My debate with Bill McKibben

by Russ Roberts on October 23, 2008

in Trade

I’ll be debating Bill McKibben on the virtues or lack thereof of "buying local." The debate will be at 4:00 pm, Oct. 29  at the Dudley H. Davis Center’s Grand Maple Ballroom on the University of Vermont campus in Burlington. Hope to see you there.

Meanwhile, here’s an interview I did with a Vermont paper, Seven Days, on the idea of buying local.

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{ 43 comments }

Speedmaster October 23, 2008 at 10:09 am

REALLY looking forward to this. The 'buy local' nonsense is one of my pet-peeves. ;-)

Neil West October 23, 2008 at 10:20 am

Will there be a podcast of the event? I hope so since I live too far away to attend. Happy debating!

Bob Kozman October 23, 2008 at 11:25 am

I think there are a lot of us who would enjoy listening to a recording of the debate. Are there plans to record the event? Can you suggest it to the planners?

pacific_waters October 23, 2008 at 11:37 am

It is not an either/or argument. Invariably the produce I buy from a small local (I emphasize small) farmer at a local farmer's market (I'm not talking about the average state agricultural commission sponsored market) is fresher than the produce I buy from a chain grocer or even from the roadside stand who has bought cases of agribusiness produce. The benefit from buying anything produced locally or elsewhere varies from item to item.

Sam Grove October 23, 2008 at 12:49 pm

The benefit from buying anything produced locally or elsewhere varies from item to item.

And, of course, by season.

Matt October 23, 2008 at 1:05 pm

I think a key point here is that its impossible for any person or group to know with any degree of accuracy what the envoronmental cost of buying local vs. global is. We do know the economic cost through a magical process called the price system. To impose a govt. regulation based on a purely speculative cost is beyond ludicrous.

In a truly free global market with solid property rights worldwide I'd even argue that the price would capture environmental costs but of course we don't live in that world.

Good luck Russ!

BoscoH October 23, 2008 at 1:48 pm

Seeing as it's close to Halloween, here is a costume suggestion which would totally disarm the audience.

1. Beat up jeans and Birkenstocks.
2. A Ché style olive t-shirt with the image of David Ricardo.
3. A hemp rope necklace with a Mercedes logo.
4. A Vietnam era Army jacket with "Friedman" name strip.

Robert S. Porter October 23, 2008 at 2:36 pm

I think you need to emphasize the moral failings of "buy-local" more. Just like protectionism is immoral because it supposes that those of your country are better than foreigners, buy local takes that to a new level.

Marcus October 23, 2008 at 3:05 pm

Robert,

I think a better argument would be that protectionism is immoral because it presumes the interests of American producers supercede the interests of American consumers (or which ever country's producers are being protected at the expense of consumers).

Eric H October 23, 2008 at 3:09 pm

I want to chime in with the others — it would be nice to see this as a 'bonus episode' of EconTalk.

Bill K. October 23, 2008 at 3:25 pm

Ask him about buying Vermont petroleum for his car. Maybe he'd elucidate how he views "local". Or if he drives a hybrid, how about the nickel for that NiMH battery?

muirgeo October 23, 2008 at 3:51 pm

"Not surprisingly, local merchants want you to buy local, and they’ll often argue that “the money stays in town.” I think that’s a mistake, and I think to use that argument is fallacious."

I think this was glossed over a bit. I've seen plenty of evidence that suggest a Wal-mart or other big stores that send their profits out of town often hurt local economies more then their cheap products help. Also from a national standpoint good arguments are made that the trade deficit has cost use dearly maybe even being a prime factor
leading to the current collapse.

I'd love to see some empiric evidence to the contrary.

Randy October 23, 2008 at 4:41 pm

Muirgeo,

Empirical evidence that Walmart is good; Lots of people shop there.

Randy October 23, 2008 at 4:44 pm

Oops, my mistake. You wanted empirical evidence that the trade deficit has not cost us dearly. The answer is basically the same as it was for Walmart. Lots of people are buying foreign made goods. If they didn't find it beneficial (not costing them dearly) then they wouldn't do it.

Crusader October 23, 2008 at 4:50 pm

I don't shop at Wal Mart due to my snobbery. Otherwise they provide a good service to low income people.

