In yesterday’s post, I discussed how the economic concept of supply and demand works in terms of actual prices of commodities like oil, and how it can also be applied to other “markets” where people are metaphorically buying and selling other commodities, such as marriage. Today, I’d like to extend that idea a little further. Market corrections happen in nature, too.
One of the easiest to perceive is a correction that happens every autumn: the annual deer hunt. When we’ve killed off most or all of the large predators in an ecosystem, such as wolves, that means that prey species have fewer checks to help balance out their numbers. In short, deer begin to overpopulate the area. If they’re not hunted, they become dangerous nuisances in human-populated areas and may suffer starvation, which is a more lingeringly painful check on the population. Market corrections happen in nature when a large population of prey means more predators to bring them back in line with the resources available to support their numbers. A greater supply of deer means more demand for tree bark to get through the winter, unless hunters (like wolves or people) increase their demand for deer.
Market corrections happen to human populations, too. Sometimes it’s relatively benign. When jobs go overseas or are lost to automation, that means less demand for labor from the people who used to do those jobs. People cope with this in various ways. Sometimes, they move to a more happening place, reducing the labor supply in the economically depressed area through attrition. If they can’t afford to move, they may vote to reduce their tax burden so that the cost of living better matches their available resources, such as the citizens of Josephine County, Oregon, who decided to get by with almost no police department. Crime still happens, people die, but that’s the price they decided was worth paying.
Unfortunately, some market corrections happen more intentionally. In depressed rural areas like West Virginia, people without hope increasingly turn to drugs. Hydrocodone and oxycodone overdose deaths increased 67% in West Virginia between 2007 and 2012, fueled by corrupt doctors and prescription drug companies seeking profits just as surely as it was by a dying coal industry. It’s almost as if an area bereft of opportunity drove people to the kind of desperation that reduces the supply of labor. It is both a deep tragedy in human terms, and a market correction in economic terms.
Your recycled plastic ends up in the ocean, by PRI (Public Radio International)
Pollution in the environment can make market corrections happen at a distance. Plastic trash is everywhere, and a lot of it washes into the oceans. In fact, at the rate we’re going, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050. There’s a correction in the offing, though. As more humans throw more plastic into bodies of water, the plastic leaches harmful chemicals. That water (and the BPA it contains) eventually comes back to us, causing a reduction in human sperm quality, as well as being linked to reproductive abnormalities, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. As though the Earth were defending itself, the oversupply of humans is causing its own correction.
Climate change is helping this process along in a couple different ways. Much like the existential danger of plastic trash, anthropogenic climate change is an example of humans curing their own oversupply problem. As weather swings grow less predictable and more severe, agriculture will fail more often to feed as many people as we currently have, and fewer areas will be habitable anyway. Another way that climate change and instability in general makes market corrections happen is by encouraging some women to make the moral choice to avoid having children. Reducing the supply of humans would go a long way towards avoiding more severe corrections at the hand of Mother Nature.
We’re not supposed to think of human beings as commodities in the same way as real estate or oil, but in a way, they unavoidably are. Thinking about some of the world’s problems in terms of an imbalance between supply and demand may be rude or uncomfortable, but it can lend insight into why things happen as they do, in ways that more sentimental thinking cannot. If we want to get at the root of our many problems, new thinking about why market corrections happen can help us avoid doing the same old stuff. And that’s what we have to stop doing, if we don’t want to keep getting the same old results.