Of Pathein Wildrats and the issue of sustainability
Myanmar is a Buddhist country which is primarily non vegetarian in diet. Prawns, shrimps, snakes, wildrats, rabbits, fish, and poultry along with rice make up their staple diet. Wildrats from being widely available became a delicacy, then pricey and now a rarity due to excessive ‘harvest’.
The irony is that once the catch started diminishing due to its demand the prices started to climb up incentivizing more and more into the business of catching them. It faces near extinction today. I guess the story is similar for most wildlife, most natural resources. First we develop a taste or technology, then hunt it more and more, invite more and more investments into exploiting it till it runs out.
Unfortunately in the current scheme of things there is nothing to moderate the wildrat harvest at some sustainable levels. Rising prices act as an incentive to catchers who run after more and more. If their costs also rise in union, then may be we would have a balance. Unfortunately, they are mostly unemployed or under employed and all it requires if at all is to set up more traps – an increase in capital cost of traps may be , but not significant increase in their labour cost. The current system of market economics acts exactly contrary to our long term interest – matches prices alright between seller and buyer but does not match cost (in all its forms whosoever incurs it) vs prices…much like thieves who are not bothered of what it means to the owner. They are only bothered about their personal risks.
Ideally, they should harvest only the excess of wildrats over what is sustainable by the surrounding environment, greenery, frogs, insects, etc (or whatever they feed on). That level would depend upon the sustainable levels of greenery. But neither wildrats nor greenery are capable of fixing these limits themselves.
So we need regulators. Regulation is a kind of centralization – dependent so much on the regulator. Mostly they have concerned themselves with only establishing rules re fair operations, contractual enforceability, transparency, etc. Not many of them touch issues of balance between the long term and short term. And in most cases people placed with such omnipotent authority, out of good intentions or dogmatic, become pockets of dictatorships to the collective detriment. We have a civil aviator who tells Indigo not to charge extra for the 1st row. And a senseless SEBI who has told all the promoters to submit all the proposed purchase and sales for the next 18 months and strictly adhere to it. So we have a FED Chairman thru much of 80s who maintained so tight an interest rate policy to tame inflation for so long that US lost its industrial leadership. Already grappling with Japan, his tight money policy may have been largely responsible for China’s low cost driven growth. Greenspan kept warning everyone about irrational exuberance least conceding that he was the one causing it.
Our free markets are a clearing system that teaches us the pleasures of smoking without warning us of the impending cancer. I don’t know why we invest it and its advocates with so much of respect and reverence, when its system is so inadequate and incapable of establishing a proper balance between the long and short term. It is best of bad lot much like marriage and democracy. But we have been lazy and complacent and foolishly arrogant in our belief about the efficacy about free markets in not working for better alternatives.