Graniteman October 23, 2008 at 5:03 pm

At my university on the East Coast, there is a new dual major in eco-gastronomy. The students will learn how to prepare locally grown food. Part of their program will be a semester abroad in France. Think about all of that jet fuel expended to get them and their (green) professors to Europe.

Graniteman October 23, 2008 at 5:05 pm

On the question of WalMart. There is an article in the latest issue of Economic Inquiry (publication of the Western Economic Association) that shows that WalMart has NOT destroyed small business in America.

muirgeo October 23, 2008 at 5:19 pm

Muirgeo,

Empirical evidence that Walmart is good; Lots of people shop there.

Posted by: Randy

Yeah Randy… and lots of people eat Big Macs so they must be good for your heart.

BoscoH October 23, 2008 at 5:43 pm

Empirical evidence that WalMart is good… My pantry plus most of the portable appliances in my house plus about 1/2 the gifts I'll give at Christmas plus my Nintendo Wii.

And coincidentally George, I had a Big Mac, fries, and a Diet Coke for lunch. It was delicious. I'll work it off on the pavement this evening.

Oil Shock October 23, 2008 at 5:54 pm

An overweight doctor is advising us on the heart health benefits of big macs. LOL.

Marcus October 23, 2008 at 6:51 pm

Yeah Randy… and lots of people eat Big Macs so they must be good for your heart.
– Posted by: muirgeo | Oct 23, 2008 5:19:29 PM

Where did the 'for your heart' come from? If people were buying Big Macs for their heart, you might have a point.

It's a big world muirgeo and not everyone values the same things you do.

Randy October 23, 2008 at 7:20 pm

Muirgeo,

Re; "Yeah Randy… and lots of people eat Big Macs so they must be good for your heart."

I was about to say that you're avoiding the point, but you're really not. Your response indicates that you believe that you (or the political class) should get to decide what "good" means. You asked for empirical evidence and I gave you empirical evidence. You will ignore it because it doesn't comply with your presumption of superiority.

muirgeo October 23, 2008 at 7:58 pm

Jimminy ?sp… How old are you guys?

Let me break it down for you.

Randy says
Empirical evidence that Walmart is good; Lots of people shop there.

Posted by: Randy

Because people like the cheap stuff does that mean it's good for them. If the tax revenue and the dollars flow out of their community they may have to pay more in taxes to make up the difference they paid for the cheap Walmart crap…. so in theory it wasn't good for them from a consumer stand point looking at the big picture.

I said,

Yeah Randy… and lots of people eat Big Macs so they must be good for your heart.

Drawing a perfect analogy of some one buying what they wanted to eat but which is not good for them from a cardiac standpoint.

I in no way implied that people should be forced to "do as I recommend". I would simply recommend people uderstand the bigger picture of their actions. When they do the might voluntarily change what they buy.

Knowledge is power… ignorance is dangerous. And simply put it is not emperic evidence that shoppers at walmart are shopping their with full understanding of the implications. I'd guess almost none have any idea that there might be "hidden costt" to their purchase.

MnM October 23, 2008 at 7:59 pm

"I gave you empirical evidence. You will ignore it because it doesn't comply with your presumption of superiority."

Posted by: Randy | Oct 23, 2008 7:20:26

QFT. Well said, Randy.

Oil Shock October 23, 2008 at 8:14 pm

Excercise causes oxidation in your body, so Gyms are evil.

Exposure to Sun has been found to cause skin cancer, so Sun is an evil.

MnM October 23, 2008 at 8:28 pm

"Because people like the cheap stuff does that mean it's good for them. If the tax revenue and the dollars flow out of their community they may have to pay more in taxes to make up the difference they paid for the cheap Walmart crap…. so in theory it wasn't good for them from a consumer stand point looking at the big picture."

Posted by: muirgeo | Oct 23, 2008 7:58:37 PM

Of course, these poor dopes wouldn't know what was in their best interest if it weren't for benevolent tyrants like you. Do you have any idea how condescending you sound?

Muirgeo: "You shouldn't shop at WalMart, they hurt small communities."

Consumer: "I live in a small community and they have X for $20.00 cheaper than the other guy. That helps me an awful lot."

