Cleaned by Capitalism V

by Don Boudreaux on August 26, 2009

in Cleaned by Capitalism, Complexity & Emergence, Environment, Everyday Life

Perhaps the most famous line from the 1967 movie “The Graduate” is: “Plastics.”  A middle-aged gent self-confidently offers this advice to Dustin Hoffman, newly graduated from college.  This scene was meant to show how dreary so much of modern American life had become and that American business people are such philistines.

It’s easy and apparently gratifying for economically ignorant folk to look down their noses at persons who spend their lives producing and selling products as seemingly mundane as plastics.  “How sad that so many modern people spend their careers in such insignificant, even if financially profitable, pursuits,” is the lament.

Of course, there’s nothing at all mundane about the production and distribution of plastics.  All sorts of engineering, creativity, risk-taking, and effort are required from the raw-material stages to the retailing stages.

Nor is there anything mundane about the fact that plastics are among the most important shields standing between us denizens of modernity and bacteria.  Plastics are truly a wonderful anti-pollutant.

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Dom August 26, 2009 at 6:07 pm

You just squeaked this in when I had commented on CByC IV. But I’d like to mention it again — how about “Dirtied by environmental regulation”.

Anonymous August 26, 2009 at 9:33 pm

He could start with the prohibition of DDT and the dirtying of humanity with a vicious increase in Malaria.

Gil August 27, 2009 at 1:23 am
Anonymous August 27, 2009 at 5:28 am

DDT was banned. Malaria infections subsequently exploded. Malaria deaths grew dramatically.

What else do you need to know? The banners didn’t replace DDT with ITNs, they just banned DDT.

Gil August 27, 2009 at 5:51 am

Did you even read the link vv?

Anonymous August 27, 2009 at 11:18 am


The link you provided was to what seems to be a very left leaning slanted envirowhacko publication, but hey, it is what it is.

The recently peer reviewed scientific paper from which the article quotes cost effectiveness seems to have been published in 2008.

So, that leaves a rational person to ask what happened in the arena of DDT use from the time it was banned until just recently in this century when nations suffering high malaria rates began flipping off the world community and began using DDT again?

Another thing about a ban, that you seem to miss, is that there are so many ways for the powerful to enforce actions in/by the weak. One of which is to say, “if you continue to use DDT, we will cut or eliminate IMF loans to your nation.” No direct ban there just a de facto ban which is equally effective in most cases.

The fact of the matter is, that DDT was banned, if not in every single country, certainly in most. You couldn’t buy it anywhere I lived during those years, and that includes some primitive nations all the way to industrial first world nations, such as Japan. You couldn’t get it here in the USA and I bet the cost of my lunch today that you couldn’t buy it in Australia either. For the major part of the world, there was a ban.

Yes, some one obviously was/is making it because those countries that have gone back to using it get it somehow, and I would guess it isn’t home-brewed.

ITNs may be cost effective for protection while sleeping, but how many can run around all day huddled under an ITN? (Well maybe this would explain the low productivity of African nations.) I get bit by mosquitoes on a regular basis when working outside during the day, I would suppose that so do people who live in Malaria zones. DDT, when administered properly and thoroughly, kills mosquitoes in all its phases of development, and had pre-ban reduced Malaria to no more than a nuisance threat.

I don’t have time today to dig into the 2008 paper quoted but I am guessing we will find some misrepresenting of data, or assumptions being made that would pass left leaning peers, but not necessarily everyone. I’ll scan it later to see what is there.

Gil August 28, 2009 at 2:22 am

So you believe DDT is the perfect insecticide with no drawbacks whatsoever? Then again why don’t the poor countries get rich so they don’t have to rely on the whims of rich countries and buy the DDT directly instead of hoping for Western charity?

TeeJaw August 26, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Traveling to countries where the dominant power prevents free markets from operating except a on minor scale should be sufficient to convince anyone that free market capitalism is the path to a clean healthy environment.

Anonymous August 26, 2009 at 6:57 pm

I wonder if Mike Nichols ever used plastic bags. If he did, he’s a hypocrite.

Carl Pham August 26, 2009 at 8:41 pm

Plastics and fine chemicals is also one of the few high-tech capital-intensize high-wage industries, along with health care technology and aircraft, in which the US has a dominant world role, intellectual leadership, and a strong export business.

But, as you know, the correct role for healthy industries is to be parasitized by government to bail out industries suffering the atherosclerosis of insane overregulation and unionization.

Anonymous August 26, 2009 at 9:32 pm

If you want a fascinating education, find someone who knows how that common plastic is made from start to finish and ask him to describe the process to you.

One of the most interesting depositions I have ever taped was just that.

At every step of the way I kept asking myself, “My God, who would have thought of that?”

And, that is why I have so much faith in humanity, particularly Americans, to innovate the way to anything, any solution, any product, any process, any cure, except corrupt politics.

Anonymous August 27, 2009 at 3:21 am

Humans born in Russia are not likely any less genetically capable of innovation than humans born in America. Clearly politics can have a huge effect on innovation.

Ray Gardner August 27, 2009 at 1:02 am

I work for one of the largest plastics manufacturers in the food industry, and it has a lot to offer a young business mind.

Engineers are constantly working to find better designs, thinner walls, etc. From a purely business standpoint, it’s practically recession proof, and we’re having a great year in the middle of all of this, and so on.

And you can’t really send this work overseas, because the food industry is trying to operate as much as possible on a lean, JIT platform so cross country shipments are becoming more rare, shipping from out of the country would be impossible.

