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Menopausal Mother Nature

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An Economist Ahead of His Time

This article is part of David Leonhardt’s newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it each weekday.

One of the giants of climate economics, Martin Weitzman, died last week, and I want to honor him by talking about a major way in which he was ahead of his time.

To do so, it’s worth mentioning a new book called “The Economists’ Hour,” by my colleague Binyamin Appelbaum, a member of The Times editorial board. In the book, Binya talks about a profound shift over the past half-century: The ideas of economists, especially the importance they put on market incentives and efficiency, have become much more influential.

This shift can claim some big accomplishments. By adopting more of a market economy, China, India and other countries have helped lift millions of people out of poverty. But the shift has also had some very big downsides (as Binya explained on the latest episode of “The Argument”).

Large parts of our economy are now built around the idea of maximum efficiency — or at least what seems like maximum efficiency in a theoretical model — with much less concern for the distribution of economic benefits or for the unpleasant side effects of economic activity. The clearest example, and the focus of Binya’s book, is the sharp rise of income and wealth inequality — and with it, the stagnation of living standards for most people.

Weitzman’s seminal work focused on some of the other problems caused by the purest version of market economics. He argued that economists should favor higher taxes on carbon emissions than many economic models called for, because of the terrible uncertainties associated with climate change. “If ever there was an example where there was uncertainty, this is it,” as he once told me. To put it bluntly, reducing the risk that Miami becomes uninhabitable is worth paying an extra 10 cents a gallon for gas.

Weitzman also argued that many of his fellow economists were too obsessed with taxes as the optimal solution to climate change, rather than simple limits on pollution. As Justin Gillis, a longtime climate writer and Times contributor, wrote on Facebook:

“For decades, economists had leaned toward controlling pollution and other socially harmful economic activities with special taxes … The stiff taxes on cigarettes are a familiar example. Lay people tended to think instead: if you want less of it, just regulate it. Weitzman broke with his profession in 1974 and said: economists really have no solid theoretical grounds for their preferences for taxes over volume limits.”

Weitzman’s work suggests that much of what ails economics can be cured by economists themselves. To do so, they need to engage even more with evidence from the real world. There are signs, fortunately, that the field is moving in this direction (as Binyamin discusses on the podcast). Call it the Weitzman direction.

“Even as some economists were building a brave new world of inequality and corporate power, others were working to make it fairer, more equal and more sustainable,” Bloomberg Opinion’s Noah Smith wrote. “Weitzman was one of them.”

Gillis concluded: “To my mind he was the most important environmental economist in the world.”

A postscript

Like many others, I was shocked to hear that Weitzman committed suicide, making him the second prominent economist to do so this year.

For anyone who wants to know what resources are available to people contemplating suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and the website Speaking of Suicide have suggestions.

William Styron’s 1989 Vanity Fair article, “Darkness Visible,” remains a canonical piece about depression.

Amy Barnhorst, a psychiatrist, wrote an Op-Ed this year about how to improve suicide prevention efforts at a time when it’s a rising cause of death. The article inspired many comments and letters from readers.

The Times, Washington Post and Economist have published obituaries of Weitzman.

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