Muirgeo: "But you don't understand, your tax dollars are leaving the community!"

Consumer: "…Every time I get a pay check there are tax dollars leaving the community. Are you suggesting that federal taxes hurt small communities?"

Muirgeo: "You obviously don't understand the big picture. I'm a doctor, I do. This place will give you a heart attack, just like a Big Mac!!"

Consumer: "What? Are seriously comparing shopping at WalMart to fast food? You should stick to medicine and leaving the analogies to professionals."

Muirgeo: "You idiot! You're just too simple to get it!"

Consumer: "No, I understand perfectly. You want me to adjust my shopping habbits based on your assumptions about the way the world works. I don't share those assumptions; stop condescending to me."

You really should stop insulting people you don't know and haven't met Muirgeo. You have no idea what motivates the people who shop at WalMart.

Methinks October 23, 2008 at 8:51 pm

Knowledge is power… ignorance is dangerous. – Village Idiot

Irony.

Sam Grove October 23, 2008 at 9:13 pm

Where did they get those dollars in the first place? Were they printed at the local Kinkos?

Money does its work by flowing.

Should the community hide its money under its mattress?

RL October 23, 2008 at 9:41 pm

Please note the irony that, in order to debate a "buy local" advocate, it is necessary that you travel to meet him…

Hans Luftner October 24, 2008 at 3:39 am

cheap Walmart crap

People often, when implying that shopping at Walmart is "bad", refer to the merchandise as "cheap crap." Two questions:

1) Would it be okay if Walmart sold merchandise you considered higher quality?
2) Would it be "bad" to buy "cheap crap" from a local mom&pop store?

In other words, isn't the "cheapness" of Walmart's "crap" totally irrelevant? (I won't address to totally subjective nature of "cheap crap")

Hans Luftner October 24, 2008 at 4:01 am

If the tax revenue and the dollars flow out of their community they may have to pay more in taxes to make up the difference they paid for the cheap Walmart crap…. so in theory it wasn't good for them from a consumer stand point looking at the big picture.

This seems off to me.

You're saying that shopping at the local mom&pop stores would result in more local tax revenue than shopping at Walmart, & that although consumers save more money at Walmart, they would save less money than they would have to pay in increased taxes levied to offset the taxes the mom&pop stores are no longer paying. Can you back this up with figures? Because I'm not sure that adds up.

I won't address the issue of whether increased local tax revenue is necessarily a good thing. It's beside the point.

Bob Kozman October 24, 2008 at 9:58 am

If you are tired of the droll wal-mart debate you can listen to the real debate.

A podcast of the Buy-Local Buy Global debate will be available on the UVM web site.

ref: http://www.uvm.edu/~uvmpr/?Page=News&storyID=12949

Akos Beres October 24, 2008 at 10:30 am

Thanks Bob,

Can't wait to listen to the debate!

MWG October 24, 2008 at 1:20 pm

"Wal-mart or other big stores that send their profits out of town often hurt local economies more then their cheap products help."

"I'd love to see some empiric evidence to the contrary."

I live in a fairly nice part of town and about 1 mile from a Wal-Mart. In the same lot there's a Staples, Greek/Italian Restaurant (Family owned), a Wells Fargo, a WaMu, a Starbucks, a Buffalo Wild Wings, a women's clothing store, a video game store, a Panda Expres, a Subway, ect., ect., ect… All in the same parking lot. About 10 miles away there's ANOTHER Wal-Mart. Right next door there is a Best Buy, one of those stores where people go to paint plates, a Starbucks, a "non-Starbucks" coffee shop, a Macaroni Grill, Texas Roadhouse, a movie theater, a Hawiian Style Restaurant ect., ect., ect…

Yea, the local economy is really hurting.

muirgeo October 24, 2008 at 6:44 pm

In the same lot there's a Staples, Greek/Italian Restaurant (Family owned), a Wells Fargo, a WaMu, a Starbucks, a Buffalo Wild Wings, a women's clothing store, a video game store, a Panda Expres, a Subway, ect., ect., ect…
MWG

Wow what a unique place you live in. It sounds so original and different from all the others.

And it's great to know your towns economy is doing so well because all the others across this country are struggling.

