Monday, April 7, 2008

Soylent Green: Economics of famine

Over the weekend Charlton Heston passed away. From Ape Agitator to Dr Zaius (in the remake), he made some great movies. I have always been partial to the movie Soylent Green. In a dystopic future the world is short on food and heavy on pollution, Charlton Heston lives in New York City of 40 million people with few supplies left. Most of the population subsists on a food product called soylent green. Spoiler alert!

Soylent green is made out of people, its people!

For those of you who know me, you know I have a habit of responding to the question about anything “what is this object made out of?” with “ITS PEOPLE! (insert name of object) Made out of people!”

Despite my love of this movie (or at least that line), I’m still an optimist about the future of the world. In fact a lot of economists have made the term dismal science a little bit of a misnomer.

So a couple of soylent green related examples. Nobel Prize winning economist,
Amartya Sen, in his work on famines has generally found that lack of distribution and not production has been the problem or as he notes:

“If we took the waste of the Western World and gave it to those who are starving then there would be no famines.”

Another famous optimistic economist was Julian Simon. Critic of population bomb author Paul Ehrlich (not an economist), Simon argued that:
“..There is no reason why material life on earth should not continue to improve, and that increasing population contributes to that improvement in the long run.”

After reading Sen and Simon’s work, I generally feel good about humans ability to overcome problems. Although I have not seen any economic writings on how to defend against a class of extremely intelligent Apes.

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