The only magazine article I have published was in a trade journal laying out the healthy status of American manufacturing. The things I spelled out in the article are happening more in this industry than even in the other industries I studied.

Essentially the gap between the lowest hourly employee and the higher paid “technicians” is widening. And this is good. The lowest skilled will still have a job as we always need bodies to do certain very low level tasks – we have mentally handicapped material handlers. The technicians are making more than they would have 40 years ago because there’s no choice – extremely low skilled work or learn how to fix that machine you’re operating.

Gil August 27, 2009 at 1:31 am

How quaint the way Don gets to define ‘pollution’. Most people would be using ‘hygiene’ or ‘sanitation’ to describe the ability of people keep disease and germs at bay. Pollution would generally referred to what happens to waste when people are finished with their items. What a coinkidink that plastics are a high component of waste and there’s huge dumping ground in the open seas filled most by – plastics. Don could go far in politics.

Ray Gardner August 27, 2009 at 2:05 am

Don’t believe everything you hear.

There’s a booming business in plastic regrind, and we get almost as much for our regrind as we do our regular product.

Plastic can be used, reused, and used again. It’s great stuff, and actually makes for a more productive, and safe world.

Go through your house and try to remove all of the plastic. Or you could try to add up all of the minute savings that plastics affords which allows you to pay lower prices for things that aren’t even plastic.

There’s too much nuance to go into, but it’s the same old economic story you’ve probably heard by now – and apparently ignored – but just because you’re weekly e-newsletter told you the speckled chested robin of the arctic is nearly endangered because the CEO of WalMart ordered all of their excess plastic bags dumped on their mating ground, doesn’t mean you could live the life you now take for granted without the ubiquitous ingredient plastic.

Bob in SeaTac August 27, 2009 at 3:42 am

Don’t forget the guy who tried to get George to follow him into plastics in “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Anonymous August 27, 2009 at 5:33 am

“This scene was meant to show how dreary so much of modern American life had become and that American business people are such philistines.”

If anyone wants to see a rare film devoid of that nonsense, see “The Pursuit of Happyness”–one of the finest films I’ve seen in many years.

Joe Calhoun August 27, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Here’s an interesting tidbit. I happen to know the Robinson family that Buck Henry used as the model for the Graduate (yes, they were a real family). My daughter went to high school with George Robinson’s grand daughter. Here’s the interesting part; the real Mr. Robinson wasn’t a lawyer but instead owned a stock brokerage firm on Wall Street. He subsequently sold the firm and became a therapist. He practiced scream therapy or something like it and became a bit of a guru. He eventually settled in Coconut Grove in Miami and raised quite the bohemian family. The straight laced, conservative Mr. Robinson of the movie morphed into what I can only describe as a hippie.

Anonymous August 27, 2009 at 6:30 am

You can’t let people get away with just saying that “it hasn’t been banned”:

“But various factors, chiefly the persistence of DDT’s toxic image in the West and the disproportionate weight that American decisions carry worldwide, have conspired to make it essentially unavailable to most malarial nations. With the exception of South Africa and a few others, African countries depend heavily on donors to pay for malaria control. But at the moment, there is only one country in the world getting donor money to finance the use of DDT: Eritrea, which gets money for its program from the World Bank with the understanding that it will look for alternatives. Major donors, including the United States Agency for International Development, or Usaid, have not financed any use of DDT, and global health institutions like W.H.O. and its malaria program, Roll Back Malaria, actively discourage countries from using it.”

Tim Lambert August 27, 2009 at 6:39 am

Well vv, you claimed that it was prohibited and it isn’t. The article you linked has numerous factual errors. See:

Anonymous August 27, 2009 at 8:22 am

The article stand up very well.

I find your fact-check link a bit misleading. The important substantive point you make is that it is funding, and not DDT that is needed. And you decouple those two issues by asserting that DDT is not significantly cheaper than alternatives, specifically deltamethrin.

The recommended applications at current market values may bear that out, but:

(1) DDT half-life is measured in months to years, while deltamethrin is measured in days to months. This is likely very important when recommended frequency of use cannot be maintained for political or financial reasons. It is not insignificant to ask which is more effective if less than recommended amounts are used.

(2) Price is dependent on production. DDT certainly WAS much cheaper, and likely would be again if past production levels returned. If prejudice rather than reason is restricting its use, it is also increasing its cost:

So the real question is, if DDT could be obtained at historical low costs, would it then be rational to promote greater DDT use? Would funding be less of an issue? If yes, then what other than prejudice is there to blame for it not being used more?

And of course by DDT use, we are talking about RATIONAL use (not use where it promotes or faces resistance, or where environmental costs outweigh the benefits), as Rosenberg made abundantly clear in her article (but which you obfuscated in yours):

– “Treated bed nets are indeed a useful tool for controlling malaria.”
– “DDT’s indiscriminate use was provoking the development of resistance among mosquitoes”
– “America and Europe used DDT irresponsibly to wipe out malaria.”
– “Ruckelshaus made the right decision [to ban DDT] — for the United States.”
– “Rereading ”Silent Spring,” I was again impressed by the book’s many virtues. …[it] changed the relationship many Americans had with their government and introduced the concept of ecology and the interconnectedness of systems into the national debate.”

And finally, Rachel Carson’s phrase “triumphant war” hardly does justice to the fact of the sheer number of lives saved.

Tim Lambert August 27, 2009 at 5:59 pm

Problem is, the DDT advocates want to use DDT even when other methods are better.

Yes, if DDT was used more then the price would be somewhat less. But it would also be less effective because there would be more selection pressure on mosquitoes to evolve resistance.

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