MWG October 24, 2008 at 8:09 pm

"Wow what a unique place you live in. It sounds so original and different from all the others.

And it's great to know your towns economy is doing so well because all the others across this country are struggling."

Ah, but you originally said Wal-Mart HURTs local economies. All I'm saying is that wherever I see a Wal-Mart I also see lots of economic activity.

Do you dispute that?

muirgeo October 24, 2008 at 8:30 pm

Ah, but you originally said Wal-Mart HURTs local economies. All I'm saying is that wherever I see a Wal-Mart I also see lots of economic activity.

Do you dispute that?

Posted by: MWG

Walmarts are all over the country in the last 10 -20 years going from a Made in America manta of Sam Walton to Made in China…. so how would you say the overall country's economy is doing. Like John McCain would you claim, " The fundamentals of the economy are strong"? Because there are good arguments to be made that the trade deficit is related to the current economic crisis. Have you read any such articles?

MWG October 24, 2008 at 8:54 pm

"Walmarts are all over the country in the last 10 -20 years going from a Made in America manta of Sam Walton to Made in China…. so how would you say the overall country's economy is doing."

Even with the current economic conditions today, our standard of living is undoubtedly higher than it was 20 yrs ago. Do you question whether or not the average american lives better today than 20 years ago?

Sam Grove October 24, 2008 at 10:00 pm

Think like a Keynesian, talk like a Keynesian.

Sam Grove October 25, 2008 at 12:07 am

What's going on here? The comments seem to be maxing out at around 50 or so, then no more are posted.

Here's what I was trying to post in reply to methinks continued from "Changing World" and "WWII Ended the Depression…"

repost

I wrote a reply and it got swallowed.

Let me rephrase:

Finance is about how consumers gain the right to consume, in the future when they are no longer producers, what is produced by producers in the future.

The problem is that the pool of producers is not growing as fast as the pool of those who no longer produce.

It may have been possible for productivity gains to keep up with the disparity, but our collective agency has been very busy diverting much or our excess production into sinkholes, that is allocation of resources into non-productive endeavors rather than allowing those resources to be devoted to increasing productivity.

IOW, the power of government has been turned into a reality faking machine.

Investors are not getting signals from the real world.

Daniel October 31, 2008 at 10:59 am

Wow, it's online: http://www.uvm.edu/~uvmpr/?Page=News&storyID=12999

Russ, I think you did quite well, even if McKibben attaced you pretty harsh at the beginning.

Trying to convince people, that the world is more complex than "buying local" or "buying global" seems to be quite a difficult point to get across. I also liked your reply to the studies and your calm, considerate style, but I suspect, McKibben's pseudo-arguments convinced more people, especially in that audience.

Benjamin November 13, 2008 at 12:14 am

Hello,

I attended this debate in Burlington and just found this series of postings. I was about to post the link to the debate as nobody had until this very last posting above by "Daniel." In case you missed it: http://www.uvm.edu/~uvmpr/?Page=News&storyID=12999

I am a local foods advocate, but also the son of a Harvard Business school grad. I am a business owner with 20 employees and $1,000,000 in sales this year…I'm not a puffball liberal. I came hoping for a robust debate…I wanted to hear the "other side." Professor Roberts introduced the concept of "confirmational bias", which I thought was very apt given the crowd to which he spoke. Sadly, I agree with the consensus up here in VT…Professor Roberts did not come appropriately prepared for the debate. He failed to address the subject directly.

Daniel, you are correct in your suspicion that McKibben's arguments convinced more people here, though I do think it is very dismissive for you to refer to McKibben's arguments as "psuedo." Meanwhile, Roberts appeared to concedes on a number of points. Surely there was tremendous "confirmational bias", but I'd like to think I heard both sides fairly.

Most of these postings do not address the debate directly. Since this posting group is full of people on Roberts home turf…please, I would really appreciate an attempt on your parts to listen to this debate and share your honest reflections…try to hold the "confirmational bias" and respond. Since we all felt it was an overwhelming "win" for McKibben up here, it would be fascinating to hear your perspectives directly on the subject of this debate down there.

Best,

-Benjamin Adler

Benjamin November 15, 2008 at 2:45 pm

Hey y'all,

no responses? That's too bad.

-Benjy

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