike the Once-ler, you do not see firms or farms acting in this manner.

No comments: