All Wet Posted by: Bryan Pick
on Sunday, August 24, 2008
I just saw the trailer for a documentary on water use. It’s called “Flow,” and based simply on the trailer, it should be completely ignored. But it’s loaded with common nonsense (hat tip to commenter “capt joe” for that term), and when someone on the internet is wrong... well.
Here are the two pillars on which the rest of the film rest:
“This notion that we’ll have water forever is wrong. The world is running out of fresh water.” “Water is a common resource. Water is not a property!”
This is what happens when people are unfamiliar with economic thinking. They make these two statements and can’t work out the implications. So forgive the rant, but I feel like making those implications explicit.
Water suitable for human use, per the film’s experts, is both exclusive (i.e., if you use it I cannot) and increasingly scarce. They show that they understand this when they accuse a handful of European companies of “stealing our water” and chastise one company for continuing to pump during a drought season.
Property rights are simply exclusive rights to use and dispose of things. To say that something is a common resource rather than property is to say that it only becomes yours exclusively by the act of consumption.
For something to be a truly common resource, with nobody having exclusive rights to use and dispose, nobody must control the distribution of that resource. In that case, the resource will be rationed by first come, first served. But that’s not what the filmmakers seem to want. After all, they’re concerned about shortages and somebody has to deliver the water to the end user. So somebody is going to gain exclusive control over extraction and delivery of the resource.
And more importantly, they recognize that the resource is scarce, so some kind of rationing is going to be necessary. But they don’t want it to be rationed by the price mechanism. After all, one commentator bleats, “The market is amoral” – that is, people who trade are amoral – “and it’s going to lead you to selling to those who can buy it and not to those who need it,” and one of the images in the trailer is protestors carrying a banner saying “WATER FOR PEOPLE NOT FOR PROFIT.” Whose water? “Our water.” The message is clear: water belongs not to people, who might attempt to sell it if they’re the ones pumping, filtering, bottling, distributing and chilling it, but to The People – collectively, as represented by the government, of course. So, The People are going to exclude some people, that is, people who aren’t going to consume it immediately.
One person in the trailer asserts that “Who owns the water for survival owns you, and that’s the picture that people have to understand.” I know he wouldn’t want to say out loud, “I want the government to own you,” but who else could he mean? And that’s setting aside for a moment the preposterous idea that if somebody has something you need, then they have the exclusive right (or power) to use and dispose of you.
You need food to survive, but do food companies own you? Can they use and dispose of you as chattel, as they see fit? No. Instead they compete relentlessly, driven mainly by self-interest, to get you to voluntarily trade your wealth for their produce. Because they want you to prefer their produce over that of other producers, they will pointedly remark on the shortcomings and dangers of other products, and they will try to produce what you want. They’ll even try to create something you didn’t know you needed.
Inventories of food are flying off the shelves all over the world, and constantly being replenished because people – people all over the world, not The People – are constantly creating more of it. Because, again, people want your wealth, and unlike The People, they’re generally shy about threatening you to get it.
There’s no reason the same can’t apply to water. When one of the film’s experts declares that recently “major water companies from Europe have started taking advantage of pollution and scarcity,” I say it’s a good thing someone is! If nobody’s out there giving consumers (that’s you and me, folks) an alternative, we’re stuck with scarce, polluted water.
That water is abundant on Earth is a tremendous understatement, and private firms and governments alike know how to purify it and they know how to move it long distances. But as with all things, they can only do so at a cost. A government, insulated from the costs of its actions as they generally are, will sell or give away a commodity like water at a price below cost to the point that they experience shortages like those “Flow” is complaining about. Days of plenty give way to serious crises, and governments like we have in the United States simply throw up their hands, declare an emergency, and ask their consumers to use less. On the other hand, a private firm, familiar with its limits, won’t beg customers to use less of its product; they will respond to greater demand by trying to quickly deliver more of the product, and change the price signal until people are only buying what is available – if they are left free to do so, that is.
So only in extraordinary cases will a commodity sold on the market actually “run out.” Sure, you can run out of, say, some species of wild fish, if you kill them all off. But water? To make it fresh, you might have to desalinize it; you might have to purify it of contaminants both natural and artificial; you might have to deliver it over a longer distance. But there’s plenty. So if fresh water becomes scarce somewhere, it simply gets a bit more expensive to deliver it there.
Yet the makers of “Flow” are trying to sell us on the idea that (usable) water is running out, that soulless corporations and their lackeys in the World Bank are cynically profiting from a problem of their creation, and that the solution is to put water solely in the hands of somebody who will ensure that water is distributed solely according to someone’s arbitrary idea of “need.”
To close the trailer, they show a presumably evil old man explaining, “People say that, well, water’s a lot like air, you shouldn’t charge for water. Well okay, watch what happens.” And just as if he were arguing against price controls for oil, the consequences will bear out his argument.
The trailer advertises that Wired Magazine called it “The scariest movie at the Sundance Film Festival.” I’ll bet it is.
A government, insulated from the costs of its actions as they generally are, will sell or give away a commodity like water at a price below cost to the point that they experience shortages like those “Flow” is complaining about. Days of plenty give way to serious crises, and governments like we have in the United States simply throw up their hands, declare an emergency, and ask their consumers to use less. On the other hand, a private firm, familiar with its limits, won’t beg customers to use less of its product; they will respond to greater demand by trying to quickly deliver more of the product, and change the price signal until people are only buying what is available – if they are left free to do so, that is.
I don’t see how you could see it or say it with greater clarity. Brilliant post.
I had to go see the trailer. What a lot of emotionalism and and bullying. Very interesting to see the people chosen to make the various assertions and declarations.
And isn’t that "presumably evil old man" T. Boone Pickens?
Go figure...it’s hosted at crApple and requires its intrusive QuickTime to play the damned thing. I refuse to succumb to those particular evil overlords, so I’ll look elsewhere for the clip. Anything on crApple’s website is pretty much guaranteed to be brainless poop.