Thursday, April 7, 2011

A case study in externalities, corporate power, and citizen resistance

As yet another term of lectures draws to a close, I have the familiar feeling that there's not been enough time to 'cover all the material'. This is a common objection to using something like the Anti-Textbook in a course: 'there's no time to do what's even in the text!'.
   There's some truth to that, of course, if you really want to try to lecture about everything in a 300-450 page text in one term. Such an objective almost guarantees that it would be hard to do that and to comment on it critically and to get students to read beyond the text.
   One way to economize on class time is to get students to do something outside of it. They could listen to (or watch) a case study that draws themes together and would provide a basis for some discussion in class or a short written assignment. While driving home from an evening class tonight I listened to CBC Radio's Ideas, that featured a superb 50-minute episode called 'Saving Salmon'. (It can be heard here.)
   The broadcast consisted of a wide-ranging interview with Alexandra Morton, a biologist who lives on the north end of Vancouver Island on the west coast of Canada and who has made a career of studying killer whales (or orcas). Because the whales eat salmon, she learned about the wild salmon, and then when the corporate-owned ocean feedlots of farmed salmon appeared, she learned about them and the many external costs that come along with them, including the damage they do to wild salmon. Then she learned about the political power of the (mostly Norwegian) corporations that own the salmon feedlots, and more broadly about the power of big business lobbies that would be happy to see the wild salmon gone so that rivers can be used for other things like dams and pollutants. Then she had to think about how to organize resistance to the politicians whose inclinations are to serve the destructive corporate animal...

Alexandra Morton and some orcas, Vancouver Island
(from her website)

The account was told with such clarity and eloquence that, for me, it brought the scene alive and drew together in a powerful and memorable way a set of themes (such as pervasive externalities, corporate political influence, informational problems and citizen ignorance and disorganization, and the possibilities of resistance) that all economics students should be thinking about. It's a great case study. I'll write about another one soon.


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