There was a recent piece on Eco Business about Singapore’s packaging recycling scheme being delayed and how the polluter-pays principle seems to have failed to take hold in this particular situation. It was partly because of a speech by an activist in the recent SG Climate Rally.
The principle of polluter-pays is important because it helps to internalise the social cost of pollution and allows the market to price it in correctly. The result would be that the production and eventual consumption of the relevant goods stays at the level which is socially optimum.
Product packaging is itself a massive problem where it is clear certain social costs of the waste production is not properly internalised. The fact that supply chains are such that buying a new product is cheaper than the refill version, and the fact that massive amounts of materials are used in packaging without producers having to foot the cost of disposal, seems to be an issue. But the situation is also because waste management is not properly priced. Today, in Singapore, the amount of cost you shoulder for waste disposal is based on where you live and the type of dwelling you live in rather than the amount of waste you generate. This in itself is already not exactly adhering to the polluter-pay principle.
Creating a plastic bottle or aluminum can refund scheme would also jack up the cost of the products but sometimes we forget who are actually the polluters. The ultimate polluters are still the consumers and in making our purchase decisions, if we recognise the cost to the environment and decide that accordingly, it changes the dynamics of the situation and allows the producers to ‘suffer’ the cost from the lack of demand despite the low-ish prices. But that still doesn’t produce a very reliable signal in the marketplace. And that’s why it makes sense to properly ‘tax’ the producers or the consumers somehow to get the market back in line.
As it turns out, the identification of the polluter does not matter much. What matters is that the associated product gets the pollution priced in somehow. You can charge even the shops that are stocking the products. The reason is that the cost will reverberate through the supply chain; the higher price will result in less customers buying it, sending a demand signal that reduces the orders and stocking by the shop, who will order less from their suppliers and so on. Eventually, at the default price point the producer will realise the market isn’t taking as much of the product that they are producing hence reducing their production and hopefully the pollution as well.
The tricky issue is pricing the pollution and getting a sense of how much the marginal reduction in production could reduce the pollution. This is tricky because the average pollution per product isn’t the same as the marginal pollution. And indeed you may have to curb consumption/production very drastically in order to reduce a bit of pollution if there is significant non-linearity involved. I won’t go into the mathematics here but suffice to say, there is reluctance to tinker too much with the pricing of more ‘ordinary’ consumer goods in Singapore. And it might be a shame for sustainability.
The previous two posts are really just preparing me for this final one about returns on capital. We have talked about the aspirations of labour and that perhaps capital should be more like labour, where it is not just trying to get a return to multiply itself, but actually to look to more qualitative returns as well. But how would capital do that?
We see examples of this done using state capital. The government uses its capital to invest into public infrastructure, education or even public housing; all of these drives returns at broad economic and social levels. And this can generate more taxes in the future but the idea of the government isn’t to actually be able to generate more taxes in the future. Having more taxes is good because it can sustain the pace of these investments but the actual return is what the society reap in terms of better standards of living, greater knowledge in the people and so on.
Yet private capital holders are not exactly thinking this way. Private capital holders act as if most of what matters is that invested capital reaps more capital. And imagine if this was applied to the government, that it simply invests more so as to gain more taxes. It might end up investing in more coercive approaches to extracting more taxes. Or to just invest in areas that gives it more power.
If companies starts developing a vision of the future and of the world it wants to build, and define the returns on capital as what gains the world get in steps towards those vision, one could expect businesses to behave differently. In other words, we start investing the way we would want to be able to practice charity or giving effectively. We put our money where there can be most impact and action towards the future we want to see in the world. The returns come when we are able to step into the future that we had envision, not when the money flows back in. In most cases, if that future in our vision materialises, the monetary gains should come in to sustain that vision. If it doesn’t, then something is missing somewhere, and you either find another vision or path to invest into, or harness further resources needed to move towards that.
Debt didn’t get dangerously out of scale because the system was broken. It got out of scale, in part, because the system worked.
Of course, he was speaking largely of corporate debts as well as mortgages but he did also raised the point that “In the U.S., people used to be able to write off the interest they paid on credit cards. That tax break was abolished in 1986…” Interestingly, Fortune Magazine ran a story about record debt in China. The diagnosis sounds grim but it does little to compare the context of the debts in China and US, making it difficult to assess if the ‘some economists’ quoted by them makes sense. Moreover, the statement about infrastructural investments is way too wobbly, China has much room to pull ahead when you compare them with the developed world; to be frank, the top cities in China barely compare with top cities of the world. In addition, The Economist have also tried to offer an alternative, more comprehensive explanation of China’s growth linked to productivity.
Some economists believe China’s infrastructure, already superior to that of many other developing economies, has now passed the point where more investment can contribute much to growth. China, in other words — despite the rosy, headline GDP numbers — might be stuck.
And yes, Japan is now fearful of the D-word, or rather the comeback of it; not depression, or debts. It’s kind of cool to have a central bank that combats ‘deflation’ rather than ‘inflation’ though.